News story October 2, 2021: Abortion rights advocates march across U.S. to protest restrictive laws. Solidarity marches held in Canada. Read it here.
I felt it was time to share this story. It has never been a secret and is not something I am ashamed of. It is my story and it is just as relevant today as it was when it happened.
The one thing I never ever wanted to be considered was stupid. So even though I had been told following major surgery in my early twenties by a male gynecologist that I would never be able to have kids, which I assumed would also mean I would never get pregnant, I took precautions. I had gone on birth control pills three different times only to suffer morning sickness (yes vomiting) migraines, and extremely sore, lumpy breasts that sometimes lactated. Each pill, a different kind and dose, produced variations of the same symptoms that did not disappear after a few months like the fine print always stated they should. I didn’t want to take them again; but The Doc and I were in the beginning of an actual relationship, and I needed to be confident there would be no problems. I explained all this to my doctor and waited for her response.”We can try an IUD,” she said. “You’ll have to book another appointment because it takes more time.
A couple of weeks later, I was laying on the examination table, my feet in the stirrups, my legs spread awkwardly wide to get an IUD inserted. Having someone, male or female, spend that much time with their hands, other instruments and a penis-shaped metal speculum inside you is not the most pleasant of events and I made some kind of quip to help me relax. This is the way I act in uncomfortable situations: I tease people, giggle or make quips. Sometimes all three. This quip was something about if she was having this much trouble getting the IUD in, then perhaps sperm would have trouble too. Ha, ha, right. Wrong! She was a mature no-nonsense woman and proceeded to lecture me on my anatomy, the size of sperm, and the biology involved in getting pregnant. Did I say something about never wanting to appear stupid?
“You have a tilted uterus,” she said after what felt like a marathon of silence. “I can’t get the IUD in properly. I’ll have to send you to a specialist. My receptionist will make the arrangements and be in touch.”
So I waited to hear from the receptionist. I don’t know how long I waited but I never received the call. Instead I woke up one morning in a panic. I don’t remember what exactly was going through my head or why I suddenly grabbed the calendar to perform the useless exercise of trying to pinpoint my last long-ago period or why I felt inspired to cry, “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” over and over again. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
Drug store pregnancy tests did not exist, and I couldn’t get in to see my doctor right away so I went to a women’s clinic that afternoon to have the test. They called me a couple of days later with the results. Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!
I knew we should have had that discussion about condoms, but condoms were something I knew very little about except that they were called rubbers, and that connotation didn’t appeal to me. A big reason why I knew very little about these things was the same reason I knew very little about a lot of things: there was no place like the internet to research such things; and believe me, I was a researcher. Another reason was that I did not have a circle of female friends to discuss such things with. I knew from the time I was a teenager that females liked to titter and talk about males and sex and all other related subjects that I, late bloomer that I was, was too immature to be interested in; so I never ever participated in such a circle with friends, not as a teenager and certainly not as an adult far away from the teens of my youth.
Now had I discussed this option with The Doc, he would have happily educated me and used them. At the time, I was not confident enough to initiate the discussion. and, to be honest, I didn’t really think much about discussing it. This was very early in our relationship. I was just learning to enjoy sex and trying to be a little bit more confident about that. I was working with my doctor on a birth control solution. I never imagined that it would be so easy to prove that male gynecologist from my past wrong.
It was the summer of 1986. Ontario doctors, disillusioned with the government and the system, decided to go on strike. My doctor, thank heavens, was able to see me to discuss options, although options were limited as very few medical services were accessible during the strike.
There was another big reason why I took precautions even though I was told I couldn’t get pregnant: I was leaning very heavily towards not ever wanting children, so this was exactly what I was trying to prevent. Plus, I couldn’t afford to have a baby on my own, and The Doc was still hammering out the legal details of a separation from his wife who had decided to leave him before I was in the picture. He already had children. At this early point in our relationship, I wasn’t sure where it was going or if we would last.
The Morgentaler Abortion Clinic in Toronto was operating in a grey area, not yet legal but no longer hassled by authorities. There were still protesters and women were often harassed upon entering and leaving. None of this bothered me. I was, and still am, prochoice; but the procedure was not covered and even though the clinic didn’t charge a large amount to have it performed, I had no money. The cost was several hundred dollars, which at the time, for me, was a fortune. I was just barely paying my rent and eating a lot of peanut butter to survive. The Doc had no money. He had just started dividing assets and was driving around in a rusty Ford Monarch with a very limited lifespan.
I began to have bouts of abdominal cramps that could have been anxiety or something physically wrong due to my previous gynecological issues. The strike was getting very messy. Ten emergency wards were closed and one hospital closed completely. But somehow I got a miracle. It took the form of intervention from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Essential services had to be provided or the doctors would face charges of professional misconduct. My abortion was considered essential. Sometimes illegal, but somehow in my case essential. I didn’t question the how’s and why’s, I just agreed and went along with the plan–although I think that it had a lot to do with some substantial lobbying on the part of my physician who understood how I ended up in my situation to begin with. She may have been a bit intense and no-nonsense, but never once did she come across as judgmental. For that she had my appreciation and, more importantly, my respect.
The night before the procedure, I was required to report to the hospital for an internal examination and an interview. I would be lying if I said it was a pleasant event. It was unnerving. There was not a comforting person in the room. The doctor who did all the talking was an older man with white hair who looked at me with distaste. I am not the only woman who knows that look, like I had to be stupid to get myself into the situation I was in. He asked a lot of questions. I would have thought that some of the answers would have already been in the referral paperwork, but apparently that was not the case. Or maybe he thought I should be forced to admit out loud to the medical panel certain details, like why I wasn’t using birth control. I was tired and wanted him to shut up. I had a long backstory that I knew he wasn’t interested in so I played the one card that would make my point. “I was told by a gynecologist that I couldn’t get pregnant,” I would have liked to have screamed it at him but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t much above a whisper.
Thirty-five years later, abortion continues to be a very controversial subject and not something that everyone would want to admit they did. Politics, once again, is moving towards the very conservative. It is disappointing and alarming to see that discussions and laws are tilting in the direction of taking from women this hard-earned right–this personal choice. The choice was mine. The Doc supported my choice and both of us still feel that it was the right decision at that time. I am very lucky that it all worked out for us. Still, there are places in Canada and the rest of the world where it is difficult to receive abortion services and some women are not as lucky. In writing this, I think of them.
Thank you for reading.
Photo: Manny Becerra, Unsplash