As the news of several recent (flagrantly unconstitutional and malicious) abortion bans have blanketed social media, along with a corresponding wave of #metoo, #youknowme and #shoutyourabortion, one sentiment has risen to the fore: it’s time again for people who identify as women to reopen their wounds and publicly share their darkest experiences relevant to these latest attacks on our personhood, in order to convince men, politicians, and the general public that we are deserving of constitutional and human rights. I don’t know why “Hello, I am a human” never seems to do the trick.
But, here we are, and while I don’t owe anyone this explanation, nonetheless I submit to you the following embarrassing and instructive story about one of my darkest days, with the hope that you will reach the end with a greater appreciation for the many ways that abortion access and comprehensive sex education can save lives.
My public middle school provided, generally speaking, a terrific education, particularly in music. But my school fell abysmally short when it came to providing sex education. While I couldn’t tell you most of what was in our outdated textbooks besides graphic pictures of STIs (venereal disease, as it was called in the olden times), I distinctly remember the day the “Worth Waiting For” brigade came and gave a presentation to our middle school health class. These ambassadors of white, pseudo-Christian sanctimony, with the permission of school leadership, gave a thoroughly unarousing lecture about the importance of abstinence, and had us all sign pledge cards (per Jesus’ apparently very specific instructions), promising to stay “pure” – virgins – until marriage. Did I mention this was health class? At a public school?
To illustrate what would happen to those among us who refused to sign the cards, these charlatans took a piece of blue construction paper and a piece of red construction paper and glued them together. And then they peeled the papers apart, with some of the red sticking to the blue paper and the blue sticking to the red paper. What a mess! This is what happens when you have sex, they said. The whore-er!
This revolutionary and very scientific use of visual aids, combined with years of Protestant indoctrination, was temporarily quite effective. Who was I to call bullshit? I was barely a teenager and, after all, I trusted what my school was teaching me. Oh yes, I was going to accept their challenge and stay pure as freshly fallen snow, like Mary, the most famous virgin of them all, whom I – true story – accurately portrayed later that year in my youth group’s live nativity scene on my church’s front lawn. With a smug sense of superiority I signed a pledge card, promised to stay a virgin, and I tacked the card to my bedroom wall.
Then… I got a boyfriend. To the surprise of what should be no one, we made out, and stuff, because we were teenagers. But I was very clear with him that we would not be having sex, because I made a pledge to myself and to Jesus and to those repressed weirdos who came to my school, and I stick to my pledges. And I did stick to my pledge! You know, technically speaking, since these Virginity Vigilantes failed to mention anything other than heterosexual, PIV, capital S “Sex” in their abstinence campaign.
Still, going through puberty with a complete lack of sex education was incredibly confusing. I truly did not understand the science behind anything involving my body’s reproductive system, how my body would change during puberty, how hormones could make me feel and think, or, in practical terms, how women could actually get pregnant.
And like many girls my age, I was also under an incredible amount of pressure to succeed, i.e. to get perfect grades, to be excellent at sports, to be first chair in band, to be the president of all the clubs, to win scholarships, to volunteer for everything, to go to the best college. What’s more, I was constantly being reminded that if I became pregnant as a teenager, that would completely destroy any chance I had at being a successful adult, and my life would be over. Out of this perfect storm of pressure, hormones, ignorance about sex, and a cute boyfriend (plus twenty minutes alone together in a basement) emerged the following scientifically incorrect, illogical, yet very real in my 15-year-old mind outcome: I convinced myself that I was pregnant.
“You dummy,” you might be (rudely) thinking, “why didn’t you just Google it?” Well, this was the early 2000s, there was one computer in the middle of the house, smart phones didn’t exist, and there was no way to “sneak” onto the internet because we had dial-up and those sounds could wake the dead. Kids today will never know the struggle. Anyway, the librarian was friends with my mom, so checking out library materials wasn’t an option. The only thing I had at my disposal was a book I purloined from my dead great uncle’s house published in 1969 called “Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask,” which was woefully lacking in any scientific grounding. In short, I was deprived of any resource that might have provided the education and information I needed to properly assess my situation and make reasonable decisions.
I remember lying in bed that night, my pillowcase soaked with snot and tears. I remember thinking: This is it. Everyone told me my life would be over if I got pregnant, and here we are, at the end. At the time, I was sure that getting pregnant would mean I had not only failed to uphold the pledge I made to myself, but also failed my family and my church and my whole community. I thought I could never recover from it. That no one would understand. I had heard of an abortion, but the only things uneducated, 15-year-old me “knew” about abortion were that 1) it was something dangerous sought out by sluts, and 2) the church said I couldn’t get one. And even if I wanted one, I wouldn’t know how to ask for one. Looking back, I know there are adults I could have turned to who would have helped me sort this out, but it was impossible to see that through this fog of confusion and fear.
So, lying in bed next to my stuffed animals, I decided that if I truly was pregnant, I was going to kill myself. I tried to figure out what would be the least painful way to die. I’m not sure which method I landed on, but I remember thinking about slitting my wrists and deciding it would be too slow and painful and messy, and I couldn’t stomach it. That was one of the darkest days of my life.
I don’t remember much about the days that immediately followed. But mercifully, before too long, I got my period, and even though that didn’t completely reassure me, I decided to hold off on suicide. After enough time had passed, I knew for certain that I was not pregnant, and my world began to right itself.
Learning that I was not pregnant, and being able to reclaim a sense of control over my future, is why I’m alive today to share this rather personal story, the point of which is the following: in my experience, there is nothing lonelier or more frightening than feeling like you are trapped by your own reproductive system. Like your body is an unsolvable mystery, and you have no control over what happens to you next. Like you have no options. Like there is no way out except to remove yourself from the picture entirely.
I was a really good, high-achieving, and completely clueless kid who just wanted to make everyone proud. But because I did not have access to comprehensive sex education, because my school gave massively unqualified people a captive audience of ignorant and impressionable youth (including me), because I didn’t understand my options or have access to information about abortion, and because I did not realize I had people that I could go to without fear of judgment or repercussions to help me through a terrifying moment of ignorance that spun completely out of control, I was ready to end my own life.
If you know me, you know that this recent legislative assault on reproductive rights (I’m using that term intentionally instead of “women’s rights” to be respectful and inclusive of the trans and non-binary communities) has me particularly furious, and hopefully after reading this story, you understand why. If you don’t know me, I hope that this story will help you understand how absolutely helpless and hopeless someone can feel when they don’t understand or have a say in what is happening to their bodies.
To be clear, a healthy future for our country requires this: Sex education that is free, factual, judgement-free, consent-focused, and commonplace; and abortions that are free, legal, on-demand, judgement-free, and above all, safe,
I don’t want anyone ever to feel the way I felt that night: scared, alone, and out of options. And the truth is that no one ever has to feel that way. We have the tools and information we need to ensure that all people – including children – can feel safe, secure, proud, and in control of their bodies. We can make this vision a reality if we embrace science, share information, communicate with the children in our care, and respect people’s bodily autonomy. And keep faith-based, abstinence-only propaganda out of our public schools.
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255.