Failure Rate: Six Percent
At midlife, she doesn't regret her decision to terminate two pregnancies
When I was in my early 20s, I went to see an astrologer. I had just moved to San Francisco because that’s where creative spirits went, even 20 autumns after the Summer of Love was over, and they also went to astrologers. So I made an appointment in a seedy Victorian near the Castro to visit a guy who looked like a hippie accountant. He studied my chart and, along with some vague advice about grounding my energy, avoiding men who are Cancers, and improving my tech skills, he said something unusual. “When you have sex, be sure to use two methods of birth control. Definitely double-up.”
That was weird, and while I certainly didn’t want to get pregnant at the time — I was in no position to support a baby financially or emotionally and was too full of wanderlust to settle down — I figured the idea of using two types of birth control was overkill. (Also against his advice, I later married and divorced a Cancer, and sidelined myself during the tech boom.) When it came to sex, I was careful and responsible — with contraceptives, if not so much with my partners. I squeezed the proper amount of foul-smelling spermicide onto the diaphragm, always wondering when I inserted it whether I was going to need it that evening or if I’d wasted the gooey effort.
I was attracted to other creative, artistic types, and occasionally let my hormones get ahead of my good sense. Caught unawares one evening, without my portable diaphragm kit, I slept with a photographer, using a condom. He had long disappeared from my life by the time my breasts became tender. I contacted him because I needed help paying for the $300 abortion, and it was half his fault it had happened (maybe more — he’d supplied the crappy condoms). To my surprise, the photographer, who was older than me, didn’t immediately fork over a check but began talking about how maybe this was his chance to be a good father since the previous two times hadn’t worked out so well.
For a minute I considered that he had some rights in the situation. After all, it had been one of his 250 million sperm that hit my egg. Then it occurred to me that he hadn’t asked me about my feelings; he’d already proven himself to be a bad father. He was broke and neurotic, and the last thing I wanted was to tie myself in any way to this man for the next 15 minutes, much less for life. Plus, it was my body. I’d pay for my own fucking abortion if I had to. End of story.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve already made the appointment.” Neither of us asked whether he was going to come along.
Instead, two good friends (a couple) came with me. They each held a hand while I climbed up on the examining table and, two minutes later, felt that deep twinge that signals that the contents of the uterus have been evacuated. Afterward, they made me pasta with tomato sauce and we drank red wine, with the theory that they would replace the red blood cells I’d lost. The next morning I was fine.
I went back to the diaphragm, which supposedly had a 6 percent failure rate. Perhaps a year later I was dating another broke, charming photographer. Once again, I missed my period and had that familiar sickly sensation. Oh shit. I called Planned Parenthood.
God bless Planned Parenthood.
This time, there was no question on either side about having an abortion. This photographer had as little interest in making a family at that point in our lives as I did. He was off to events every night, photographing musicians, coming home to smoke weed and put together collages until near dawn. I was doing whatever I could to write stories and get published without having to get a full-time job, which I figured would suck my soul. It was a good choice: all these years later, I’m still friends with that photographer, and it’s clear he would never have been able to help support a child. I would have had to take a corporate job and never would have written three books and been able to pick up at a moment’s notice to report a story somewhere. And I would have had to live with the continual frustration of a child’s father who didn’t participate much in their upkeep, at least not financially.
I went on the Pill.
I never did have kids. I’ve always thought that if it had been the most important thing in my life, I would have made it happen — just as I’ve somehow managed to manifest traveling around the world to write articles. There was a time when I met my first husband when I thought I would have children — our relationship escalated from dating to marriage because we both thought we wanted to have kids. I even had a few names picked out. When the day came that I announced that now that I was 35, I’d better go off the Pill already, he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to have kids. Actually, what he said was, “I’m not sure I want to have kids with you.”
That was the end of that marriage.
Then I was 36 and single, dating at an age when men could hear the ticking of a biological clock all the way across a crowded bar. They’d go for younger women, of course, and older ones, but scrupulously avoid those aged 35 to 40. Then my eggs expired.
I thought, at some point, about adopting a child as a single mom. But I knew that while some women could handle that, I don’t have the patience. A child who had me for a mom also deserved a dad. If I’d had a partner and had a child, and then something happened to the dad, I’d cope, but I wasn’t going to plan it that way in advance. And there was no dad in sight.
Sometimes I feel wistful about the fact that I don’t have children. I don’t have anyone who will take care of me in my old age who I won’t have to pay, and no one who will inherit my vast collection of scarves from foreign countries (although my niece already has her eye on a cashmere shawl from Italy). I’m sure I missed out on a lot of tender, wonderful experiences, learning about life along with a child. But we can’t have everything in life, and in this life I didn’t have kids.
Even if I did regret not having children — which I don’t, it’s just the way things turned out — I certainly wouldn’t regret having those two abortions. Wrong time, wrong sperm donors: I knew it then, and I know it now.
Early in my career, perhaps because of my experiences, I wrote a lot about abortion. I wrote some of the first coverage of mifepristone, or medical abortion, for Mother Jones; since the “abortion pill” requires two pills and a follow-up visit, it has never superseded clinical abortions because it’s really more difficult for many women, but now, with Roe v. Wade threatened once again, it may become a black-market solution. I also reported a story where I learned how to do a home abortion — a “menstrual extraction” — which isn’t very difficult if you follow the directions and make everything super sterile (though of course, not a good idea in a modern world filled with doctors). Again, I never thought the day would come when women would have to take things into their own hands, but once again — particularly for women who do not have my resources — it is looming. But if abortion had not been legal when I’d had mine, I would have sought out the black-market pills, the underground menstrual extraction. Because women know when they want to have children and when they don’t. It’s their lives, their bodies, and most of them don’t consider it a choice, but a necessity.