I had an abortion, when I was a covered woman in a fundamentalist community. I live in Texas. I thought about that recently when U.S. Judge Richard Yeakel struck down two parts of a new Texas state law obviously designed to shut the state’s abortion clinics. I thought about it when the law was enacted, and when clinics all over the state were closed because of it. I wonder why no one seems willing to admit they’re doing this in the name of God.
But of course religion has everything to do with it.
In our closed Hassidic world, Jewish ultra-orthodox, we women wore dresses that covered our knees, elbows, and necklines. We tried for a noble modest bearing, since we were constantly told we carried within ourselves the Future of Our People. With birth control forbidden, sex could always result in a child, whose soul entered at the moment of conception. And that soul would be marked, or damaged as a birth defect, by our modesty and by the depth of our devotion.
I had seven children born over ten years. The children were my world. I would have given up anything to ensure their wellbeing.
If I were to get in my car today outside my Houston home and drive a straight line to California, after thirteen freeway hours the halfway point—tumbleweeds, dry flat land, wind farms—would still be in Texas. Across that vast space the two abortion clinics that survived the new law are slated to be closed.
One of every ten U.S. births occurs in Texas, which covers 268,820 square miles. Before the new law, there were forty-four abortion clinics in the whole state. Nineteen remain. If it weren’t for Judge Yeakel, a Bush appointee, there would be even fewer.
But they shouldn’t be called abortion clinics. Most were women’s healthcare clinics, often the only affordable source of pap smears, mammograms, birth control…and abortions.
Most of the people in our Houston Hassidic community were Republicans. Each week, families and friends gathered around the Sabbath table laden with dishes of homemade food and home-baked challah bread. It wasn’t all that uncommon to hear political talk at the table. Rightwing politics and religion melded together as they tend to do, although privately I always thought Conservative Christians strange bedfellows for us.
Then as now, abortion was a flashpoint. I would shake my head in wonder at the amazing undisciplined selfishness of women out there who can indulge at whim and then discard the consequences at public clinics. I tried to imagine lines of women at those clinics, but I couldn’t think of them as real. My children were fully alive to me the moment I knew I was pregnant, and my children defined my life. How could those women…?
God, not me, owned my body. His Law ensured I kept myself thoroughly covered, my voice low in public. His Law dictated entire volumes governing my sex life, clothing and behavior, but chiefly my sex life.
Then, after six children, I found I was pregnant again, and my body rebelled. Most evenings during that pregnancy, I lay on the sofa using hand gestures to communicate as the children swirled around me. Eventually, the doctor induced a premature labor, and I fell into the waves of blood and pain and tiny cries. But I had trained myself to submit. I’d trained myself so well.
One night after the birth of our three-pound son, the doctor put me at the end of her rounds and pulled a chair close to my bed where I lay in modest gown and headscarf. “Leah, it’s time,” she said, meaning time to stop, time to take control, time to protect myself from the Law. No more babies.
I laughed. “You don’t understand,” I said. This is our Law, our life, and it’s all older and stronger and bigger than me. I don’t get to say who I am. Our Law is who I am. Which doesn’t explain the new tiny voice in me that convinced my husband we had to start using birth control.
Of course it would remain a secret. But over the next two months, I was amazed that I could have sex without fear, sex without feeling exhausted just thinking of the possible consequences, sex without guilty pleasure. I could have days in my busy mothering life that weren’t simply an interim between pregnancies, and didn’t have to keep myself mentally prepared for another round of infant care. I dreamed my body was a new house that I now owned and I had stolen the key.
And yet, I was mired in an ambivalent mix of new conviction and old fear of judgment, probably what led me to forget to use the diaphragm one night. I knew almost immediately that I was pregnant. The next day—racing pulse, eyes darting—my body was flush with adrenalin, trying to run away from itself. A body scream.
Last year, the first after the new Texas laws, there were over nine thousand fewer abortions in our state. Texas media seems to particularly enjoy interviewing female representatives of Christian and anti-abortion organizations crowing their success.
But I imagine nine thousand women in that body scream. I imagine amateur attempts at self-abortion, desperate marathon drives into other states. I imagine thousands of infants whose mothers don’t want them or can’t handle raising them.
I felt I knew what no doctor would say outright: the pregnancy could kill me. Now some wild woman had stepped apart from obedient selfless religious me and was whispering the outrageous immoral murderous “A” word in my mind.
I tried to reason with her. Through housework and cooking and childcare, I talked to her. I prayed. I looked in the mirror and tried to recognize who I had become. But this pregnancy wasn’t a child to me. It was more like a cancer.
I pictured those women at public clinics, but now I saw real people with real needs, for intimacy, health, survival, each with a human capacity for love. Now I stood among them holding my breath, feeling a threat inside me, desperate for relief.
I was certain that if I died from this pregnancy, my children would be scattered. Their father couldn’t possibly manage to both work and care for them. Now it seemed that not having an abortion was a far more certain way to increase the number of throwaway children.
I thought, it’s my body and my spirit at risk here. This is not for the government to decide. This is between me and God.
Since the new law, ghost women and their babies, some alive, some dead, follow me. I wonder who will care for these mothers, this rash of babies? The Texas legislature hasn’t offered a parallel increase of funding to Women and Infant Children, foster care, public health clinics, or mental health services.
It took everything I had to face my husband and tell him what I had to do. I watched shock and horror pass over his face. He shouted. He called me a murderer. Then he walked away, turned his back, and cried.
Jewish Law allows an abortion if the mother could die. So, in my timid voice, I convinced the doctor to somehow imply to our rabbi that another birth could kill me, although she refused to state the threat outright since I suffered mere exhaustion and not a heart condition. That was going to have to do.
How I remember the rabbi’s phone call that day, how we held our breath for his pronouncement. We were two silent obedient children waiting as he decided our baby’s fate for us. Then, his accented voice, saying, “Okay, I spoke with the doctor. You have to do this.” He wouldn’t say the “A” word. Then, his deep sigh.
I blinked. We had just deferred onto him the greatest most terrible responsibility of our adult lives. But we always deferred such decisions to our parental Law and rabbis. I thought, are we even adults? I thought, maybe we’ve never even attempted a mature relationship with God. I wanted to murmur, but we didn’t know.
But I had a new voice, one that had convinced a doctor who normally didn’t do abortions to help me subvert our Law. I wanted to cry out that this was my decision, that I would have done it anyway. Then the rabbi added, “And do not speak of this to anyone.”
Because of the rabbi’s ruling, I had an abortion without losing my home and children, my marriage or financial support. My husband took me for the surgery, tucked me in bed at home afterwards, fed and bathed and bedded down the children, and never spoke a word of his grief and loss that grew into an arid field between us.
We had no more babies. And I, holding a story I couldn’t speak and a new voice that seemed to be some Pandora escapee, well, late one night as my family slept around me, I began to write.