The Stories Behind a Choice

There are the raw edges of human experience that Roe v. Wade alludes to; there are complex places that a bumper sticker can't address.
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"Planned Parenthood Kills Babies."

It's a sign that pro-life protestors had been waving outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Aurora, Illinois, for the last few months. The clinic finally opened its doors two weeks ago, after protesters tried to prevent it, and as Aurora has become a new ground zero for the fevered argument about reproductive rights.

We live in a country where the debate on one of the most powerful and complex issues -- reproductive rights -- is being waged via bumper stickers and signs waved across the street from health clinics. It consists of such bumper stickers as: Abortion Stops a Beating Heart. Abortion: A Doctor's Right to Make a Killing. Chastity: The Choice of the Next Generation. Choose Life: Your Mom Did.

There is an unsettling vagueness to these one-line proclamations. For every choice is more complex than a slogan. As Francine Prose notes in her essay for our anthology, Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion, which I co-edited with Nina de Gramont, the language of Roe V. Wade describes the decision to have an abortion as influenced by "one's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence."

What is it like, after all, to make any sort of reproductive choice? What is it really like to use birth control, to have an unplanned pregnancy, to give birth, to use the morning after pill, RU-486, or have an abortion? What is it really like to adopt a child, to place a child for adoption, to be adopted?

As writers and teachers of writing, we believe in the specific. We tell our students to stay away from name-calling, clichés, and vague writing. For when a story becomes specific, we find out what it is truly like to make any sort of choice -- we find out the faces behind the slogans.

Listen to Professor Janet Ellerby, who was forced to place her child for adoption when she became pregnant at 16. When she finds out she is pregnant, she says, "My body was not my own; perhaps it had never been. When it had escaped my control, Alec had immediately taken it up, and when he had abandoned it, a baby had claimed it. I did not completely understand that my body was my own dominion, that I could say what did and did not happen to it. In significant ways, women were not led to believe that they owned their bodies."

Or listen to writer Susan Ito, who developed toxemia of pregnancy and had to terminate her pregnancy two weeks before the fetus would be viable. On the verge of having a stroke, she said that having a stroke at age 29 would not be a big deal; she had an image of herself leaning on the baby's carriage, supporting herself "the way elderly people use a walker."

"I'm not going to lose this baby," she told her husband.

"I'm not going to lose you," he said. And after the longest night of her life, she relented.

Or listen to writer Katie Allison Granju, who found out, when she was pregnant, that she had Cytomegalovirus, which could lead to congenital neurological impairment of the fetus. She was advised by many people, including her doctor and minister, to consider her options; she even scheduled an abortion. Then she cancelled it. Her daughter was born infected with the virus. She says, "I am deeply aware that I was graced with this experience, which has allowed me to see that the blessing is sometimes as much in the struggle -- from which I have learned so much -- as in the outcome."

These are the raw edges of human experience that Roe v. Wade alludes to; these are the complex places that a bumper sticker can't address.

Tom Brejcha, Chief Counsel for the Fox Valley Families Against Planned Parenthood said that the pro-lifers want to buy the Planned Parenthood building and lease it to health professionals who "strive to heal, and not kill human beings."

Perhaps Brejcha might want to hear the stories of all the women who go to Planned Parenthood -- who go also for contraception, cervical exams, to get screened for STDs. And he may want to hear the stories of why some are getting their abortions -- and how they may be important to them at this particular moment in their lives.

He -- and the protesters at the Aurora clinic -- may want to stop for a moment and listen.

Karen E. Bender is the author of the novel Like Normal People and is co-editor, with Nina de Gramont, of the anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion, to be published on October 19 by Macadam Cage.

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