In response to the current political climate, and because there are only so many snapshots of a cup of tea that a person can put on Instagram, one afternoon I posted an old black-and-white news photograph. It was a striking image of women protesting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The women are angry, fists in the air, caught open-mouthed in a defiant chant, their heads covered with black scarves as a symbol of their oppression and mourning.
“Who are they?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me later that day, as she scrolled through my feed. At that moment I didn’t panic or try to change the subject. Here was an opportunity to have an important conversation and have it be inspired by an empowering image of feminist strength. As a parent, I relish the difficult questions, the chance to help define the world for my daughters, to equip them for it rather than have the world drop its brutal definitions on them, unaware.
So I explained to my eldest that in 1970, nearly a decade before I was born, the women in the photo had been part of the Abortion Caravan, a protest movement that travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa in response to laws making it difficult for Canadian women to be in charge of their bodies. I explained that abortion is a medical procedure that means a woman doesn’t have to be pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, but some people don’t like that a woman gets to make that choice. Even today, I told her, there are people working fervently to restrict a woman’s right to abort a fetus that might be the size of a lentil.
“But it’s not their lentil,” my daughter said.
“I know!” I answered.
Although when she was my lentil, I reminded her, she was everything. We’d bought her books and read her stories even before she had ears. But she was only everything because we loved her and wanted her so much. In physical terms, practically speaking, my daughter back then had been closer to nothing. In its early weeks, a pregnancy is precarious and miniscule, and one in four of them will end in miscarriage.
I told my daughter, too, about friends who have had abortions later in their pregnancies, when everything is so much harder. About how these were heartbreaking choices made after second-trimester prenatal tests had revealed severe developmental problems, resulting in the loss of children as desperately wanted as my daughter had been. I told her that nobody has an abortion for fun. It’s always a careful choice, and sometimes not an easy one. It’s a choice that can be hard to understand, because one person’s lentil is someone else’s baby.
The baby girl I almost had Of course, I didn’t tell her everything. Not yet. I didn’t tell her that in 1970 the Abortion Caravan protesters had delivered a coffin filled with coat hangers to the House of Commons to represent the hundreds of Canadian women dying from unsafe, illegal abortions each year. And that it would be another 18 years before Canada’s restrictive abortion laws were finally repealed. I didn’t tell her that just a few years after that, in 1992, a firebomb destroyed an abortion clinic that stood around the corner from where we live now. Or that abortion is only one aspect of reproductive justice, which must also comprise the experiences of Indigenous women and women of colour, people who’ve been subjected to forced sterilizations or had children removed from their care.
In particular, I didn’t tell my daughter why abortion matters so much to me: I didn’t tell her that I had one. Because she didn’t ask, mostly, and I don’t want to force the issue. But I know that with each conversation like this, she and I are circling ever closer, and that when I finally do tell her, I will be grateful for the chance.
It was in another lifetime, my abortion, and while the circumstances surrounding it are no longer relevant, everything that happened after is. As Lindy West writes in her memoir, Shrill, “My abortion wasn’t intrinsically significant, but it was my first big grown-up decision—the first time I asserted unequivocally, ‘I know the life that I want and this isn’t it’; the moment I stopped being a passenger in my own body and grabbed the rudder.” Except that I wouldn’t be able to articulate this for years.
Part of the problem was that I couldn’t even say the word “abortion,” not in polite company. The truth is, abortion is ordinary. Statistics suggest that one in three or four American women will have an abortion in her lifetime; the rate is lower in Canada at 14 abortions per 1,000 pregnancies, possibly due to sex education programs in schools. But despite the prevalence of abortion, we don’t make space in everyday conversation for these stories. The only people willing to talk about abortion tend to be those with no experience of it, resulting in a public conversation dominated by anti-choicers that is several degrees removed from reality.
Almost by default, one’s own abortion becomes a secret—except mine was too important in the construction of my identity and my life to remain under lock and key. There was power in my story, I knew, and I wanted to be able to wield that power, to own my story and use my knowledge and understanding of abortion to let other women know how they are not alone in having these experiences. In my dawning awareness of how anti-choice legislators have no qualms about wielding power of their own, I felt that sharing my story seemed particularly necessary.
I finally learned to talk about abortion in 2014 when I published an essay about mine, which I was then asked to read from in public and talk about on the radio. And I am grateful for that experience, not just because it taught me how to say the word (which gets easier with practice) but because it ensured my story was out in the world. It has always been important to me that my children know about my abortion and now, if they are curious enough, they will know—which also means I’m obligated to tell them about it before they come across the essay on their own. There will be no excuses for me, no changing the subject to skirt the awkward questions, which might be easier in the short term but wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
My kids need to know about my abortion because my own experience of unplanned pregnancy is going to underline how I talk to them about sex and birth control when they are older, and it will be useful for them to know where my own potential worries and apprehensions are coming from. I would also like my story to be the foundation for their understanding of consent and autonomy, that they should have control over what happens to their bodies, and should be able to make their families—if they choose to—on terms that are their own. I also want my children to know about my abortion because they know plenty of other stories about what made me—what I studied at school, places I’ve travelled to—and I refuse to relegate this foundational detail of my history to the closet, which would suggest that abortion is something to be ashamed of.
But most essentially, they need to know about my abortion because it’s the story of our family. Because of my abortion, I was able to have my children when I was ready, financially and emotionally stable, and in a partnership with someone I look forward to spending the rest of my life with—a fantastic and loving dad. If not for abortion, I would never have met him, let alone married him; neither of our children would exist, and there would be absolutely nothing of this gorgeous, precious life we’ve made together. And I refuse to apologize for that. In fact, I bow down to it: Abortion is part of the glorious mess, right there with the Instagram teacups, the sunshine on our kitchen table, the My Little Pony toys scattered on the floor.
And this is why I know I don’t have to force the “I had an abortion” conversation with my daughters, why I’m confident it’s going to happen when the time is right. Possibly we’ll be recalling the “My Body My Choice” sign I carried when we attended the Women’s March last year in Toronto, or we’ll be rolling our eyes at anti-choice protesters with their gory posters on the street. Or maybe we’ll be looking at that black-and-white photo from the Abortion Caravan again, admiring the ferocity and courage of those women who shook their fists on Parliament Hill before any of us were born. My daughters will finally ask me, and I’ll tell them, and then we can talk about how we owe those women everything.
Extending the talk
If you’re looking to reconcile complex feelings about abortion, these books can serve as great conversation starters, even if only in your head. They’re also great books to pass on to friends or have on hand for when older kids ask difficult questions.
Fired Up About Reproductive Rights by Jane Kirby
This primer offers an excellent introduction to abortion and reproductive rights for a teenager—or anybody—with social justice leanings.
One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories edited by Martha Solomon and photographs by Kathryn Palmateer
In this beautiful book, portraits of Canadian women who have had abortions are paired with their personal stories, told in their own words, showing the huge range of experiences women go through.
May Cause Love: An Unexpected Journey of Enlightenment After Abortion by Kassi Underwood
Underwood’s memoir is the Eat Pray Love of abortion stories, using a spiritual approach to challenge polarized narratives about abortion and affirm the idea that the choice is as complicated as women’s lives are.
Shrill by Lindy West
Come for West’s essay on abortion, “When Life Gives You Lemons,” but stay for the entire brave and hilarious collection of essays on body image, feminism and marriage.