The story that’s taken ten years to tell: On abortion, race and the power of story

Guest Post by Shanelle Matthews

Art by Favianna Rodriguez for the Strong Families Initiative

“Are you in college?” The doctor could tell from my face I wasn’t at all interested in having a conversation. “You speak well. I mean, you’re articulate.” The wrinkles in my forehead deepened. I wrung my fingers tightly around the scratchy, blue exam gown and briefly thought about the woman who wore it before me; what was she like? I looked at him, desperately wanting to not have to actually speak, wishing he could just read my mind. “Yes. I’m in college,” I responded shortly. I was really thinking, “That’s none of your business and really, is this the time to make small talk? When your elbow is deep in my vagina?” But I was grateful for him so I frowned and looked away.

The room didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable. I mostly gazed at the ceiling tiles, counting square by square. Occasionally I peeked down. Over the long sheet that draped my knees I could see my feet, not really manicured, resting awkwardly in the titanium stirrups, straddling the doctor’s full head of curly hair. “We’re just about done.” I sighed out a breath of relief. My abortion was almost over.

My abortion experience isn’t the kind that might be featured in a Lifetime movie. By that I mean I was 18, technically an adult. I consented to having sex, although I had never learned how to really protect myself. I lived in California, which is a state that provides emergency Medicaid for women who need financial assistance to help cover the costs of abortion care. The circumstances in which I found myself were not particularly difficult but only because at the time I didn’t know any better.

I was 6 months out of high school, a full-time student-athlete living away from home. I was privileged enough to be going to college and receiving some scholarship money to do so. One day during practice I found myself violently ill. Workouts were hard and often induced vomiting but not like this. I counted the days since my last period and realized I may be pregnant.

I was dating my teammate who was several years older than me. He was sexually experienced and while I wasn’t a virgin, I had dated mostly women and not been very sexually involved with men. He said he used protection. I believed him.

Upon receiving my pregnancy test results at the student health center the nurse searchingly said “Congratulations?” Her quizzical tone confused me. I gave her the side eye and told her that I was on the track team and wouldn’t be celebrating this pregnancy. She pointed me in the direction of Planned Parenthood.

I walked and sobbed. I could hear my dad’s harsh, deep voice. “Keep your legs closed! Boys only want one thing from you!” My parents meant well but in my home sex education was a combination of scare tactics, none of which taught me how to effectively and safely prepare for sex. I can’t remember learning in school the importance of contraception or the implications of becoming pregnant or getting an STD. I do vaguely remember coming to school some days and someone would be missing. The hallways were filled with whispers that “she’d gotten knocked up and sent to the school for pregnant girls.” In hindsight, how fucked up is that?

Abortions are expensive. I didn’t have any money and even though I knew my parents would probably help me, I was scared to tell them. They’d be so disappointed. Planned Parenthood sent me to see if I qualified for emergency Medicaid. I did. The office was bustling with people desperate to get financial assistance for themselves and their sick family members. The clerk was helpful but blunt. She couldn’t be bothered with details and why should she have to be?

I had to lie to my coaches. I couldn’t tell them I had an abortion. What would they think of me? I kept it from all but one or two of my teammates. I felt a lot of shame about my decision. Not because I thought it was morally wrong but because I had to hide it from so many people in my life. The stigma around abortion meant that I had to lie to people because telling them opened me up to unnecessarily punitive judgment. The hardest part about having an abortion was the stigmatizing environment in which I was having it. I knew it was the only decision for me and even though I didn’t know a lot of women who had them, I knew they were ashamed—so I was ashamed too. We’ve created a culture in which we’ve attached a certain set of feelings to a specific set of circumstances. I was ashamed and grieving out of obligation when all I really felt was relief.

Ten years later there is so much about my abortion story that’s more fucked up than I could understand then. The shame that is associated with abortion and other difficult reproductive health decisions forces women to display an act of grieving whether they feel that way or not. The alternative meaning you’re entirely morally bankrupt. The doctor’s comment about my being articulate meant he had made some assumptions about me, (and other women who sat straddling his head full of curls). What the implications of those assumptions are I didn’t know but it felt unnerving. Every day I work in reproductive justice trying to compel other people to be brave and share their stories but it has taken me a decade to tell this story and that’s because even within the “movement” there is stigma.

I identify as a Black, queer woman. My Blackness makes my story all the more problematic for some people. The assumptions that are made about Black women’s reproductive decisions mean that I will receive less compassion and acceptance than my white counterparts for having had an abortion—especially because I’m not repentant about it. As organizers we are not always aware of our implicit biases but there are plenty of white people who in an effort to make abortion safe and accessible are reaffirming negative stereotypes about women of color. This happens through negligent storytelling that says there is a right and wrong way to have the need to access an abortion.

The narrative that abortion gives women and transpeople an opportunity to live the rest of our lives, to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever isn’t true for everyone. For some of us, abortion just provides one more day. One more day to live our lives exactly the way we want to. For some of us the decision isn’t political, it’s essential. It is essential to taking care of the children we already have, to circumventing difficult medical experiences or to just not be pregnant. There is nothing heroic about having an abortion. It is an essential part of reproductive health care.

Every year on the anniversary of my abortion I take off of work. Not to grieve but to celebrate: because of my right to choose, I am living my best life. Making the decision to have an abortion didn’t mean I had the rest of my life, it just meant that I had one more day to live exactly the way I wanted and for that I’m grateful.

Shanelle Matthews is a creative, blogger and all around communications enthusiast. She is the Communications Manager at Forward Together and is participant in the Strong Families project, Echoing Ida. Follow her @freedom_writer.

This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

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23 thoughts on “The story that’s taken ten years to tell: On abortion, race and the power of story

    • I’m sorry, but *that* right there, about how she is “articulate” is part of the problem. That is a HUGELY loaded word when used about women and men of color, and even though you *meant* it to be complimentary, (since it IS a brave and needed commentary), you’ve just added to a world where women of color whose voices are NEEDED in this organizing and fighting, feel like considered less than full members of the movement and society.

      • My attitude toward the use of language/words tends to be a bit broader than a lot of people. I comprehend language-words to be human devices to communicate. Having created language, humans decide meanings. I understand “code-loaded” I was born Negro-Colored, became African-American-black. I know the debate over capitalizing “B” The NAACP, our press and community groups fought to have Negro and Colored capitalized by whites. I’ve been here a long time with experience and scars, seen and unseen..

        We decide-choose how language will affect us. We have that power. I know that words can hurt, Walking that thin line is freedom of choice. I have learned to laugh when a “loaded” word–with gesture and tone comes toward me. Mr. T said, “I pity the fool.” The proof is in a mature conclusion. When I refuse to be demeaned by you, I am a person, not a name. A person who moves outside “the box” is pushed back by fearful words and actions. Leaders get hit by the stone–first. Leaders keep on keeping-on. From the beginning it has been true…

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  2. Thank you for your story. May your courage to tell it inspire many other women to shed the stigma and live their lives exactly as they want without guilt and shame but with purpose and honor for themselves and the choices they make.

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  5. I really loved this article. I find it tragic that any woman needs to justify her choice over her body. Abortion should be on demand, without any criteria, because it’s YOUR CHOICE. Kindest regards, Goldy.

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  12. First of all, thank you for sharing your story, as a black college student I appreciate where you’re coming from and the honesty you put forth. I agree with the overall message that no woman should feel ashamed about having an abortion. Birth control and abortion go hand in hand in my opinion; one prevents pregnancy and the other eliminates it. Women have the right to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and should therefore feel entitled to have an abortion if say, contraception fails them or they just simply do not want to be pregnant. Despite age, women should not feel that their personal plans for their lives should be changed so drastically by a pregnancy because they are too ashamed to have an abortion. I think it’s easier for someone who is not in the position to ever feel the fear, uncertainty, burden and overall stress of becoming pregnant to frown upon abortions and condemn women who have them. In terms of race, women of color are stigmatized and it’s a shame because the elimination of disgrace or negativity connected to abortions can and will start when women ban together and stop shaming themselves. As it is inferred in the blog post, feelings of shame about having an abortion did not come from within but from outside. Abortion should be tolerated, accepted and welcomed in every community of women. Abortion like birth control is strictly for women and should therefore be understood, as a personal choice of any woman to utilize- judging or disgracing each other based on choices we make about the future of our lives should not exist amongst women.

    • This piece was both enlighten and puzzling. I agree with Matthews that health is an essential part of reproductive health care. However, I am little confused by her assertion that there is “nothing heroic about having an abortion.” The act of self-preservation (which abortion is in some cases) is heroic. Certainly there is something heroic about being unashamed of choosing to have an abortion. I find this article to be inherently heroic. Matthews choice to celebrate her right to choose and live her best life in the process, screams heroism to me.
      As a current college student, this piece resonated greatly with me. Particularly I was stuck by the notion of not having enough money and the shame of having to ask mom or dad. What is Planned Parenthood was not accessible? What if institutions like Planned Parenthood no longer existed (to the sheer joy of many Romney-its)? These questions make me fearful for my generation and the generations to follow. It seems as though our right the live our best life is constantly challenged. In reading this piece I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from audre lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I suppose my peers and I should prepare ourselves for political warfare in the years to come.

  13. This piece was both enlighten and puzzling. I agree with Matthews that health is an essential part of reproductive health care. However, I am little confused by her assertion that there is “nothing heroic about having an abortion.” The act of self-preservation (which abortion is in some cases) is heroic. Certainly there is something heroic about being unashamed of choosing to have an abortion. I find this article to be inherently heroic. Matthews choice to celebrate her right to choose and live her best life in the process, screams heroism to me. As a current college student, this piece resonated greatly with me. Particularly I was stuck by the notion of not having enough money and the shame of having to ask mom or dad. What is Planned Parenthood was not accessible? What if institutions like Planned Parenthood no longer existed (to the sheer joy of many Romney-its)? These questions make me fearful for my generation and the generations to follow. It seems as though our right the live our best life is constantly challenged. In reading this piece I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from audre lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I suppose my peers and I should prepare ourselves for political warfare in the years to come.

  14. After reading this blog it aids in humanizing and socializing women who have or are thinking about getting an abortion. A lot of times people make it seem like women get abortions out of pure carelessness and lust. There are lots of images of “sluts” or “whores” who fulfill the predestined abortion myth. People tend to paint women who get abortions as feminist renegades, sexually rampant, careless, selfish, Godless or just lost girls who want to don’t know what they’re doing and just need the right person in their ear to go on with pregnancy. A lot of times people forget that there is a complex life behind the names that they judge. A couple lines shot out at me like “The hardest part about having an abortion was the stigmatizing environment in which I was having it”. This was definitely a wakeup call as she feels forced to hide her GOD GIVEN and NATIONAL RIGHT to get an abortion from people she cares for the most. The stigma of getting an abortion can have insurmountable consequences in your family life, religious life and social life in which many women fear may result in loneness, regret and misunderstanding. “Ten years later there is so much about my abortion story that’s more fucked up than I could understand then” I love this line for the sheer reality in which things switch from being innocent and scary to courageous and righteousness on her part. She moves from a space of shame to a level of social courage and righteousness in which her earlier fears become echoes of social growing pains.

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