I don’t often talk about abortion, and when I do, it’s never about such pains. Misguided though that may seem, I made this mistake again last August, not long before Meagan was born, while I was at Planned Parenthood’s New Haven Center getting the HPV vaccine. I had never been to a Planned Parenthood before, never thought I would have reason to, but on a visit to Yale Health (I had cracked a couple of ribs), my doctor mentioned that the vaccine is now particularly recommended for men who have sex with men and available for free at the nearby center. By then I was due back at work over at the medical school, but a few weeks later I had a morning off and remembered to stop by. A woman on the sidewalk out front held up a sign as I pulled in: “A nation which allows abortion has no hope.” She yelled something I couldn’t quite hear through the window I’d just rolled up.
I parked, pulled out sunglasses, and walked across the lot, fixing my eyes on cracks in the asphalt. The front doors opened into an airlock-sized hallway, with a wall-mounted speaker at left: “Hello, and welcome to Planned Parenthood. How can I help you today?” I told her I was there to get the HPV vaccine, that I had been referred by a doctor at Yale Health—but she buzzed me in mid-sentence, telling me to please proceed to the next desk. I hadn’t realized that she was security.
Inside, the New Haven Center looks like a dentist’s office, if you ignore the birth control brochures and bricked-up windows. The nurse at the desk asked me to fill out a medical registration form, typical aside from a few new questions: “Can Planned Parenthood call you at this number?”; “Can we identify ourselves as Planned Parenthood?” I scrawled an “N/A” over those and handed the form back to her. She couldn’t take any walk-ins that day, so we made an appointment for the following week.
As I walked out, I glanced to the side and saw the protesting woman still standing there. I slipped toward my car, but when I reached the driver’s door, I paused. I had time to kill. I wanted to talk with that woman—not to understand her, really, but to understand her enough to argue with her and feel like I had won. I wanted to ask her what’s so special about conception when even the skin off her hand, with the right chemical treatment, could also be turned into babies. Would she see mere exfoliation as murder? Would she let the unwitting exfoliator bargain his charge down to manslaughter, reserving capital punishment for the doctors who knowingly, and mercilessly, scrub their hands countless times each day?
I walked toward her. “Hi,” I said, waving. “I saw your sign, and I—I wondered. Why are you here?”
“You mean why am I pro-life?”
As I was hearing how God has a plan for each child, from conception unto its natural death, I sized her up. She was a large woman, white, though red from the sun, with her graying brown hair all sweaty and stuck to her head, strands falling over wrinkles and in front of her eyes. I’d guess she was 50.
“And abortion hurts women, too. It’s not a freedom at all. You know, I had an abortion when I was young because I didn’t want to be just another single mother, and I will never stop praying for God’s forgiveness, and my child’s.” She pulled a plastic figurine of a fetus from her pocket, holding it out for me to examine. I made a concerned face, then checked her hand for a wedding ring: single still, and old enough to have lost her parents, too, yet somehow she had support enough to afford standing there on a weekday morning. Across the street, I noticed a parked van with an advertisement on its side for a New Haven pregnancy care center—a very different alternative to Planned Parenthood. I interrupted to ask if it was hers. It was. Wondering just how far her script went, I ditched my planned questions and asked if abortion could ever be justified.
“You mean exceptions for the life of the mother? Those times are terribly sad, but—no….”
She said a bit more as I leaned to go. As if to grace our parting, she asked my name and gave me hers. I would file her memory alongside those of a dozen other roadside shills if her shtick were not so dangerous, deadly in some cases. This routine has become perhaps her only life, and even embroils would-be bystanders like me, spurring us to fight for choice. We build airlocks and lay bricks in windows when we could be out looking for ways to live with what we’ve chosen, or would have chosen, if we could. I am fortified, certain that abortions can do good, and would argue as much with the gods themselves if I believed that there were any—but even winning that cosmic debate could not absolve me before my niece.
She was born on Oct. 4, 2012, and I held her, all 12 pounds, for the first time last Thanksgiving. Holidays don’t always live up to their reputations, as well I often don’t, but on that rare day, when we’re supposed to set aside our old wants and plans and just embrace what we’ve been given, holding her felt sublime. I grasped a sense of how purely one can love what comes of failed plans. I might even think that I had let go of feeling disloyal to her, if it weren’t that I have bad dreams.