My Abortion, My Miscarriage, and My Right To Have My Own Feelings
Women are entitled to a wide range of emotions about their bodies and fertility. But under Jewish law, the rules are clear.
In my 20s, I had an abortion.
I was blissfully in love with the man who would become my husband. We’d been friends for a year, secretly pining for each other the entire time, and we’d finally begun dating despite living on opposite coasts. We’d been a couple for six weeks. The condom broke. Then the morning-after pill didn’t work. (This isn’t uncommon—emergency contraception turns out to be pretty crappy at preventing pregnancy; a recent study found that its effectiveness, once thought to be around 75 percent, actually ranges from 47 percent to 53 percent.) I was working for peanuts at a magazine I knew was going to close. I had a cat, a bike, uncertain job prospects, and no savings.
Jonathan flew to New York to be with me for the procedure. He stayed two days. He made me spaghetti with olive oil and hot pepper; I lay on the couch; we watched TV; and then he went back to San Francisco. I felt only relief about not being pregnant anymore. I was not ready to get married (though I strongly and correctly suspected that Jonathan was The One), and I was not equipped to have a child. I went back to work. Jonathan and I continued to date long-distance. When my magazine folded five months later, I moved to California. Jonathan and I lived together for a year, then got engaged, then got married, then moved to New York, then had Josie and Maxie. We’ve been together almost 17 years now.
I rarely think about my abortion. I was pro-choice before it; I’m pro-choice now. And the experience hasn’t been something I’ve been eager to write about. Sarah Tuttle-Singer bravely wrote about her college abortion for Kveller, and the venom aimed at her on the Internet would curl your hair. I didn’t want to be a target that way. But then I thought about Jessica Grose’s recent piece in Slate about how first-person abortion stories in the media “are almost always about ‘appropriate’ abortions. Shrouded in mournful tones, regretting the baby that couldn’t be, reflecting on that upsetting choice.”
Grose pointed out that these experiences aren’t most women’s reality. A third of American women have had or will have an abortion; we are not all devastated by the experience. And it’s important for us to tell our stories, too. Hey, abused women and poor women and women who desperately want children but discover they’re carrying a fetus that will be born with a fatal, painful, genetic disease still get attacked as baby-killers. I’d like my perspective, as someone who is not haunted, to be out there, too. Tuttle-Singer shouldn’t have to take the heat alone. So, go ahead and curl my hair, haters. It’s already pretty wavy.
So: I rarely think about my abortion. Sometimes when I’m marveling that Josie is so grown-up, I try to calculate how old a child I’d have if I’d let that long-ago pregnancy go to term would be. I can never quite remember. The date is not seared into my memory.
I do, however, vividly remember my miscarriage. It’s not that I ponder it incessantly; most of my ruminating these days is about what to make for dinner when I forgot to buy the broccoli and how I need to get Maxie a new school backpack and when I’m going to be paid for that farshtunkiner women’s magazine story and how I need to find time to work on that piece about fat kids in children’s literature. But sometimes I flash back to how ineffably sad I was, how fiercely I’d wanted that pregnancy. In general, remembering the saddest time in my life (except for my father’s death) helps me feel empathy for other women’s pain—empathy I think many anti-choicers lack.
It was the year before Josie was born. I was just on the edge of my second trimester, 11 or 12 weeks along. Jonathan and I were supposed to leave that morning on our first vacation in ages. But in the middle of the night I’d started to bleed and didn’t stop. I had my second procedure then—I suppose, technically, it too was an abortion—because my body didn’t expel the entire fetus on its own. I lay on the couch a lot longer after that one, and not just because the pregnancy had been further along. I cried constantly. I lashed out at well-meaning friends who said dumb, well-meaning things like “Don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant again.” (You know this how?) Jonathan didn’t know how to help me. And I hated myself for being so upset.
No matter what we feel—sadness at a miscarriage, relief at an abortion—women are told their feelings aren’t legitimate. Someone—a politician, a friend, a member of the clergy—invariably tells us to buck up if we’re devastated by the loss of a wanted pregnancy, and/or to hate ourselves if we’re not devastated to end an unwanted one. Jewish law, however, is about rules and remedies, not emotions. In our tradition, babies who lived less than 30 days weren’t considered full-fledged people. “We do not mourn for fetuses, and anything which does not live for 30 days, we do not mourn for it,” wrote Maimonides in his Laws of Mourning in the Mishneh Torah. “The infant, for 30 days, even including the full 30th day (if it dies), we do not mourn for it,” said the Shulhan Arukh. That’s pretty clear and stark.
But today, Jewish tradition encourages women to mourn if they want and need to. Jewish feminists have created rituals, poems, and prayers for miscarriage. And I was surprised to read in Josie Glausiusz’s recent piece in Tablet that there’s a similar movement happening with abortion. Three founders of Mayyim Hayyim, a Massachusetts mikveh, wrote a ceremony to help women work through the decision “to interrupt the promise of life.” (The writers are a poet, a psychologist, and a rabbi.) The ritual opens with a kavannah—the “intention” by which a person prepares herself to do a mitzvah in the fullness of her heart. I find this strangely beautiful. Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg also wrote a post-abortion ritual, out of “a general Jewish feminist awareness that the tradition was created substantially by men . . . who didn’t necessarily know what women, if they had agency, would want to have included in the tradition.” Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani wrote a ceremony, too, this one influenced by the Rosh Hashanah tashlich service.
I love the idea of women having the option to mark events—positive or negative—with ceremonies that bring meaning to their experiences. But I don’t think I personally would have needed these rituals when I chose abortion. I felt no ambivalence. I needed no validation. My point is that we’re entitled to a wide range of feelings when it comes to our bodies and our fertility.
But again, Jewish law is not about feelings. Which is why it’s important to repeat here that Jewish law is rather clear on the fact that abortion is not murder.
In his new memoir ‘Free Spirit,’ Joshua Safran turns to the library to understand the Jewish heritage his mother can’t explain