Yes I Wish My Birth Mother Had The Reproductive Rights That I Did
It is strange to consider my non-existence, but freedom to choose is what I would have wanted for her.
When I found myself unexpectedly pregnant as a young adult, there was one person I wanted to tell: my birth mother. I had searched for and found her when I was in college, and I felt she would empathize with my situation. I was afraid to tell my conservative Japanese American adoptive parents. They had met in church, and my adoptive mother had not dated until well into adulthood. My dating in high school and college had alarmed them; perhaps they worried I would follow the path of my unwed birth mother.
I was in a relatively new and fragile relationship, had only recently started working a grownup job, and I barely felt capable of taking care of myself, let alone a child. I shared an apartment with two roommates. We had learned of the pregnancy after taking a mayonnaise jar full of urine to place in a church basement with a sign outside that said “Crisis Pregnancy Center.” I didn’t know at the time that these places were not legitimate medical clinics, but anti-abortion organizations designed to scare and pressure people. When the woman who worked there learned that I was even considering terminating the pregnancy, she attacked me with a barrage of grisly details. “The baby, your baby, would be sucked out by a machine that is fifteen times more powerful than your household vacuum cleaner!” At first she pleaded, telling us there were plenty of resources for young parents, and then turned on us, saying that our relationship would never last. I was shaken when I got home to my apartment. I found a women’s clinic, a real one, in the Yellow Pages, and called my birth mother to let her know. “I’m pregnant.”
“Ohh.” The vowel sound she made was filled with empathy, pain, recognition. It was exactly the sound I needed to hear. Thank you, I said silently. “What will you do?” Her voice was solemn and soft.
“I’ve got an appointment. On Monday.” I didn’t say the word out loud.
“Ah. Well, that’s probably for the best, isn’t it?”
I sighed. “I’m sure it is. But it’s still ... hard.”
“Of course. It must be very hard.” Tenderness coursed through the receiver. “You’re lucky that you have this option.”
“It’s what I would have done, if it had been available to me.” Then she stopped short. I closed my eyes and held onto the doorframe, the coiled cord from the telephone twisting around my body. If it had been available to her. “Susan?” She tried to smooth over her own words. “Is there anything you need? Can I do anything for you?”
Come to me, I wanted to say. Come be with me and hold my hand. But I couldn’t choke the words out. To hear her say no would have been unbearable. “No,” I said. “I’m sure it will be fine.” She sent me flowers, and later, a get-well card and a package of herbal tea.
Her life would have been immeasurably easier if she had been able to get an abortion.
Some people are horrified to learn that the mother who gave birth to me admitted she would have chosen to abort me, had it been accessible and legal at the time. And honestly, there was something strange about considering my non-existence. But it is what I would have wanted for her. Instead, she endured the stress, the stigma and shame of a pregnancy that she had to hide, even from her family and friends, and under great duress. She had to give birth in a hospital filled with judgment. She had to bring her child in a taxi to an adoption agency.
And afterward, she told no one. She carried this secret burden her entire life, and when I found her 20 years later, it wasn’t a happy occasion. It had been a moment she had feared and dreaded from the minute she signed the papers. Her life would have been immeasurably easier if she had been able to get an abortion.
Later, when I was married, “respectable,” and planning a family, I got pregnant again. But this time, I developed pre-eclampsia in my sixth month. My blood pressure skyrocketed, my kidneys were shutting down, and things were looking grim. The neonatologist stood next to my bed. He recited numbers slowly. “This baby needs at least two more weeks for viability. He’s already too small, way too small. But you ...” He looked at me sadly. “You probably can’t survive two weeks without having a stroke, seizures, worse.”
“What are the chances that we could both make it? Me and the baby.”
“Less than ten percent. Maybe less than five percent.” The space between his fingers shrunk into nothing.
I was toxemic, poisoned by my own pregnancy. The only cure, he said, was to not be pregnant anymore. The baby needed two more weeks, just fourteen days. This time, I told my adoptive parents and they were frantic with worry and grief. Their first grandchild, whom they’d been eagerly awaiting, was not going to arrive at New Year’s after all. We all cried together.
I called my birth mother. She didn’t cry. Her voice was smooth as water. “I’ve heard of other women with the same thing, and it’s turned out fine.”
“It won’t be fine. It’s too early, way too early.” I was not like the others. Most preeclampsia cases happen much closer to full term, resolved by emergency C-sections.
I was to have a D & E, a dilation and evacuation. Evacuation was its official name. "Evacuees" were what Japanese Americans like my birth mother were called when they were ripped from their homes, tagged like animals, flung into the desert. Evacuated, exiled, thrown away. At the hospital, they told me I would sleep through the procedure. I signed papers of consent, my hand moving numbly across the paper. My mind screamed, I do not consent, I do not, I do not.
Would it have been easier for her to have had a safe, anonymous abortion? Yes. Would I have wished that for her? Even if it meant I would never have been born? Yes.
There weren’t many choices for my birth mother when she was unmarried and pregnant with me pre-Roe v Wade, in 1959, in a small town. In fact, her choices had narrowed long before the day she found out she was pregnant with me. They started shrinking when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and our country went to war with a country whose people looked like her family, and her family — evacuees — had no choice when, with their West Coast business shuttered, they had to pack their lives into a single trunk. They were forced to show their allegiance by moving into a barbed-wire internment compound in the high, dusty desert. My birth mother was just a child.
They had no choice when the war ended, and they were offered a place to live in a tiny, all-white town, and they had no other option. She grew up, but dating was a challenge in a community where there were no other Asian people. Soon, she found herself pregnant.
She could have used a knitting needle or rat poison and tried to end it herself. She might have run away to an anonymous place where nobody knew her and passed herself off as a widow with a child. But that would have meant tearing herself away from her family, her community.
Would it have been easier for her to have had a safe, anonymous abortion? Yes. Would I have wished that for her? Even if it meant I would never have been born? Yes. I have had two abortions now, and I wish my birth mother had had that option when she needed it. These choices are complicated, heartbreaking, and nuanced, and I steadfastly believe in every person’s right to make them.
Instead, my birth mother bought a girdle. She ate like a bird. She did what she could to assure that I would be as small as possible. And after I was born, early and small, she signed the papers for my adoption.
Susan Ito is the author of I Would Meet You Anywhere and lives in Northern California.
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