I have been shocked the past couple of days by the response to Susan Heath’s opinion piece New York Times entitled “No One Called Me a Slut” about her experiences getting an abortion in 1978 and how easily accessible and stigma-free it was.
A young woman has been called a slut after testifying in favor of insurance coverage for contraceptive care…It wasn’t always like this. This is a story of how it used to be: It’s 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade. I’m 38, I have four sons — the oldest is 17, the youngest is turning 12. I’m at school, getting a B.A., and I’m loving it. I’m about two and a half months pregnant. I don’t want this child.
It’s as simple as that. It’s 1978, Susan wants an abortion, and as a well-meaning, responsible mother of four who is using birth control, she gets her abortion easily and without complication, knowing that it is ultimately the best thing for her and her future. It’s 1978, Roe v. Wade was just passed, and anti-abortion lunatics don’t exist en masse yet; she is free to make a choice to have an abortion without stigma or the threat of violence.
It’s a great story, except for one thing. The Hyde Amendment was officially enacted in 1977, prohibiting federal Medicaid dollars for abortion and making abortion inaccessible for many low-income people. Before most abortion funds were started and with few other options, in the years immediately post-Hyde, people without the means to access abortion care were dying. Rosie Jimenez, the first women believed to have been a victim of Hyde, a 27 year-old mother and student, died on October 3, 1977, and there are more stories like hers. Although there are few deaths from unsafe abortion in the United States today, we know that there are still people in desperate situations selling belongings, going hungry, and not paying bills to come up with the money for an abortion; people who contact abortion funds in the thousands every year.
My problem is not with Susan Heath. It takes strength to write about your abortion anywhere, much less in the New York Times. Her story is honest and unapologetically hers, and I admire her courage to make her story public. While her story isn’t perfect, she is telling it as she remembers it as compared to the stigmatizing, traumatizing, protestors-yelling-in-your-face abortion stories of today.
My problem is with the way that our movement (and I say movement for lack of a better word) embraced the story and accepted it as the whole truth. One respected organization tweeted it and used #thegoodolddays. Another, again, respected organization tweeted it and wrote, “Never thought we’d say this but anyone have a time machine?” The good old days? A time machine? Really? The good old days for wealthy or middle class, feminist-identifying, gender-conforming women with the means to secure an abortion, maybe. A time machine for their low-income, non-white, non-US citizen, non-gender conforming counterparts? Hell no.
I’m not saying this to call out anyone. I don’t care for attacks; they divide us. And if you really, really care who said that on Twitter then you have probably already looked it up. What I do care about is questioning ourselves, and myself included, in how we talk about our history. When we say the good old days, whose good old days do we mean? And when we choose to tell one story over another, whose history are we forgetting?
Our collective memory is crucial to the survival of our movement. If we chose one story over another than we are systematically erasing our struggles and devaluing the legacy of the most important, most neglected individuals. We cannot forget that when we talk about abortion access, we mean different things historically, geographically, socially, and individually; and when we sit down at the table to address issues of abortion access, we must take a hard look at ourselves and ask who has been left out of the conversation.
If we don’t stand together, question our intentions, and make space for marginalized voices then we will never be a collective movement for change. If we don’t call attention to forgotten narratives then we are responsible for their whitewashing and invisibility. And if we don’t remember Rosie Jimenez, who will?