Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
My Non-Abortion Era

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When the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade approached this past winter, I signed on to sponsor the local commemorating event. Then I realized, with horror, that I wasn't sure whom of my friends -- the ones I've met through my children -- I could invite. Was it possible that I had never discussed the issue of abortion with my newer friends? I wanted to believe, as had been true in my activist twenties, that any friend of mine would be pro-choice.

Abortion rights has not only once been my work as an abortion counselor; it is also still my passion. I so strongly believe that without the chance to assert this powerful no, women would never have the freedom to find what yes might mean for them. In part, I felt so emphatic because abortion had allowed me to wait until I felt ready to become a parent.

However, my teenage abortion experiences generally do not come up in conversations at the preschool parking lot. So, I sat, somewhat paralyzed, and stared at my pile of ten invitations to the Roe event. Who would I send them to?

The reproductive issue heavily at play in my late thirties is infertility. Sitting with my stack of invitations, I crossed a handful of friends off my potential list straight away. The middle of an IVF round was not the time anyone would most likely to want to attend an event commemorating the legality of abortion. Even my feminist professor lesbian friend, dealing with her own infertility, had temporarily dropped abortion from her top-ten "causes to support" list.

While I've been extremely fortunate to conceive my children when I wanted to, I've become familiar with the progression of infertility treatments while watching my sister's struggle from the sidelines.

My sister's journey to parenthood has been arduous and tumultuous. Although she didn't know it then, her future difficulties were created during adolescence, when her struggle with anorexia began. To be anorexic near the onset of puberty can more or less obliterate a woman's reproductive capabilities.

My sister discovered, after many years on birth control pills, that she did not ovulate at all. After an initial IVF round, my sister became pregnant with twins. An ultrasound at seven weeks showed one embryo had disappeared. Another ultrasound at nine weeks showed the other was no longer viable.

Another year of treatments ensued. She tried a range of drugs, some -- like Viagra -- experimental for fertility. Eventually, she became pregnant with twins a second time. Eighteen weeks in, her cervix was deemed "incompetent" (not a feminist friendly phrase), and she was ordered to complete bed-rest. At just over 27 weeks, her twin daughters were delivered by cesarean section. Less than three weeks later, one baby died of meningitis in the NICU. The other is a year-and-a-half old now and thriving.

The doctor warned my sister that it would be dangerous to risk another pregnancy, given her cervix's weakness. Her options were thus narrowed to adoption or contracting a gestational surrogate. She and her husband elected to employ a surrogate. The surrogate provided the only way my sister could produce a biological sibling for her daughter. My sister also felt that by using a surrogate, rather than pursuing adoption, they could exert more control over the situation.

Their first few attempts were marred by difficulties with egg retrieval. But eventually their surrogate was implanted with three embryos. The embryos took, and this pregnancy began as a triplet pregnancy.

The question then arose whether to continue the pregnancy with three fetuses or reduce to two. The decision about how to proceed was complicated by the fact that neither scenario could assure healthy babies.

Multiple pregnancies (especially of three or higher) and medical reductions (an abortion that takes place in a pregnant woman's uterus) create increased risks of spontaneous abortion or premature delivery. When trying to decide whether to risk a triplet pregnancy or to do a medical abortion inside another woman's uterus, that sense of control and safety that prompted the choice to use a surrogate seemed quite elusive.

Watching all of this, I had -- and still have -- many reservations and questions. Is there a point at which the measures employed to make babies are too extreme? Is the desired biological baby worth putting another woman (and her family) through a multiple pregnancy (and medical reduction)? If prostitution is about men buying women's bodies, is the increasing use of gestational surrogates a parallel phenomenon, whereupon women are buying women's bodies? Finally, what is it like to be a child sired in this fashion? There's not a story, as would be true in adoption, of your birth mommy couldn't keep you, but loves you enough to want for you to be with a family that can give you everything she knows you deserve in life. In this case, the story is that we wanted you enough to hire someone to carry you. And we took one of you away willingly, to make things better for those of you we kept.

I was rendered mute when my sister said she was more or less okay with the morality of medical reduction, although it was dangerously close to abortion. This procedure doesn't resemble abortion; it is abortion. I remain shocked that I did not speak up.

Despite all of my hesitations about the increasingly widespread and extreme uses of these reproductive technologies, it is not my desire to dictate what people should or should not be allowed to do, even when the furthest reaches haven't yet been established. Recent news reports suggest that human cloning may be next, Raelean or otherwise. What I would advocate is that we consider the uses of technology extremely carefully and thoughtfully.

My staunch support of abortion extends to people whose reasons for having abortions might seem frivolous to outsiders. One classic argument about the limits to abortion rights always goes: what about the woman who wants an abortion based on gender? Having sat in cramped rooms with hundreds of women contemplating abortion, I know that the decision to have one is never made lightly. I would trust that there are women for whom gender is a determining factor to terminating a pregnancy, perhaps because of an inherited medical condition or another compelling reason. To abort a fetus from a triplet pregnancy could be considered frivolous, too, especially a pregnancy that began intentionally with the implantation not of two but of three embryos.

So many legislators would like to draw lines prohibiting abortion rights due to other arbitrary rationales: for minors, for anyone who wasn't a rape or incest victim, for those who aren't in medical danger. One day, some legislator may propose that a woman can have one abortion but not two, or two but not three. If that happens, abortion will resemble felony cases in some states. With three strikes, a woman might be automatically out.

What strikes me as ironic is that infertility treatments are on the rise just as the right to abortion becomes ever more tenuous, ever more fragile. Without access to abortion for all women, the euphemistic medical reduction, which the infertility community relies upon increasingly as its technologies create greater numbers of multiple pregnancies, might be the next form of abortion in peril.

Clearly, once we've established the right to abortion or to infertility treatments, to truly insure that right, lines can no longer be drawn in the sand. While some uses of technology remain more palatable than others, women must be allowed to pursue technology on both ends of the scale.

Finally, I managed to send out my invitations to the annual Roe event, although it took some doing. What I began to realize is that discussion of abortion -- however vulnerable it might make me feel initially -- belongs within the context of these friendships accrued since the playground became my social hotspot. When I had my first child, I did not leave my feminism behind. And I like these smart, compassionate women. Even if we disagree (and I hope we don't), we should talk these issues out in order to learn from one another.

Reproductive freedom across the board is what's needed. We must work hard to assure continued reproductive freedoms and then we must be smart about how we use them. If we are truly doing that, perhaps we can find ways to make biology feel less like the lottery's biggest ticket. Perhaps then adoption would not seem like the consolation prize. Abortion wouldn't seem a potential tragedy. In such a world, all women could live more freely.


Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a graduate of Hampshire College and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program in fiction. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as the Georgia Review, Story Quarterly, and the Southwest Review, and various parenting publications including Brain, Child, Hip Mama, and Mothering. One of her essays appears in the anthology My Heart’s First Steps. Her op-eds have appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the The Springfield Republican, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and USA Today. She lives with her husband, three sons, and one daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts. She writes the blog Standing in the Shadows.


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