Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

My Body, My Choice

On this final day of my weeklong “strike for choice,” my husband suggested, without prompting, that the two of us go to a pro-choice rally being held mid-morning in downtown San Diego. I had just walked home after enjoying some early morning coolness while at our neighborhood’s community garden. I was not averse to attending the rally. It seemed appropriate. 

We hurriedly gathered sunscreen, hats, water, and granola bars, then headed for the rally site at the “Hall of Justice.” By the time we got within several blocks, we could see large clusters of demonstrators. Parking was at a premium, but we found a paid lot not too far away. When I had trouble operating the fare machine, a very nice younger woman used her credit card, then declined my offer to reimburse her. 

“After all,” she informed me, “we’re all headed for the same place.”  

From where I stood at the edge of the crowd, the demonstrators seemed to be predominately white, but with a noticeable component of other races and ethnicities. There were more women than men, but not overwhelmingly so. Hubby and I had not had time to craft a handmade sign. We opted not to carry any of the mass-produced versions offered. The homemade signs of others were more varied and more interesting.  

A lot of women in my age cohort expressed outrage at having to fight the “coat hanger wars” all over again. Many younger women opted for variations on a “don’t tread on me” theme, with a rattler coiled inside a stylized uterus. One sign proclaimed: “Women are not incubators.” There were a good many signs comparing women’s reproductive rights with gun rights: “Maybe if I learn to shoot bullets out of my uterus, those a******* in D.C. will stop trying to regulate it” or “America, where my body has fewer rights than an AR-15.” Some signs advised, “Listen to black women.”  

One sign that moved me, especially after I’d inquired about the story behind it, was a simple one. On a piece of cardboard, it recorded a woman’s name with her birth and death dates: 1907-1930. The great-niece who was marching in this woman’s memory explained that her grandmother’s married sister had become pregnant with her fifth child at the beginning of the Great Depression. Lacking resources to stretch beyond the children she’d already borne, the woman tried a self-induced abortion. She died in the attempt. Per population researcher Christopher Tietze, there were 2,677 recorded abortion deaths in the U.S. in 1933. Starting in the 1940’s, abortion deaths declined with the introduction of penicillin and the increasing skill of those performing most abortions. 

By the time today’s speechifying was done and the march officially began, the crowd had thinned a good bit. A group attired in “Handmaid’s Tale” red robes stood on a street corner and provided drum and tambourine accompaniment. Because my husband’s septuagenarian back and my septuagenarian feet were beginning to protest, we opted to stay on the sidelines and just watch the marchers go by. Near the end of the throng was an older woman whose sign helped me place the machinations of some existing Supreme Court justices and draconian legislators into a longer perspective. She listed several herbs that had traditionally been used as abortifacients. 

Public officials may come and go, rulings and legislation may try to control women’s bodies, but women do and will endure. 

Rulings and legislation can only go so far…

Phantom Cramps

I started my first period the day of my maternal grandfather’s funeral. I was alone in our house. My parents had left to attend the late morning service, after deciding that I was too sick to come along, but not sick enough to require a doctor’s care just yet. No one, not even I, was quite sure what my problem was.

I sipped weak tea, tried nibbling saltines. Amid bouts of queasiness and pain, I curled up in a miserable lump on the sofa, under a hand-knitted afghan. Then, on one of my bathroom trips, I noticed a telltale stain on my panties.

Throughout the previous year, the communal shower for our girls’ phys. ed. class had confirmed me as a menstrual late bloomer. (Among the earlier bloomers, a couple of girls in the class ahead of me had already skipped periods due to pregnancy.) 

My mom sometimes called menstruation “the curse.” For most of my teens and into my early twenties, this was an apt description. I was irregular, so I could rarely predict when the bleeding, bloating, and nausea would start. The worst cycles were the ones when I was awakened from sleep by a searing abdomen, one that would only release me once I’d vomited up the prior day’s meals and thrashed and heaved for what seemed like hours. I’d retreat into the basement, as far from the upstairs family bedrooms as possible, muffle my moans and retching, then find a blanket as I eventually subsided into a fetal heap. 

As my twenties progressed, I managed, partly through good luck and partly through newly available birth control pills, to defer children until I was decorously married and ready for parenthood. The joys of raising a family brought welcome release. I’d still cramp up on occasion, but most of the time I was too busy and too happy to pay much attention. Once the children grew up and menopause loomed, some cycles would produce a few cramps, with heavy flows and clots. Others were barely noticeable. 

I’ve aged into a crone, though perhaps not an especially wise or effective one. The political landscape around me gets increasingly fraught. Many media platforms, whatever their slant, seem intent on increasing polarization to bolster their ratings and income. Attempts at quiet wisdom can get drowned out. 

It’s been over a generation since I last bled. Now, my writhing and thrashing are mostly due to the distrust and oppression of a society turning increasingly brittle, fractured, and patriarchal. There’s no physical reason for my malaise. This time, the cramps are in my soul. 

A 2022 Mother’s Day Strike

Until about a week ago, I had been looking forward to a fairly traditional Mother’s Day: I’d receive a card or two, perhaps a phone call from the grown child who lives out of town, maybe a home-cooked breakfast from a spouse who typically does little of the family cooking. I wondered what other mothers and expectant mothers would be doing to acknowledge the day. I thought that this Mother’s Day would be a low-key chance to reaffirm the importance of mothers in all our variations.  

I believe that mothers are indispensable to a functioning society. A day’s worth of recognition can sometimes seem a small recompense for a generation or more of parenting labors. When our children are small, we may nurse them from our bodies. As they grow, we attempt to guide them into making life-affirming choices. We do our best to provide for them both financially and emotionally. Even if we’re exceptional parents, we sometimes need to rely on other adults, whether or not they have children of their own, to help us through the rough spots.

Amid all the other uncertainties of American life in 2022, I expected Mother’s Day to be more or less “normal.” Then, early last week, American media exploded with news of a leaked draft opinion by U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. Alito urged that the landmark U.S. abortion decisions of Roe vs. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), permitting abortions in most instances prior to the viability of the fetus, should be completely overturned. Although efforts on multiple governmental levels to weaken abortion access had been going on ever since the Roe case was first decided, this was an unexpectedly harsh opinion at the national level. 

I started losing sleep, wondering what more I could do to influence the ongoing abortion debate in an appropriate way. Earlier, I’d written letters and emails, phoned my elected representatives, posted blog entries, sometimes even attended demonstrations. So I blogged some more, sent more letters and emails, even submitted a brief letter to the editor pointing out the irony of expressing outrage over the breach of privacy suffered by Justice Alito while ignoring the subsequent breach of privacy he was advocating for millions of American women. (I figured brevity might count for something, although it’s not my typical style.) 

Before dawn on Mother’s Day, I awoke and did a basic internet search on “Mother’s Day protests,” thinking it would be appropriate for me to attend one to express my support for motherhood that was voluntary rather than coerced. No events in my vicinity popped up, but there were severaI links about a nationwide “Mother’s Day Strike” during the next week or so, patterned after an October, 1975 women’s strike in Iceland to support women’s value and women’s choices.

So, to the extent that a retired grandmother can, I’m going “on strike.” I do not plan to do any housework for the next week. I’ve alerted my spouse to be on the hook for household chores. I plan to spend a good bit of my week at the public library, where I recently discovered a non-fiction book by Melinda French Gates, The Moment of Lift, about women’s empowerment, both globally and here in the U.S. Ms. French-Gates is a practicing Roman Catholic as well as a partner in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which widely supports family planning.

I encourage any of you who can to create your own strike on your own terms, letting those around you know what you are doing and why. Happy Mother’s Day, all!

Planting Season

This April has not provided a great backdrop for poetry, despite its designation in the U.S. as National Poetry Month. Too many people are busy slamming each other physically or via verbal abuse. Not enough are participating in good-natured poetry slams. 

Likewise, the month has been somewhat problematic for planting, as military invasions and erratic weather have both contributed globally to farmers’ woes. So I was heartened when, amid all the horrid news coming out of Ukraine, I saw a short video clip a few days ago about a Ukrainian farmer who’d regained access to his fields after a Russian military withdrawal from his area. He was out surveying his acreage, preparing to fill in recent bomb craters and then to plant much of his 100 acre spread in sunflowers. 

As a neophyte gardener in southern California, I’ve been tentative with this year’s planting, with limited success so far. Some of the succulents I’ve attempted to grow in pots have survived, others not. My springtime carrot “crop” is laughable. Most of the yard plantings that predated my arrival are holding their own, though about a third of the trees in our housing development have varying degrees of die-back. Each weekend, I spend time at our neighborhood’s closest community garden, listening to more experienced gardeners, gathering tips. Then I continue planting and experimenting with water conservation and shade provision measures, as the sun daily gets higher in the sky. 

It’s nourishing to me to spend time outdoors—minimizing my exposure to airborne viruses like covid. Outdoor, unplugged time also helps reduce my exposure to the incessant chatter of media types. Many seem intent on nudging everyone toward the extremes of the political spectrum, clamoring for our attention like overstimulated toddlers.

When active gardening isn’t enough to mitigate my worries about the state of the world, I sometimes turn to scriptural sources for reassurance. One partial verse that has long inspired peace activists and aging flower children like me occurs in two different books of the prophets. Both Isaiah and Micah talk of a time when wars will cease, when former weapons will be transformed into gardening tools:  

“…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3) 

      Micah then goes on with a second gardening reference:  “…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4)

Loath to conflate any of our current earthly political leaders with the “Lord of hosts,” not even a little, I still long for and work toward a time when it may be possible for each of us to sit outdoors unafraid. 

So, as another planting season progresses, I take heart. Maybe this year some sweet potatoes, maybe sunflowers, maybe corn. Maybe a different kind of seed—a donation for humanitarian relief, a soothing refrain in the ear of a frightened child. What seeds will you plant?  

Shape Shifting

Every war has its own shape,
Its own trajectory, even when it
Occurs on territory pockmarked
By prior conflicts.

Crimea, the Donbas, 
Mother Russia–
All have seen much carnage
Through the ages.

Those of us who’ve 
Viscerally known atomic horrors
Dream gingerly, if at all,
Of a bad end this time.

We listen wistfully for the
Nightingales of the current conflict. 

We watch reports of the
Thousands of deaths, of the
Millions fleeing destruction.

International aid agencies
Despair as planting goes
Dormant under the tread of tanks.

Earth is resurrecting herself—
She needs seeds, not bombs.

Watchful, waiting, we 
See the graves and we ask:
What will be the shape
Of the next peace?

Anniversaries

This year, it may be March that’s the cruelest month—
Snows are melting in Ukraine, but little planting
Gets done, just more craters from more shelling.
It’s a month since Russian troops crossed the border,
Initiating what average Russians are
Forbidden to call a war.

How many more month anniversaries before
The carnage abates? How many more refugees?
How many more lives lost or displaced?

This month contains, too, my annual wedding
Anniversary, typically a happy event. I need
To remember, though, some prior years with strife,
Separation, near despair at mending
Serious breaches. 

Online sources’ lists of global notable
March 24 events show the date
With a mixed record: the Exxon Valdez
Oil spill in 1989, Bhutan’s first democratic
Parliamentary elections in 2008.

Lest we forget, anniversaries can mark
Both triumphs and disasters–
We cannot relive the former.
With luck and skill, we can avoid
Perpetually reliving the latter.

Changing the Rules/Cadences of Warfare

It’s been a struggle lately to decide whether or not to turn on network or cable news. Just when we thought the covid pandemic might be easing, we were slapped with another whammy—a “hot war” between Russia and its southern neighbor Ukraine. Few journalists with fluency in both English and local languages are reporting from Ukraine on American media. As of late March, 2022, coverage is spotty at best. My guess is that were I living in Moscow rather than southern California, the impressions I’d get of the conflict would be quite different. Might I even be persuaded that Mr. Putin was a hero fending off a predatory NATO alliance, with Mr. Zelenskyy as its puppet? I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the war is damaging for all of us, whether directly or indirectly,  wherever we live. Where I live now, I face rising gasoline prices, continuing supply chain disruptions, the renewed specter of nuclear fallout from intentional attacks or tragic accidents, worry about loved ones vulnerable or in harm’s way. Your list may be slightly different from mine, but it’s not likely pleasant, either.  

The older I get, the more aware I am of the difficulty of eliminating warfare altogether. I was spared direct experience of the horrors and deprivations of World War II, but since I was born, there has been nearly continuous warfare among humans somewhere on this planet we share. My childhood not far from Washington, D.C. was spent in anxiety about a possible resumption of nuclear warfare, with a “near miss” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As I took my first tenuous steps toward adulthood, the U.S. got increasingly involved in an ongoing conflict in Vietnam, part post-colonial struggle, part civil war, part proxy for an increasingly expensive, destructive stand-off between “capitalism” and “communism.”  

When in the late 1980’s, the Berlin Wall fell, ushering in a brief period when warfare seemed somewhat more contained, I cheered. Then the Balkans exploded. Then hijacked planes exploded in American cities. Then the U.S. launched retributive or pre-emptive attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly to prevent further terrorism on American soil. Twenty years on, Afghanistan is in tatters, Iraq remains unstable, and home-grown American terrorists have stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

Yet in parallel with “advances” in warfare, there have been corresponding attempts to limit its damage. Since armed conflict became more mechanized and more deadly during the 19th century, there have been repeated efforts to limit the carnage: the International Committee of the Red Cross (founded in 1863), the League of Nations (founded in 1920, dormant after 1940), the United Nations (established in 1944, since expanded to include 193 nations), Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (established in 1971, now operating in 70 countries).  Similarly, various treaties have attempted to limit the weaponry used in warfare, having some impact on the devastation, though ignored by combatant nations and groups from time to time. 

I’m by now somewhat geriatric to be marching in peace demonstrations, so I do what I can from the sidelines. I make donations. I write letters to media outlets and public officials. I blog. I try to make some sense of what is going on. I try to maintain my own mental health. In this effort, it helps me greatly that I still have access to a non-lethal space outdoors. I can take walks. I can garden. I can marvel at the changing seasons, yes, even in southern California. 

Even when indoors, I can listen to music. Recently I did an online search  for beautiful music from Ukraine, and found a YouTube selection I liked a lot. If the English translation of “A Moonlight Night” is accurate, its lyrics fall somewhere between a lullaby and a seduction song. Not that it’s likely to happen, but I wonder what would occur if, instead of the thumping cadences of planes and bombs, wars were required to be conducted in waltz time?   

 

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?   

January Musings

In January, 2022, media exposure in the part of the U. S. where I now live has tilted toward retrospectives about last January’s U.S. Capitol Riot. Sometimes, even the ongoing covid pandemic gets relegated to second billing. Human-induced climate change can come in third or even lower. Most of the news is bad and can seem overwhelming. Before I get totally overloaded, I temporarily turn off all media outlets and go for a walk in nature. I am fortunate to have this option.   

In January, 2017, I took part in a very different mass event, the January 21 “women’s march global.” According to the British journal The Independent, between 3.3 and 4.6 million people participated in nearly 600 locations within the U.S., making that day’s events the largest domestic protest in U.S. history up to that point. By some estimates, nearly 6 million people protested globally. Over 200 associated events took place on every continent, including Antarctica. 

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,  half a million attendees, mostly women, converged in 2017 for a day of peaceful protests and speeches supporting women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and a variety of other causes. 

In North Carolina, my home then, I participated in a hastily organized Raleigh event which drew about 17,000 people, twice the number that local organizers and police had planned for. This event was also peaceful, with humor, flexibility, even camaraderie between some police officers and marchers.

The size of the January 6, 2021 Washington, D.C. demonstration prior to the Capitol assault has been variously estimated at from several thousand to as many as 20,000. Not all participants in the rally were involved in the subsequent riot. According to an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested so far for their actions at the U.S. Capitol, 93% are white, and 86% are male. (For a more detailed analysis, check the “Chicago Project on Security and Threats,” https://cpost.uchicago.edu.)  

As someone who is comfortable with a female identity, if not with all the restrictions that female identity has sometimes imposed, I’m both curious and concerned about the gender disparities of the 2017 and 2021 events. A half million mostly female demonstrators in Washington in 2017 managed a peaceful protest with no damage and no arrests. Less than a tenth that number of mostly male attendees in 2021 caused multiple deaths, an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol, and over 700 arrests so far. 

As we try to put January, 2021 into perspective and work toward curbing our current pandemics of virus, violence, and climate-changing economics, it should be evident that inflammatory rhetoric and destructive behavior have only worsened them. We have to continue talking and working with each other across our real and perceived divides. We need to find ways to better live out a national motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: “E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.” 

Women who helped organize the 2017 events have not stopped working, but have gotten less visible. We have turned to other avenues in our attempts to support meaningful change. The focus is both local and global. There’s an emphasis on women in the “global south,” who’ve contributed little to current global problems but are disproportionately impacted by the policies of “the industrialized north.” Wherever we live on our planet, it is true that disasters and conflicts disproportionately impact women.

Paying too much attention to the news can be disheartening. Going for a walk helps me regain perspective. I also find solace in some favorite lines of a favorite poet, Marge Piercy’s “The Seven of Pentacles:”

“..[S]he is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.”

True masculinity does not require rioting and destruction. There is ample room for a masculinity that supports equal access to life’s opportunities, that can be strong without being bullying, that does not rely on vilifying an “other” to be validated. 

Perhaps some who are gifted at dismantling cults can work with the men (and women) who were part of the violence on January 6, 2021. Each of us, whatever our gender,  can continue work on our own unique tasks in the global effort to reinforce the mutual vulnerability and solidarity we share on this planet with its over 7 billion temporary human guests. 

Choosing Life

It’s rare that I dedicate more than one blog post to a particular topic. Usually, I’ve said all I need to say in a single entry. This year I’ve made exceptions for the ongoing abortion debate, adding this entry to two earlier ones: The Politics of Human Reproduction (March 8, 2021) and Review: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler (October 26, 2021).  

According to a Wikipedia article on abortions in the United States (which included 207 citations when I accessed it on November 8, 2021), American abortion laws were codified and made stricter over the course of the 19th century. This changed and laws began to be liberalized starting in the late 1960’s. In 1967, the state of Colorado legalized abortions in cases of rape, incest, or maternal disability. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling legalizing abortions throughout the U.S. for early term abortions in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), abortions were already legal under some circumstances in 30 of the 50 U.S. states. However, when the plaintiff called “Roe” had begun her suit in Texas in 1969 demanding the right to an abortion, state law there prohibited abortions except to save the life of the mother.

Prior to the Roe decision, some states with less restrictive laws became “abortion magnets” for women in adjoining areas who needed or wanted the procedure. Abortions were more readily available to women with the financial means to pay and to travel if necessary. In one high-profile case in 1962, a married pregnant woman from Arizona went to Sweden for an abortion after she learned that thalidomide, an ingredient in a medicine she’d taken early in her pregnancy, could cause severe birth defects. It turned out that the fetus she’d carried was badly deformed. Had it not been aborted, it would likely have died at birth. 

Among the statistical charts in the Wikipedia article is one plotting annual rates of abortion in the U.S. from 1973 through 2017. It shows a dramatic increase during the 1970’s, and since then a generally downward trend. By 2017, the rate among women of childbearing age (considered as 15-44) had dropped from a peak of about 30 per 1000 women to only about 13. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_the_United_States#Number_of_abortions). The vast majority of abortions were being performed during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.  

By the time of Roe, I’d been married for four years and was successfully using birth control. I have never had to choose whether or not to have an abrupt marriage to “legitimize” a child, whether or not to give an infant up for adoption, whether or not to end a pregnancy to conserve my own health or to forestall the birth of a badly deformed child. Other women have had more difficult choices. Starting in junior high school, I heard rumors of girls who’d “gotten in trouble.” Several very early marriages had taken place by the time I was in ninth grade. The phenomenon of “seven month babies” for new brides was quite common. Through high school and then college, more of my female classmates dropped out or disappeared for several months. Some later resurfaced, still single. A few had an infant; others told plausible stories of family distress or financial hardship that had taken them away.

It turned out just as I left home that I’d lived for most of my teens within half a mile of an illegal Maryland abortion clinic. Our neighborhood’s sylvan setting included many homes built far back from the street. Some were completely out of sight. In 1960, as seventh graders, my friend Ann and I had paired up to visit every house along our one-mile road to help boost our Girl Scout cookie sales. At one secluded house, we almost left because it took a long time before anyone answered the doorbell. Just as we turned to go, a well-groomed middle-aged man opened the door. We didn’t see inside and weren’t asked to come in. He bought four boxes of cookies, though. We were pleased with ourselves. Although we’d never match our troop’s star performer (whose mom worked at a major military base nearby), our efforts had moved us up in the cookie sales standings.

During the summer of 1965, Ann got a temporary job as clerical assistant to our county’s prosecutor. One day she noticed that the criminal case she was typing up included a familiar address—the secluded house up the road where we’d sold the cookies. People at that address weren’t cited for any maternal injuries or deaths, just for performing then-illegal abortions. I never learned, from Ann or anyone else, the disposition of the case, or if the clinic staff were fined or jailed. I recently garnered a few additional details from a former neighbor who’d lived across the road from the clinic as a child. While it was operating, her family had regularly noticed cars with out-of-state license plates going in and out of the driveway. Now I wonder how the clinic operated in those pre-Roe, pre-internet days. How did they get referrals? How did they schedule? What health and safety measures did they use? Were staff members medically qualified? Did they have protocols in place for unexpected doorbell rings? 

Norma McCorvey, whose pseudonym was “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case, may have reflected the ambiguity many of us feel about the abortion issue. By the time her case was decided, the pregnancy she’d wanted to end had long since gone to term. She’d put the resulting infant up for adoption. Once her identity became known, McCorvey was enlisted as a pawn by first one, then the opposing set of pressure groups in the ongoing abortion debate. She died in 2017 in Texas, her legacy as muddled as the current state of our understanding. A documentary filmed during the final year of her life indicates she was used by partisans on both sides. However, she also profited from the inflammatory issue to gain funds and notoriety (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/22/aka-jane-roe-documentary-norma-mccorvey).  

The pressures on our court system to rule definitively on abortion are immense. The likelihood of good outcomes is miniscule. Some of our prior national experiments with prohibition may serve as a cautionary tale. Even as abortion rates continue their general decline, rhetoric about the issue continues to escalate. The documentary about McCorvey tries to plumb her successive stints in the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camp, but it is hardly that simple. As one advocate who’d worked with McCorvey for over a decade put it: “The thing is, we want our stories to be tidy. And humans aren’t tidy.”