Florence Rice, an elderly black woman, looks straight into the camera. She remembers the look her daughter gave her the moment she was born. “That baby looked up as if to say, ‘If you don’t want me, I don’t want you either.’ ” As an orphan in Harlem in the 1930s, Rice knew all about being unwanted. Sixteen and pregnant, she dreamed that this baby would be someone to finally make her feel necessary.
But when she got pregnant again at 20, she was older and more realistic about the financial burdens of childrearing. She got an illegal abortion and ended up in Harlem Hospital with an infection. She remembers the “nasty” looks on the nurses’ faces like it was yesterday, but she also remembers how resolute she felt. “I have no regrets,” she says.
Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, turned 33 on Sunday. With the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts last year and the expected confirmation of the Samuel Alito this month, supporters of a woman’s right to choose have reason to worry. In the midst of all the political warring, abortion has come to be about anything except for what it actually is: a medical procedure performed 11.3 million times a year in America, a difficult choice, a moment when potential lives are ended and present ones reinvented.
It is this deeply intimate decision that is chronicled in Speak Out: I Had an Abortion, a documentary by third-wave feminist and author of Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism Jennifer Baumgardner and Bowling for Columbine producer Gillian Aldrich. Speak Out: I Had an Abortion features 11 diverse women reflecting on their experiences of having an abortion, some as long as seven decades ago, some just two short years previous. These complex, fiercely honest, and thoughtful stories turn women, not journalists or judges, into the shapers of the message. And when its control is taken out of the hands of political strategists, the message grows far more nuanced.
The filmmakers do not tell us more about Rice’s life than this—she was once young and pregnant for the second time and determined not to make her tough situation even tougher. In a reality TV world where we are accustomed to getting the exploitative play-by-play on every on-screen life, it is refreshing to understand just this small and profound fact.
The next woman to tell her story doesn’t have the same chance for anonymity. Feminist legend Gloria Steinem, sitting on a living-room couch, tells of being stuck in London while waiting for a visa to go to India on fellowship when she found herself pregnant and alone. The year was 1957. “I did not see any way that I could possibly give birth to someone else and also give birth to myself,” she says. “Far from feeling guilty, it was the first time that I had taken responsibility for my own life.”
This thread is woven through so many of these women’s stories. Many of the women say their decision to get abortions marked the first moment when they valued their own lives. Annie Finch, who got an abortion at 44 because she and her husband agreed they couldn’t afford more children, speaks most eloquently on this point. Though it has been eight years since she ended that pregnance, she admits to having felt sadness about it until recently. Finch describes losing “a baby, not a fetus.” She calls her conflicted feelings “a challenge to me to become more comfortable with my own power.” She continues, “I’ve had two babies and nursed them for years and been a great mother to them, and the flip side of that power is the power to not give life.”
Finch is careful to explain that she is not regretful, just aware of the weight of her decision: “I’m not anti-abortion, I just think that it’s important to recognize that it is taking a life. It’s like a real test of a woman’s self-respect to be able to fully face it and say, ‘Yes, my life is worth this sacrifice. It’s worth the loss to myself, also. The loss to my own heart.’ ”
None of the women featured appear to take abortion lightly (which may, if anything, be the one aspect of the experience the film missed—certainly some women do go through abortion as a standard medical procedure without spiritual implications). Instead, you can hear the gravity of the decision in their voices—not tearful, but somber.
The only speaker who could be seen as taking abortion lightly, Sally Aldrich, mother of Gillian, is instead light-hearted. Sally seems overjoyed by the camaraderie she finds among the other women subpoenaed to appear in front of a grand jury investigating her doctor in 1964, and years later in a much-anticipated confession to her own “puritanical” mother. On a day at the Guggenheim cafeteria, Sally mustered the courage to say, “There is something I really have to tell you. Mother, I’ve had an abortion.” Gillian’s grandmother took another bite of her yogurt and replied, “Well, dear, I’ve had two. Now let’s go look at the paintings.” As Sally tells this story, her eyes fill with tears. I can’t help but wonder if her daughter was behind the camera, weeping, too.
Mothers in general figure prominently throughout the documentary—as supporters, as shamers, as doppelgangers in unwanted futures. As the daughter of a teenage mother who is the daughter of a teenage mother, Jenny Egan knew she didn’t want to keep the child she conceived at 16. But the men in her life were also pivotal in her decision; her Republican, Mormon, lawyer, Marine father reviled premarital sex and her slacker boyfriend didn’t look up from WWF long enough to make eye contact when she told him.
video: Jenny Egan
image: ‘Speak Out: I Had an Abortion’/speakoutfilms.com
She spent time desperately searching the Bible for forgiveness and found only confusion about the idea that “life doesn’t begin until the quickening.” She wondered what constituted “the quickening.” Had she gotten to the clinic in time? “It didn’t feel like I had aborted a baby,” she says, “but it also didn’t feel like I had done away with nothing.”
Egan, now almost a decade older and, from the looks of her hipster haircut, many miles away from her straitlaced home, tells a chilling story of the day her parents found out. They received a letter in the mail that read: “Your daughter Jennifer had an abortion on April 9, 1997. Please let God guide your actions from this point forward. Signed, the Brotherhood.” Her mother immediately laid into her, shredding her already fragile conscience with a barrage of outrage. “I can’t believe you would do this!” she shouted. “You killed your baby!” To Egan’s shock, her usually stern father “wrapped me up into a little ball,” she says. “I was sobbing uncontrollably and he just held me and said, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.’ ”
A multifaceted story like this, of spiritual complexity and surprising compassion, makes the standard one-dimensional debate over abortion feel spurious. In a montage at the end of Speak Out: I Had an Abortion, we see a string of faces and hear an unassuming flow of voices make their own confessions. “My name is Sebastiana, and I had an abortion in 2000.” They go on. “I had an abortion in 1973. I had an abortion in 1939. I’ve had three abortions. I had an abortion.”
In the often disingenuous clamor over Roe v. Wade, such a dignified chorus deserves a place.
Visit www.speakoutfilms.com for details on upcoming screenings of Speak Out: I Had an Abortion.