A few years ago, I had a frank conversation regarding abortion with one of my childhood friends. We’d lost contact with each other, but I always remembered Jessica (not her real name) as a sweet girl with dimples and a fantastic smile. Her mother had been a bit of a hippie, so I’d always assumed Jessica would follow that route: charity work at food banks and protests against Big Agra, different varietals of kombucha fermenting in her basement.
Instead, she’d gone the good Christian wife and mother route. Not what I would’ve done, personally, but Jessica seemed happy, and I respected her choices. But a few years back, Jessica made a statement on social media that made me think she was planning to vote for Trump. That she was a one-issue voter, that issue being abortion. That if Trump outlawed abortion, she didn’t care what else he did.
This was Jessica. We’d grown up together, best friends for years. It’s my belief that empathy dies in the abstract. I asked Jessica if she knew anyone who’d had an abortion.
No, she answered. She did not.
I told her she was wrong. She did know someone. Or rather, had known.
Jessica’s reaction was disbelief. We’d known each other for years and years, after all, and Jessica had known my mother well. If I wasn’t over at Jessica’s apartment, she was—
OK, no. Jessica was never over at our apartment. None of my friends were ever over at our apartment. They were all too scared of my stepfather.
My stepfather, Ashur (not his real name), was a tall Assyrian immigrant who spoke perfect French and adored cowboy movies. He must have been charming as hell when he was younger, but by the point Jessica knew him as my father, he was loud and drunk and often too sick to work.
By the time my mother had her abortion—when I was 13—he was also broken, and full of sharp edges. Dangerous. When I was a toddler and my mother had first fallen in love with him, he’d been passionate and sophisticated. A man who’d spent time in Paris, in Beirut (in its pre–Civil War, supercosmopolitan days), in Athens, in Madrid. He was an artisan and inventor, his skills with fiberglass had been in high demand in Las Vegas, and he had work that paid very well indeed.
If only Ashur hadn’t been an addict. Addicted to alcohol, addicted to cocaine, and—most unfortunately considering where we lived at the time—addicted to gambling. To be fair, he was very good at blackjack. Right up until he wasn’t.
When I was 5 years old, Ashur and my mother bundled me up into the family car with a handful of clothes, and we fled Las Vegas in the middle of the night. I never found out exactly how much money my stepfather owed, but considering the way we’d abandoned all our earthly possessions in favor of running for our lives, I feel safe in assuming it was a lot.
We drove until we hit the Pacific Ocean and then hopscotched up and down the state of California like we were in some sort of barely-kid-friendly adaptation of a Tarantino film. Trying to make sure no one with guns and quotation marks surrounding their middle name showed up to collect, probably.
I’m pretty sure that was when Ashur first started beating my mother.
By the time I was 6, Ashur had contacted some distant friend-of-a-friend and arranged for us to stay (illegally) at their shipyard. We spent three months squatting in some rich man’s yacht, while it was dry-docked for repairs. I was hungrier that summer than I’ve ever been at any other time in my life. I can vividly remember eating a tiny little packet of Shake ’n Bake mix straight out of the bag because there was nothing else. I don’t like to think about it.
But we hadn’t hit bottom. No, we were still rolling downhill. My stepfather had legitimate employment and a union membership when we lived in Las Vegas, but now he was forced to work under the table. That meant taking cash payments with pennies on the dollar compared with what he’d once made. And safety precautions? Health insurance? Pffft. Please.
So, when respiratory disease from the fiberglass dust kicked in, he didn’t have many options. To keep us from starving, my mother took a job at a nearby hotel as a maid. We lived in a squalid one-room hovel infested with mice. That turned into living out of a motel room we rented by the week. Eventually, with a lot of hard work (all of it my mother’s), we moved to a one-bedroom apartment with a nice view of the ocean and a kitchen so small that my mother liked to joke you could burn your butt on the stove while doing the dishes. I slept in a closet.
Ashur was a proud man from a culture that prized hypermasculinity (as far too many cultures do). He found being forced to stay at home while his wife worked humiliating. When my mother would come home, and her second shift would start—the one where she’d cook us dinner and do the chores and clean the entire house top to bottom—he seldom passed up the chance to vent his frustrations. Usually by yelling at me, and hitting her.
Jessica, whom I met in third grade, hadn’t known all of this, but she’d known a great deal. Certainly, she’d known how violent Ashur was, how much he’d scared me. Scared all of us. She knew, too, that as the years passed, the situation had worsened. I began acting like the teenager I was becoming. The older I grew, the less tolerant Ashur became. The antics he’d found amusing in me as a child were unacceptable in a young woman. He stopped restricting himself to angry and abusive words toward me. The level of violence escalated.
Finally—finally!—my mother reached the end of her seemingly limitless patience as she realized just how much danger I was in. She began divorce proceedings. When the process server delivered the papers. Ashur was so angry that my mother and I had to lock ourselves in the bedroom. Then we climbed out through the back window and broke into the empty apartment two doors down the hall. We spent the night there, huddled in a corner, listening to the sound of his angry footsteps as he marched up and down the halls of the complex looking for us, banging on doors and asking people where we’d gone.
In the morning, we slipped away. One of mother’s friends let us stay with her until we found ourselves a new place to live. (Other friends would later collect our possessions.) It was at some point during all of this that my mother discovered that, even though she’d been on the pill, she’d gotten pregnant.
At this point in the story, I could see that Jessica had understood, even if she probably wished she hadn’t. Because a pregnancy changed everything. With a child of theirs in the picture, Ashur would’ve had a valid claim to continue having contact with my mother. Custody rights. With a child, the idea of cutting him away from us entirely became all but impossible. Plus, she’d given birth to me when she was 30. Now she was 43, living from paycheck to paycheck, with no insurance and a 13-year-old girl to raise. The idea of my mother having a child at that age, and in that situation, was unsafe on multiple levels.
I never knew about the abortion until years later. And even then, she never told me the particulars: when or where or who paid for it. We didn’t have any money, so someone must have. All I know was that it was done early enough that my mother hadn’t yet started to show, and my stepfather hadn’t noticed her skipped periods. And because of it, we’d been able to escape.
As I finished explaining the situation to Jessica—what had happened, why my mother made the choices she had—she asked the question I’d been waiting for. The one that always gets asked. Why hadn’t my mother given birth to the baby and put it up for adoption?
I reminded her that the state of California has a six-month waiting period before a divorce can be finalized. And while I couldn’t know for sure, if for the sake of argument I assumed she was at 12 weeks when we left, then right around the time she’d be required to step in front of a judge is when she’d have been on the verge of giving birth, assuming she hadn’t already. Nine months pregnant while still, technically, married. And in California, as in many states, babies can’t be put up for adoption without the husband’s permission, in most situations. Who knew how the judge would react to my mother’s petition for divorce, under the circumstances?
On the more practical side, she was supposed to have a baby with what maternity leave? Because I could assure Jessica that my mother’s low-wage job as a housekeeper didn’t offer any. Any time off would’ve been unpaid, while living paycheck to paycheck with no savings and a teenage daughter. None of the scenarios that would’ve played out as a consequence were pretty.
I honestly don’t know what my stepfather would’ve done if he’d found out she was planning to have this abortion. Something terrible and violent was hardly outside the realm of the possible. The leading cause of death for pregnant women is homicide—usually by domestic violence.
The hilarious thing about all of this—so funny I could sob just thinking about it—is that what my mother went through, difficult as it was, is significantly better than what’s coming down the road for a lot of people. Are laws coming that would prohibit a married woman from having an abortion without her husband’s permission? Such requirements to notify spouses were rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but with Roe about to be overturned, and Justice Sam Alito’s leaked draft opinion targeting Casey for overrule as well, it feels like just a matter of time.
Jessica was silent, no doubt having a hard time reconciling this new knowledge of my mother with her old memories. I empathized.
Finally, Jessica said, “You can’t know that he would’ve killed your mother.”
“No,” I admitted, “but another child would’ve.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it was the poverty that was killing her, a poverty that she escaped only because of that divorce, only because she didn’t have another mouth to feed, whether a baby, a husband, or both. With just the two of us, she was able to take night classes at the local community college. Because of those classes, she found a better job, one with health insurance. Because she was now single while working at that better job, she was able to meet someone and start dating again when I was in high school. And this new boyfriend—a doctor—was able to correctly identify that something was wrong with my mother and insist she have it checked out. And while that something wrong still turned out to be stage 4 breast cancer—”
At this point, I had to stop.
“It was still stage 4 breast cancer,” I began again, “but she had health and disability insurance, and people who loved and supported her, and a job that liked her so much that even after she was too sick to work anymore, they let her stay in one of the hotel cottages free of charge. She told me once that she didn’t resent the cancer, because it had forced her to be selfish, forced her to think of her own needs, and so for the first time in her life, she was happy. No one ever hit her again. She lived years longer than any of her oncologists had thought possible —in fact, she outlived her boyfriend the doctor and had moved on to her second post-Ashur lover by the time the cancer finally killed her, over a decade later.
“If she’d had the baby and stayed with Ashur, she’d have been dead by the time I was 20, even if he’d never hit her again, which wasn’t likely. Even as she would’ve felt sicker and sicker, she would’ve ignored all the signs, toughed it out, for the sake of that child. And it’s naïve to think I’d have come out of it unscathed. I would’ve run away, ended up married at 15, something. Anything to escape.
“But that didn’t happen,” I said, “because my mother had an abortion. Because it was legal. Because she didn’t have to drive out of state to find a clinic. Because she didn’t have meet some six-week deadline when she’d probably only just begun to suspect she might be pregnant. Because the decision and the consequences of that decision were left entirely up to her.”
Again, silence. She couldn’t bring herself to say my mother had been wrong. This was a woman she’d known, a situation she understood. This was concrete, specific, personal.
“I wish it hadn’t had to be like that,” Jessica finally said.
“So did she, but I know she’d agree with me on one thing. These laws tell me what I’m worth, what my mom was worth: nothing.”
“That’s not true,” she assured me.
“Oh, I know that,” I said. “But these laws take a hypothetical—a baby that might exist, might come to term without miscarriage, might survive birth—and give that possibility more importance than the safety, health, and happiness of people who are real. That’s like painting over a Rembrandt because the next random person who comes along might pick up the brush and create a better masterpiece.”
I stopped there. I could tell I was losing her. I don’t think she had a shining epiphany and promised to vote for Joe Biden because of what I’d said. I’m not even sure I changed her mind. All I could hope was that I’d given her something to consider. Nothing about abortion is easy.
I still see Jessica on social media. She’s always sweet, and I like to think I made a difference, but who knows, really. She’s under no obligation to tell me whom she’s voted for. In any event, the damage is done.
I can see that she loves her children. So much so, that I can say this sincerely and without irony:
She reminds me of my mother.
Listen to the first episode of Slow Burn Season 7: Roe v. Wade below. Read more of Slate’s coverage on abortion rights here.