The Animal Connection

A new perspective on what makes us human.

Abortion and Contraception: Maryann's Lesson

What it was like living without reproductive options.

A banner at a protest in ireland.
The fear in my generation: coat hanger abortions.
William Murphy (Informatique)
People don't seem to remember what it was like before there were reasonable, widely available options for young unmarried women who had sex.

I went to Smith College, an all-woman’s institution, in the late 1960s. Along its numerous benefits, Smith’s unusual house system gave me an opportunity to meet and bond with other women, many of whom have remained lifelong friends. Incoming freshmen are assigned to a house – a small dorm of 75 or fewer students usually in a renovated single family home – where, in most cases, the student spends all four years. A house is no anonymous, high-rise dorm, where you might not know the person down the hall and where you might live for a semester or maybe a year before changing. House mates live together, eat together, play together. Your house is your family, for good or ill, and you learn to live together, help each other, tolerate each other, listen to each other, and share joys, fears, and heartbreaks.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

One day in 1968 or 1969, I dropped by a friend’s room to talk with her about something fairly trivial, like whether she could swap shifts for waiting on table at dinner with me. I will call my friend Maryann here. She was a year younger than me and came from a small town in the South. As I remember, Maryann was on scholarship, as many Smithies are and were, and she was the pride of her family with good reason. She was smart, kind, good-looking and loyal. I knocked, got no answer, and went in. (In those days, not only did we leave with our doors unlocked, we couldn’t lock our rooms. I suppose it was a simpler, more honest era.) I opened Maryann’s desk drawer to find a piece of paper and a pencil to leave her a note.

What I found was deeply disturbing.

On the open page of a pad of paper, Maryann had carefully laid out her options if she proved to be pregnant. She had a steady boyfriend and apparently they had not been careful enough. It wasn’t easy to have “careful” sex in Massachusetts in those days, since it was illegal to prescribe contraceptives for an unmarried woman there. Her list was calm, matter-of-fact, and devastating.

Rather than face the humiliation, shame, and anguish of letting down so many people that she loved, she decided to kill herself if she was pregnant. The thought made me sick. I knew I had to do something.

I suppose I could have told the house mother, but she was an aged, ineffectual and rather nervous widow, unprepared to deal with the generation of independent women she theoretically supervised. She wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I considered counseling Maryann myself but I surely wasn’t competent. And what if I failed? I had heard there was an abortionist in town; of course, abortion was illegal too. Maybe I could have gotten a name and helped Maryann find the money for an abortion, but I pictured some sleazy backstreet quack wielding a coat hanger and couldn’t commit to that plan of action. Besides, she loved her boyfriend – they married after college – and would want his baby. Having a baby out of wedlock would mean sacrificing the chance of a good education for her and her boyfriend. They’d have to do that and live with the disapprobation of the world if they had and kept the child. She simply couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face closing the drawer and walking away.

I called the chaplain, who I knew was a kindly and sympathetic man. Then I told Maryann in private what I had done. She forgave me and I will always be grateful she did. Maybe she was even a little relieved to have shared her awful burden, glad someone cared for her enough to intervene even though she couldn’t bring herself to ask for help. The chaplain counseled her and somehow arranged a pregnancy test, which she didn’t want done at the college health clinic. Happily, she was not pregnant; happily the chaplain helped her find a way to have protected sex. I never asked for details.

And now many states, including North Carolina where I now live, are passing or debating bills that would make contraception harder to obtain and abortion more burdensome. Maybe the legislators have forgotten what it was like to be young and in love. Perhaps when they were young and in love they never had to deal with the reality that love might rob you of your chance at an education, a good career, even your life.

Maryann’s lesson is still powerful. We should listen to it.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

more...

Subscribe to The Animal Connection

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?