My First Abortion Party
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"Have you guys heard the news?" Maggie (name changed) unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and patted her flat belly. "Preggers." It was around 30 degrees outside, and her cheeks were splashed pink from the Indiana wind.
She had discovered earlier that week, after missing a period and taking the test. "I kind of knew already. My boobs and my lower back have been killing me for a while." She shrugged.
My girlfriend Ali and I exchanged a surprised look. Our forks, dotted with pasta sauce, dangled identically, flaccidly, in our hands. She was quicker than me to gain her composure, and turned to address her best friend.
"What are you going to do?" Unnecessary question, really -- a conversational life vest, used when you’re sputtering for something to say. We knew the answer. Maggie, a 22-year-old college senior with no intention of bringing a child into the world yet, was going to have an abortion. She told us that she had already made up her mind; she had even determined the time, date and location. A better question might have been, "How are you going to pay for it?"
She answered that one before we had a chance to ask. "We’re having a party Friday to raise money," Maggie said. "You guys are obviously invited."
An abortion party. For the price of whatever we were willing to donate, she explained, we could partake of baked goods, beer and dancing. It was going to start at 10 p.m. at Maggie’s.
The Facebook invite came a day later, and it was settled. Ali and I were going to scrape together what donation money we could and join in the festivities.
Before continuing, I should make it clear that I’m no stranger to bizarre, pregnancy-related parties. My junior year of college, I attended a "Welcoming the Baby Kegger" designed to provide love, support and slurred confessions to a friend nearing her delivery date (she drank grape juice). Though I had initially been skeptical, I left this soirée du bébé pleasantly surprised. Everyone had brought gifts, toys, wine and food, which they piled atop a table in her living room. The music was low, and the conversation was great -- an all-around classy affair. I imagined the abortion party might be similar to this: a way to help out a friend who’s made a difficult decision. I was both right and wrong.
Ali and I arrived around 11, only half aware of the irony of being "late" to an abortion party. Walking in, we were bludgeoned with a blast of hot air, followed by the tangy stink of dance floor revelry. Someone had taken a red bed sheet and hung it below a light fixture to resemble a giant womb. Every so often, a dancer’s head or arm or dreadlock would brush against one of its smooth folds, creating a rippling effect. "Let’s Go Crazy" by Prince was playing.
As Ali went off to find Maggie, I sat down and struck up a conversation with Andrew (name changed), the three-year-old son of one of the partygoers. When Andrew and I first met months before, I learned that he’s a very precocious boy when it comes to animals and plants. His father has spent a lot of time teaching him about birdcalls and edible nuts, and he’s always spouting out little nuggets of useful knowledge. Tonight, he had the remnants of some apple-flavored dessert smeared on his mouth and owl pajamas.
Even though I thought the presence of a young child at an abortion party was a little bizarre, nobody else seemed to acknowledge (or care about) this contradiction. Instead, the rest of the guests just took turns fawning over him, exchanging high fives and swooshing him through the air. He, along with everyone else, was having a blast.
"Do you feel welcome here?" I eventually asked him, fully expecting a ‘grown-up’-type answer. He glanced around, chewed on his sleeve and went to look for some babes to hang out with. "Too cool for me," I thought, shaking my head and cramming a pastry into my mouth. I was bewildered.
I continued mingling, sampling pastries and chatting with some of Ali’s friends. I didn’t really feel comfortable discussing the abortion with strangers, so I just talked bullshit: Music. School. The Future. I guess I was hesitant to confront the breadth of the party’s complexity. Maybe I had even hoped to avoid it.
I couldn’t, of course. I saw Maggie’s boyfriend, sitting near the kitchen, wearing rainbow suspenders and looking uncomfortably alone. As it turns out, he had been the object of a lot of vitriol from Maggie’s friends -- women who thought that he should not have had anything to do with the abortion. Both he and Maggie had been saddened about this reaction because they had made the decision together. When we talked, his sentences spilled out in quick little jumbles, like scattered puzzle pieces. His eyes stayed focused on a point behind me. He looked as if he’d like to be somewhere else.
Maggie, too, looked less than excited. A few days beforehand, one of her friends had asked her to have the abortion in Ohio. When Maggie insisted on bringing her boyfriend along, the friend told her not to bother coming. Maggie was being shown a great deal of respect, certainly. But she told me she couldn’t help but feel as though her pregnancy had been "hijacked" by women who felt like her inclusion of a man in the decision was weak or wrong. This was a surprise to me, but I didn’t exactly know how to weigh in.
Abortion is, after all, a very tricky topic -- a minefield of opinions where the slightest misstep can elicit unexpected reactions from friends, family, co-workers and strangers. Though I would classify myself an ardent pro-choicer, I also recognize that I am a man, and therefore somewhat of a problematic player in the debate. It’s never been made clear to me what sort of involvement I’m entitled to on the issue, and I don’t feel particularly confident making judgment calls about women -- whatever their political leanings.
I did, however, think the extent to which Maggie’s friends were eager to vilify her partner was peculiar. These were liberal people, after all -- people whose views on sex were worlds away from anything someone might consider "modest." I couldn’t help but notice how aggressive and, for lack of a better term, ‘male’ their attitudes became when confronted with the issue of a woman’s right to choose. It was almost as if, in the process of upholding an ideal of openness and acceptance, they had fallen victim to the same forces they were trying to critique.
But could I blame them for responding with such anger? No way. I knew many of them had experienced the most hurtful forms of structural sexism -- the kinds I will never see. The kinds that that disguise themselves as "the norm." These women, who had only recently begun to unravel the ways their voices had been excluded from relationships, dialogues and society in general, had every right to respond with anger. I imagine it would have been nearly impossible not to.
The tension never boiled over. There was no overt confrontation at the abortion party between Maggie’s friends and her boyfriend -- just a jumbled collage of sweaty dancers and cold shoulders, whispered conversations and intoxicated hoots. By the end of the night, the donation bowl was overflowing with contributions from Maggie’s friends, male and female. It was, for the most part, a bipartisan success.
But a success with a question mark. As Ali and I walked home, we wondered together what exactly the relationship between abortion and "maleness" is supposed to look like. What is a man’s role in the decision? Does including a male partner’s perspective necessarily compromise a woman’s agency, as Maggie’s friends seemed to believe? It’s not that much of a stretch -- after all, male perspectives have suffocated debate around the issue for way too long.
Moreover, what are the inherent emotional features of being "male" or "female?" Is compassion/reactionary aggression the only set of qualifiers? If so, does that mean women can be "male," too?
Walking home, Ali and I agreed that dealing with the issue of abortion means dealing with a world’s worth of expectations, conflicts and limitations. It means accepting a frustratingly imperfect role in a frustratingly imperfect discussion.
Perhaps most importantly, it means allowing space for rightful, understandable (and possibly even productive) anger to take place.