Happy 25th Anniversary R. v. Morgentaler!

Happy 25th Anniversary R. v. Morgentaler!

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Dr. Morgentaler, Dr. Smoling, and Dr. Scott, which granted women’s true personal autonomy. This date holds special weight with me. Not just because I’m a woman, but also because I’m a nurse. One who has spent the bulk of her career as an abortion provider.

On this date each year, I wonder if our ancestors are happy with where women’s rights are now. Then I’m left wondering, why aren’t we there yet? I can’t speak for them, but I’m thrilled that I’m not criminalized as a nurse for providing safe abortions. But could it be better? Yes. Absolutely, yes.

The week I was offered a job in an abortion clinic was the same week George Tiller was shot and killed. 36 years after Roe. v. Wade. Thankfully, I’ve never had my life threatened. But have I had to sift through a crowd of protesters wielding inaccurate antagonistic photos of fetuses? Yes. Was I ever asked inappropriate questions to a degree I’d consider harassment? Yes. The worst part about it was that 100% of the time, anti-choice protesters thought I was a patient. As if the weight, of possibly the most challenging and easily the most life-changing decision, is not enough, women of the 21st century are still subjected to harassment when accessing health care.

I digress though, because attacking the fallacies and fervor of the anti-choice camp is not what this is about. There is something else just as pervasive and far less conspicuous interwoven in the political and cultural dialogue about women’s reproductive rights. It’s us. Yes, the ‘us’ that doesn’t exclude pro-choicers, women, or health care workers. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a veiled attempt at victim-blaming. We are not victims and there is no blame, but in a time where I can write to you as a complete stranger and drivel is widespread, we are all culpable.

Simply put, we’re culpable because we don’t talk. So, let’s talk.

I’ve had an abortion. Afterward, I found out several women I knew had had abortions. It wasn’t talked about until months or years had elapsed. Why? Was it shame, guilt, or just yearning for privacy? For me, it was all of the above. And while my privacy is still important; fostering dialogue trumps that.

I had no reason to feel guilty or shameful. But I did. And in my years of counseling for hundreds, if not thousands of abortions, almost every single woman identified feelings of guilt. But I know now; guilt is not a requisite to abortion.

I was 20 when I found out I was pregnant. I chose abortion because motherhood was daunting and terrifying, because I wanted to finish university, because I wasn’t ready for the end of my life as I knew it. My reasons were not unique.  There are a myriad of reasons why any woman chooses to have an abortion. Despite having the insight, forethought, and maturity to recognize my own limitations and the incredible responsibility of raising another human being, I punished myself with shame and guilt.

Why? There is nothing wrong with caring about our future or recognizing our limits. About 60% of women who choose abortion already have children[i],[ii]. Why don’t we trust ourselves to make the right decision about our lives and our children’s lives? Why should we feel guilty about wanting to raise the children we have, or wanting to take care of our own well-being? We shouldn’t.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of viability, it simply does not make sense that fetuses’ rights outweigh women’s rights. We shouldn’t be forced to bear children simply because we can. Our reproductive capability does not translate into duty.

That’s the other thing about feeling guilty. We feel it’s our “responsibility” to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because we “made mistakes”. Well, there’s more than one way to be responsible. Responsibility is also about making sound decisions about our health and future. Choosing abortion is responsible, and certainly no less responsible than carrying a pregnancy to term.

Plus, we’re human. We make mistakes. Sometimes, we knowingly make mistakes. And sometimes condoms break, or we forget the pill, sometimes medications and the pill don’t mix, and sometimes desire is way more powerful than anything else. We sympathize with the cancer patient who smoked a pack a day for 30 years, but we shame the woman taken by passion. Sometimes, we know better. Always, we are fallible. And so is contraception.

I’ve had an abortion. And you or someone you know probably has too[iii].

But my culpability here is two-fold, because I was an abortion provider.

On more than one occasion, I shied away from talking about what I did. In this field, there are two rationales for that:

1) Fear for our safety: You never know how a person will react. Seriously.

2) Exhaustion: Unlike other health care providers, every time we talk about work, we have to ready ourselves to be vilified or interrogated.

The problem is, those things won’t change unless we start being honest about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. So for all the times, I’ve thought to myself, “not today”, I apologize.

I can be better. We can be better. We’ve come a long way. But there is still room for dialogue, and honesty, and trusting ourselves and each other to make the best health choices.

Thank you Dr. Morgentaler, Dr. Smoling, Dr. Scott, Jane Roe and all those who fought for our right to choose. Happy 25thanniversary! Here’s to exercising our personal autonomy in a culture of honest, open, and respectful dialogue.

Yee Lee


[i] Canadian Institute for Health Information, www.cihi.ca/CIHI-ext-portal/pdf/internet/TA_10_ALLDATATABLES20120417_EN

[ii] Guttmacher Institute, http://www.guttmacher.org/in-the-know/characteristics.html

[iii] National Abortion Federation, http://www.prochoice.org/about_abortion/facts/women_who.html


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