Trying to talk about abortion

Perilous-Times

BOOKS | Fran Moreland Johns

One chilly afternoon not long ago I pulled on an anorak jacket and walked over to San Francisco’s Laurel Village to pick up some groceries. A young woman who appeared to be about 15 or 16 years old was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Starbucks on the corner of Spruce and California. She was dressed in sandals, jeans and a short-sleeved pink T-shirt with Planned Parenthood emblazoned across the front. She was holding a clipboard with a few papers on it and attempting, presumably, to enlist supporters in the fight against a congressional proposal that would have eliminated funding for the organization.

But she was too cold or too shy to be having much success. She smiled at everyone who came her way, but no one seemed to be stopping. So I did. “Good for you,” I said. “I think defunding Planned Parenthood is a pretty bad idea.”


I thought that might prompt a speech, or a request to sign a petition at least. Instead she looked at me with soulful eyes and said, “Oh, thank you. Do you know, ma’am? Do you know how much women need help?” In the brief conversation that followed she revealed that she had managed to avoid pregnancy with the help of the local Planned Parenthood clinic where she’d gotten counseling and contraceptives.

A half century ago, I was not so lucky. Pregnant from an episode of workplace rape, I had no Planned Parenthood clinic to turn to, my physician declined to help and I wound up with a back-alley abortionist. I survived. Countless other women did not.

Three years ago I set out to collect some of those untold stories and record them in a new book, Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before — and After — Roe vs. Wade. My research revealed that similar dangers are facing women and girls today who, thanks to layers of restrictions and ever-diminishing access, are turning to desperate measures little different from those their mothers and grandmothers took.

The times are perilous.

One hope was that this book would help encourage rational dialogue between the two camps: one shouting “Baby killers!” and the other, just as loudly, “Woman haters!” Perhaps we could start to listen to each other and somehow find ways to protect a viable fetus without taking away a woman’s right to control her own body.

This idea was met with a great deal of skepticism. “Pie in the sky,” were the exact words of my boomer daughter in Manhattan.

But it turns out that polite conversation is possible. My first two tries were at a book launch party in San Francisco and at a reading in Atlanta. The local book launch crowd was pretty solidly pro-choice, with one or two possibly unconvinced.

Among those in the Atlanta audience were two arch conservatives opposed to abortion under any circumstances (“A lot of people believe abortion is murder,” said one); my beloved daughter-in-law, who works for an anti-abortion pregnancy crisis center; a gray-haired community college professor in a Howard Zinn T-shirt; several people with unknown religious or political leanings; a dozen or so staunchly pro-choice Democrats; and two male college students — one a visitor from France, and I would give a lot to know what he wrote home.

I told those attending both events they were welcome to comment or interrupt at any time, as long as they didn’t shout obscenities or hurl anything. No one did either. Most of the comments, after everyone listened politely for about 20 minutes, were in the “How did we get to this stage?” category. Many people were surprised to learn how severely limited access to abortion is in the U.S. today. Women in several dozen states categorized by the Guttmacher Institute as “hostile to abortion” are, unless they happen to be rich, no better off than I was in 1956.

Further conversations have taken place online since Perilous Times was published. One posted by Babu read: “I can only imagine that, from the moment she learns she is pregnant, every mother knows to a moral certainty she is carrying human life. This has nothing to do with religious belief; it is in her DNA.”

My opinions strongly differ. Is there an automatic bonding gene in our DNA? I’m not sure. I’m only sure that abortion is complex and private, and that planned and wanted children are better off. I wish we could focus on ways to reduce abortion while still protecting women and improving the lives of children everywhere.

  • margaret spaulding

    Oh Fran, I love your courage, honesty, clarity, and warm, human face on this issue, as on so much else in life. Love you.

    Thanks for this crusade and know you are not alone.

    Margaret

    • franjohns

      It’s very nice to have a Village.