In late 2008 and early 2009, I worked in an abortion clinic. Initially I worked phones and front desk; later I trained to work in the surgical suite.
My intial introduction to the clinic was through the Robert Ead’s Health Project, a healthcare project sponsored annually by the Southern Comfort Conference for transmasculine people and men with trans experience. REHP came into being when Robert Eads, a parent and grandparent, was repeatedly refused healthcare for ovarian cancer. He eventually did receive care, but it was too late; he died in the face of his community. His community stepped forward and created a free pelvic exam clinic to prevent further deaths.
I attended SCC for the first time in 2006.The Robert Ead’s Health Project was held one day of the year at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, an advocacy, wellness, and abortion clinic. At the clinic that day, I received my first lower (eg, pelvic) exam since I’d given birth in 2004. I later joined the tight knit group of activists working on the Health Project.
In fall of 2007, through REHP and again at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, I received the first and only health exam after I was raped that May.
Through many years, the care that I received through the clinic was the only healthcare I could access. When I moved to Atlanta the following year, I applied to and was accepted for a position at FWHC. It was and continues to be my policy to give back to those who saw me through critical periods.
Years later, I am still parsing through my feelings about abortion work. There is a Planned Parenthood clinic here in Olympia that has grim-faced, sign-holding protesters every day (but Sunday). Many of the signs are of the chopped up fetus variety. “CHOICE” is spelled boldly beneath, intended ironically.
We walked by these protesters every day that we lived in the homeless shelter, as the Planned Parenthood clinic was between the shelter and my child’s school, a block shy of the church basement we slept in. They usually nodded at us, sitting under a blanket and casually holding a poster-sized picture of decomposing fetal parts. One time they stood in a group and murmured something over us about Mary and sin, which I laughed out loud at.
Choice, their sign said. Fetal parts, their photo displayed. Yes, I thought. Your point?
Most abortion procedures end up with a fetus removed in parts. Abortion procedures, like any other surgical procedure, require informed consent. This makes it, as they so aptly underscored, a “choice”. Abortion procedures, like any other surgical procedure, are kinda gross and grisly, with blood and body parts cut up.
It is shocking. It is painful. It is- and this is stretching the meaning of the word nearly out of shape- intense, to work with, around, and towards the remains of an abortion.
But yes, it is still- profoundly- a choice.
As a writer, I found it incredibly difficult to work in abortion. Abortion workers are secret keepers. We hold a lot of pain and gruesomeness. We protect our clients, our doctors, ourselves. We protect the future of reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy, and the right for someone to self-determine even through a whole agonizing mess of conflicting information, feelings, and pressures.
We hold a lot, sometimes until the word “hold” is stretched out of shape and meaning and we spiritually sag like overworn scrubs.
Every time I speak about abortion, I’m afraid that I will hurt someone– a fellow worker, a former client, someone who still grapples with a decision they made 20 years ago.
Consequently I’ve only written about abortion three times. And I don’t mean I’ve only published three pieces, I mean that I’ve only written about my work in abortion three times. This is the fourth.
The third piece I wrote about it, I decided- with much deliberation- to read at the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer’s Retreat last year.
Palms sweating, bowels miserably churning, I took off my glasses and read to a crowd of intimate strangers what it really felt like, for me, to work in abortion. What it felt like, looked like, smelled like, tasted like. My heart beat wildly, as if it intended to break free of my ribs and cool somewhere safe, the water fountain perhaps, where clear water could rinse overextended muscle.
My words dropped like rocks into silence, or sisal thread unspooling with bits of my throat and tongue spit-soaked and spiraling in the room.
When I finished, there was silence. Total silence. Total stillness, except for a tear that I saw fall before I dashed red-faced to my seat.
By the time they started clapping, there was too much blood in my ears to hear. The next reader went up. I fled to my room as soon as I could.
Ellery followed me. I am not often followed but Ellery followed me, and knocked even though the sign on my door said ‘do not disturb’. I almost didn’t answer.
Some moments are turning points. Some turning points are graced with a clear night and moonlight and soothing words of someone you deeply respect, running over your overheated heart like clear cool water. That person is your angel, your midwife, and even though the change might be small and deep-lodged inside you, you are never the same after that. Eventually that change works itself to the surface and grows.
The piece that I read that night is now published– fortuitously alongside the work of another fellow from that retreat, another queer parent– in the tenth anniversary edition of The Mom Egg. My payment is a contributor copy and physical reminder that sometimes, a leap of faith and a spill into silence is exactly what needs to happen to make way for transformation.