Abortion in America: A Woman’s Right

By Sarah E. Murphy

In 2020 America, we’re celebrating a century of women’s suffrage while simultaneously defending a woman’s right to govern her body. The Margaret Atwood allusions became tired long ago. Throughout this election cycle, women and their families have also been forced to defend the most difficult medical and emotional decision imaginable – late-term abortion. 

Over the past four years, a woman’s private pain has increasingly become water cooler fodder, dinner table conversation. Something to “discuss” on Facebook, or the comment section of the local newspaper.  Since everyone else is talking about it, particularly white mansplainers on social media, I need to join the conversation, despite my instinct to hide. I’m tired of being ashamed.

This is my story. 

I was 23, and newly in love. It was my last semester at Bridgewater State College, and I couldn’t wait to graduate. I almost didn’t. 

Earlier that winter, I went from one dysfunctional relationship to another, after a year of trying to deny the feelings that had been building for a friend. He was like the Pied Piper, seeming to come out of nowhere. He showed up on campus one day the previous year, acoustic guitar in hand, his boyish charm and quick wit initially masking his childhood trauma. John Lennon meets Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band everyone was talking about. A meeting of the minds of his two musical inspirations. 

I can’t help but feel that I deserved it all, since Griffin and I got together in such a selfish way. I don’t regret the fact I finally found the self-esteem to walk away from a boyfriend who spent the majority of our two-year relationship cheating on me (often with my friends, or people in our social circle), but I wish I hadn’t been so myopic, disregarding the feelings of Griffin’s girlfriend, someone I respected and admired. She too had fallen for Griffin’s spell, while in a relationship with one of my closest friends. When Griffin and I betrayed them to be in a relationship, we were ostracized by all our mutual friends, which I now understand, but at the time I thought it was hypocritical, since everyone had seen firsthand how I had been treated. It was the cliched messy love triangle that often occurs in the microcosm of a college clique, but with so many more sides.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of things, for I’ve blocked a lot of it out. Since working with victims of clergy sex abuse over the past two years, I’ve come to understand so well the concept of compartmentalization. You pack away the things that are too painful to protect yourself in an attempt to move on. I vaguely recall walking to CVS, and then going back to my rented room in a home near the campus center.

The test told me what I already knew.

I was pregnant.

Despite my love of the ocean, and my Pisces horoscope, I’ve always been terrified of deep and dark water, even on television. My father had a profound fear of drowning throughout his life that he inadvertently passed on to me. He was always nervous about his children at pools or on boats, immediately searching for a life preserver. The idea of getting caught in a riptide is more terrifying to me than almost anything imaginable. Perhaps because I’ve known a similar helplessness.

Unless you’ve been raised in the Catholic faith, it’s impossible to understand the tidal wave of shame that suffocated me in that moment.

I was the quintessential “middle child” of six. I always followed the rules and tried to never make waves. From a very young age, I took on my mother’s insecurities around money, and not having enough of it. She did the bills in our house, so she was more realistic than my dad. She had given up her master’s degree, her teaching career, and her aspirations to be a mother and teach CCD, because that’s what was expected of Catholic women. My mom and I have lived parallel lives, for she didn’t have a choice either. I often felt guilty for my very existence, and I was envious of my older siblings, for it seemed like life was a little simpler when it was just the three of them with Mom and Dad, when they lived in Newton.

I never advocated for myself about anything; Bridgewater was the only school I applied to. My dad had a friend in the English department, but more importantly to me, I could go there tuition-free because my father taught at Mass Maritime Academy. I didn’t want to go to a Jesuit school like Boston College, because of my experience in the Catholic Church, so instead of following in my father’s footsteps, I chose a state school for one main reason: it was cheaper.

I later worked at Northeastern University and fell in love with everything about the school, wondering how things might have been different if I hadn’t gone to Bridgewater, and if I hadn’t met Griffin. Would I be more “successful” now, with a “normal” life? Probably not, for the problem was primarily with me. I would have been just as co-dependent no matter where I ended up, and if I went to a bigger school, I might have gotten lost in other ways, missing out on all the memorable things from Bridgewater, when I was single and somewhat confident, before I got into relationships and forfeited my self-esteem. I wouldn’t have met my original circle of friends, or had my radio show, or written poetry for the school literary magazine. Things that allowed me to express and be myself.

I don’t know whom I was more afraid and ashamed to tell – my father, my mother, or my older sister. When you come from a big family, each sibling has a role, and it wasn’t my sister’s fault I feared her, but she was just as much of an authority figure as my parents, perhaps more.

The life I had imagined for myself, and taken for granted, was suddenly over. I was no longer the person anyone thought or hoped. I was a stranger even to myself, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t turn to the people I had always counted on.

The misogyny of our patriarchal and chauvinistic society rears its ugly head in so many aspects of a woman’s life, but especially if you’re Catholic. Therefore, I missed out on healthy rites of passage, like dating. When I was in ninth grade, and the boy from church I had a crush on suddenly started paying attention to me, my life felt like a John Hughes movie. But when he asked me to meet him at the library one day after school, my poor mom, acting on her Catholic conditioning, told me it was “inappropriate.” We laugh about it now, but it began my melodramatic view of romance, as he and I instead showed our feelings through love notes and mixed tapes.

The Murphys were “modest.” I never even wore a two-piece bathing suit until my twenties; I was more comfortable in a bomber jacket than a bikini, and being “sexy” was not remotely on my radar. Everything surrounding sex was shameful, including my own body.

“It’s different for girls,” can be applied to almost any scenario. If my brothers got someone pregnant, I doubt their first instinct would have been suicide. My dad called all four of his daughters “Princess,” but being the only petite one, with a penchant for the alternative, I was also his “Pixie.” In my mind, that no longer mattered. Now he’d think I was a slut. 

I had already disappointed my parents by requiring a full extra year to graduate. There were many reasons I ended up on the five-year plan – too much freedom at a young age, unresolved grief that resurfaced when Jenny Chance died my freshman year, and the increasing loss of identity that resulted from romantic relationships for which I wasn’t equipped.

I had two options, for I don’t consider them to be choices – suicide or abortion – and I pondered them both. I never “chose” to have an abortion. I was backed into a corner, with no one to turn to for guidance. Were it not for Planned Parenthood, and my ability to access a safe abortion, which is my legal right, I know with certainly that I wouldn’t be able to write this today, for the simple reason that I wouldn’t be here. 

And if it weren’t for the two friends who gave me their unconditional and non-judgmental support, I would have attempted to take my life. I didn’t want to die, and the thought of hurting myself in any way was terrifying and unthinkable, but I didn’t know how to live with the shame of what I had done. How could I have been so stupid?

To say that suicide is selfish is selfish in itself. Unless you’ve been in that place, feeling that desperation, you can’t begin to understand, and your judgement is something you should evaluate before it contributes to such feelings in someone you love.

Griffin’s first instinct was for us to become parents, perhaps to make up for the love he had been denied as a child. Perhaps that was a reason I was drawn to him. I naively thought my love was enough to save him from his past and his inevitable fate.

Our upbringings couldn’t have been more different. His parents were teenagers when he was born, his father was a heroin addict. He was raised by his father’s grandparents after his mother relinquished custody of him as a little boy. Griffin wasn’t even his real name; it was a nickname he gave himself on the middle school playground. A bookworm who loved Dungeons & Dragons and played in the school band, he was inspired by the mythical creature for a pseudonym. Although he idolized his father, for whom he was named, he resented him, and he didn’t want to end up the same way. He eventually disappeared one day as Griffin waited for him to pick him up to go fishing. He never saw his dad again, and it haunted him. I always secretly hoped I’d somehow find him and reunite them.

Griffin initially admired my loving family, but later he would use it as a weapon, among so many other things, to make me feel weak, telling me I didn’t have my own identity. Although his motive was cruelty, now I realize part of him was right.

Long before the internet and cell phones, I rifled through the yellow pages in my landlady’s kitchen when she was out volunteering for Catholic Charities. The irony was almost comical. Griffin and I hadn’t even had a proper first date, but we split the cost of the “procedure” as if we were going dutch on dinner. It was four hundred dollars, which may as well have been four hundred million. I had given up my job as a tutor in the campus writing center, to spend more time in my first dysfunctional relationship, and had spent my meager summer earnings shortly after the beginning of senior year. My second senior year, as I always shamefully had to admit. My dad used to stop by to see me on Saturdays on his way back to the Cape after teaching his writing class at BC, usually giving me a crisp and coveted twenty dollar bill. But I was avoiding him, terrified he would find out, and told him not to come.

Damian, who was paying his own tuition, gave me the $200 without hesitation.

It was too early in my pregnancy to have the procedure, so I had to wait two weeks. It took me years to fully understand the events surrounding the Oklahoma City Bombing, for at the time of the tragedy, I was in bed with morning sickness that lasted around the clock, praying my devoutly Catholic landlady wouldn’t notice. Years ago, I was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia, and I’ve always suffered from stomach issues, for it’s the place where my anxiety manifests. Therefore, I could barely function, trying to make it to class during those two weeks, but mostly writhing in pain in the bathtub, or curled up in my bed in the fetal position, trying to escape in the mindless drama of 90210 and Melrose Place. 

Griffin had to borrow his friend’s car, for his only means of transportation was a skateboard. It was the first and most significant red flag, which I ignored, for on the way to the clinic, he insisted we had to stop and pick up his friend, who also didn’t have a car, and needed to cash his paycheck. It was the most humiliating experience of my life, and I needed privacy, as I was curled up in the backseat, but he prolonged my physical and emotional pain.

I’ve only been to Providence three times since April 26, 1995: to the hospital when my niece was born, to see Chris Cornell on the Songbook tour, and most recently, to finally meet my friend Jim, the man who inspired the “Kevin from Providence” character in the film Spotlight. He was one of the earliest supporters of my clergy investigation, and is someone from whom I continue to take inspiration.

I’m lucky enough that I didn’t have to cross a picket line that morning. My heart aches for the women who do.

I vaguely remember Griffin sitting with me in the waiting room, for what seemed like hours, before they called my name. He was wearing his olive green canvas jacket, reading something by H.P. Lovecraft. I just learned when writing this that the author was born in Providence.

Years later, when I gave blood for the first time, in honor of my neighbor, the nausea, ginger ale, and pretzels triggered long-buried memories. But I never forgot the kindness of the woman who explained everything to me, and sat with me as I came to. She looked Irish, with fair skin and red hair, and even though I was barely conscious, I worried what she thought of me.

Griffin dropped me off at my house later that day, and Kelly drove up from the Cape with groceries, filling up my shelves with comfort food, giving me some money to have on hand. Simple gestures that meant everything. She and Damian saved my life.

Barely three weeks later, I received a blank degree at my commencement. I had written a note to my psychology professor, hoping for pity, explaining I was “going through a rough time.” I didn’t blame her when she failed me; I was so focused on Griffin, I hadn’t applied myself at all, long before the pregnancy. My poor parents were so disappointed, for I’d have to make up the three credits, but little did they know what a miracle it was we were there at all. I have no other recollection of that day, or Barney Frank’s remarks. Originally, all I wanted was a celebratory lunch in the Heights at Lawrence’s Restaurant with my family, but after everything that had transpired, I just wanted that chapter to be over. I was still feeling sick, weighing about ninety pounds, my fingernails bitten to the quick, when I walked across the stage.

By fall, I had been living at my parents’ house for a few months, butting heads with them over basic things, like wanting to use their car to see my boyfriend, simply because I was now a grown woman living under their roof. At my mother’s suggestion, I went to her doctor for a physical, and after a cursory exam and some quick questions about our mother/daughter relationship, she sent me home with a bag full of Zoloft samples, instructing me to take them. Ever obedient, I did, even though I wasn’t depressed, I was just frustrated, and they made me feel completely out of control. It was dangerous on her part, for there’s nothing wrong with responsibly prescribing an anti-depressant, but I could have and should have told her I didn’t need to be medicated, I needed to be liberated.

I moved up to our family home in Newton, where three of my siblings were living, and started working as a nanny for our dear friends, who had just welcomed twin girls. When I wasn’t changing diapers and pushing the double stroller, I was dropping and picking up the older kids at school, doing the grocery shopping, and cooking dinner. It was a special time, for I loved them all, and while in that domestic role, I could almost picture a similar future for myself.

Then the unthinkable, especially since I was finally on the pill at age 23, and we never took chances after what had happened, but we had another pregnancy scare. My late period was probably just due to my own anxiety around all of it, but for the two weeks I waited, I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t have another abortion, so I resigned myself to the fact I was going to be a mother.

I had it all planned out – I would celebrate one final Christmas with my family, pretending everything was normal, and then cut myself off from them completely. Once again, the shame was so strong, it clouded my thinking, and I assumed they would disown me or want nothing to do with me.

Christmas came early when I finally got my period. The date is marked in my journal with an asterisk, just in case anyone ever found it and read it. Griffin was almost disappointed, and the topic was then prefaced with “someday.” Someday we’ll have a family. I had always loved the name “Fiona” from Brigadoon, but if we had a boy, I wanted to name him Owen, after my great-grandfather.

Griffin ultimately chose heroin instead.

Music from that time reminds me of him the most, Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins album he gave me for Christmas; Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, which I listened to every night when rocking the girls to sleep; and his favorite, The Beatles’ White Album.

I think of Griffin when I hear Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns,” symbolic in so many ways, the religious allusion and the drug metaphor. “He who rides the pony must someday fall.”

Despite his mistreatment of me, my heart still goes out to him. He never had a chance.

A year ago, I found myself whispering my secret in my mother’s driveway to a clergy sex abuse survivor, who has become a trusted friend. Not only did she inspire me with her bravery and honesty, she made me feel safe to speak my truth. My unspoken past is why I’m so committed to my investigation. I know what it’s like to suffer from debilitating shame perpetuated by the Catholic Church. To think that it would be easier if you weren’t here anymore. I didn’t want to die. But I couldn’t live with the shame. 

People have often told me they always thought I had the perfect family, the perfect life. Perfection is an illusion, and it’s a dangerous and unrealistic expectation of human beings. It takes all the joy out of life. I was ready to end mine for that reason alone. 

The more I’ve learned about the crimes that were committed in my own former parish, and others in my hometown, the more I am filled with rage and resentment. To think the Catholic Church views me as the ultimate sinner rather someone who rapes a child would be laughable, if it weren’t so painful, and it’s the first thought that comes to mind on the rare occasions I enter a church. It’s all I could think about as I toured The Vatican, an ostentatious museum full of penis statues, with occasional references to women merely as temptresses, a time-honored tale that began with “evil” Eve.

And to think the Catholic Church would have been responsible for my suicide because of its sanctimonious hypocrisy is criminal.

I’ve struggled for the past year about telling my mother. Part of me wanted to spare her the pain, but at the same time, I didn’t want either of us to leave this Earth without her knowing. I’m angry that I’ve been forced to keep this secret from her, and I want us to have the authentic relationship we were denied. At nearly 85, she is one of the most evolved and accepting people I know. She is more “Christian” than many people who describe themselves as such, despite, or perhaps because of the fact she stopped looking for God in a church years ago. Instead she has found her Higher Power in a 12-step community.

Since the death of Justice Ginsburg, and the insulting “confirmation” of Coney Barrett, I have suffered from what I now realize is PTSD. I have been triggered by the unthinkable cruelty of people who pass judgement from the safe distance of a keyboard, unbothered by the real life repercussions of their words. Or even worse, the people who’ve criticized me to my face without even knowing by expressing their “Pro-Life” views. I’m still terrified of being judged, wondering what people will think when they read this, and I’ve woken my husband on countless nights with my sobbing.

I recently spent some time with my mother’s older brother, helping with errands while his wife was in a rehabilitation facility following a shoulder injury. One day, while doing shopping and laundry, I felt nauseous as I noticed the 8×10 framed photo of Pope John Paul II, the largest on display in the room. Shame immediately washed over me, and I thought about bringing my secret to the grave.

What will they think when they find out?

The thought was immediately replaced with anger. If I had killed myself in 1995, I wouldn’t be here to help them today. I think of the family members I never would have met, if I had died 25 years ago.

Suicide has touched my family profoundly, as it has so many others. It wasn’t until my thirties that I learned my dad’s father, James Francis “Frank” Murphy Sr., my beloved Papa Murphy, lost two older brothers to suicide, and had to identify both bodies. His brother, Willie returned from WWI depressed and traumatized. He was working as a union steward and had been dipping into the union funds. The day before he was set to go before a review board, he jumped off a train into an oncoming train in Watertown. He couldn’t live with the shame.

Six months later, his brother Owen Jr. was found with his head in the oven, and my great-grandmother died soon after, most likely from the emotional toll. It’s impossible to reconcile such tragedy with my Papa, the sweet and gentle man who was always so happy to see me, making me feel special and safe.

Two generations later, our family history repeated, when my father’s sister’s oldest son died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and his younger brother discovered him.

Age and distance had always separated Bob and me. He was one of my cool California cousins, who occasionally came for exciting Cape Cod visits. I finally got to know him when I visited his family in California in 1998, the final stop on my cross-country trip with Damian, who dropped me off at my aunt’s house in Petaluma. I became the shy little kid again when Bob arrived for dinner at his brother Dave’s home in San Francisco, where I was staying.

“Hey, Cousin,” he said, with a twinkle in his brown eyes and a smirk behind his beard. He gave me a big bear hug, and I immediately felt comfortable.

When we got the phone call at my parents’ house in 2009, I could empathize with that feeling of helplessness, thinking you don’t have a choice.

I’d give anything to be able to tell him just how much I understand.

Two weeks ago, my mom and I peacefully “protested” in support of women’s rights, on Main Street in Falmouth, and she held a sign I had hastily made that morning, having no idea just how personal it was.

Three days later, I finally let it out, and cried like the 23-year-old girl who desperately wants to be forgiven.

My mother supports me unconditionally, as she always has.

When I told her what I think is the obvious, that my dad’s sobriety wouldn’t have survived if I had killed myself, she contradicted me, telling me he wouldn’t have survived at all.

It took years after Griffin to trust again, and when I finally did, I told Chris my secret immediately, wanting him to walk away instead of risking his finding out later and changing his opinion of me. Ever since then, he’s also supported everything I do. I feel a combination of gratitude and guilt, for I often think how his life would be different if he had married someone “normal” who could have made him the amazing father he would have been.

He is quick to contradict me too. We chose not to be parents, and he tells me he has no regrets. But I can’t help but wonder, for motherhood isn’t a door you slam shut. It’s a window you peer into occasionally, like passing by a cozy home on a dark night. It’s the tears that come while reading a bedtime story to your nieces and suddenly remembering you are just the aunt, a glorified babysitter. Society is unkind to women who don’t conform, especially those who choose not to have children, and even moreso, married women who make such a choice.

But it’s the women in this secret society who suffer even more, for somehow it’s become okay for everyone to talk about it except us. We’re not even allowed to grieve, for we feel as if it’s our fault.

People who don’t know me, and sadly people who do, believe I’m a “murderer” and a “baby killer.” Someone recently posted a graphic photo accusing Planned Parenthood of selling body parts of babies. Planned Parenthood saved my life, and was the only place where I could obtain the birth control that is every woman’s right. But by then it was too late. I had to get an abortion first.

As I write this on Samhain, and revisit the ghosts of my past, the little girl in me wishes my daddy were here to hold me and tell me it’s okay, and that I’m forgiven.

It’s time for me to forgive myself.

7 thoughts on “Abortion in America: A Woman’s Right

  1. Dear Sarah, your poignant story touched every part of me. Thank you so much for writing beautifully of the unimaginable power of shame. I know it first hand as a clergy sexual abuse survivor, and know the suicidal feelings I felt from the unbearable pain of that shame. I am in awe of your courage writing this in this political climate, even as I thank you a hundred times over. I was lucky to never face the abortion decision myself, but I held the hands of close friends at Boston clinics as the cried quietly, waiting for their names to be called. In the early 70s abortion was still illegal in RI, so it meant a trip to Boston or NY. Sending you love and so much respect for this writing. Ann

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  2. What a beautifully written and heartbreaking account of your experience. You are such a strong and compassionate woman and I am so happy to see that strength and loving compassion turned inward. Hats off to Margaret Ann, although I didn’t doubt her support for a minute. Thank you for your friendship and deep connection. You are making this world a much better place for all women.

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  3. Great courage and honesty is evident in your writing. The truth is what sets us free and transparency gives us that gift. I so admire you for writing about a painful chapter in your life that so many women have faced and continue to do so with such empathy. I’m happy for you. Please continue to write – you do it so well.

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  4. You are inspirational. Thank goodness you are able to finally begin the healing process. It is well-overdue and well-deserved. I am so happy that you have forgiven yourself.

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  5. Thank you for the courage and vulnerability in sharing so eloquently your experience.
    There were so many points to which I could relate. I was particularly struck by two;
    1st- ‘I got into relationships and forfeited my self-esteem’… How spot on! And how many have us done that?
    2nd- ‘I had two options, for I don’t consider them to be choices – suicide or abortion – and I pondered them both’… The differential you note is so important; picking from limited options does not equate to the luxury of choice.
    I have walked your road. I applaud your courage. And yes, please, forgive yourself.
    I believe we all do the best we can, with the tools we have, at any given moment in our life and if we’re lucky we grow and support the growth of others as you have done here.

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  6. What a beautiful and sad story. Planned parenthood has helped a lot of people and it’s sad that so many can’t see this. May you continue the healing process.

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