Out of the Shadows: Abortion in America

By Sarah E. Murphy

It’s been just over a year since I stopped hiding. Since I said, and wrote, the words that have always been barely beneath the surface.

I had an abortion.

My decision to speak out right before the 2020 Presidential election was years in the making. Twenty-five, to be exact. A physical decision as much as an emotional one. My mind and body would no longer allow me to stay silent. And why should I?

When I published my essay on my blog, sharing what I had been too ashamed to tell the people closest to me, I braced for the public backlash. Or, more accurately, the whiplash, for I silently relive that experience every time I read a headline or social media post “debating” this fundamental human right.

There’s an expression that no one can make you feel anything without your permission, however I disagree. Although well-intentioned, it’s also  dismissive and invalidates the debilitating power of shame.

I knew I was probably making a big mistake when I also decided to post my story on one of our local Facebook discussion pages. My intent wasn’t to shock, seek attention, or push political beliefs. My hope was to illustrate that you never know what others are capable of hiding. That people are more than statistics.

As another expression goes, someone you love has had an abortion.

Regardless of your politics or religion, which often go hand in hand in the United States, someone in your life has been forced to make this painful decision. I assure you.

During my reporting career, I wrote about the life-saving work of the Samaritans on Cape Cod, which I shared widely on social media as a potential resource for individuals suffering from depression. But when I shared my own story on a public page, I was criticized and chastised by some who saw me as a modern day Hester Prynne, unworthy of any sympathy.

That’s because my trauma involves abortion. Or to borrow from Layne Staley’s Gibran inspired lyrics, my pain is self-chosen. At least in some people’s eyes.

Their reactions are the answer to the question I get all the time now.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

The predictable comments came in seconds after I posted the link containing the dreaded Scarlet “A,” so they hadn’t even read the article, they were merely triggered by the word.

The one I viewed as sinful and dirty. A word that had become a reflection of myself.

After all, it was my own fault, right? I was careless and stupid enough to get pregnant, so why shouldn’t I pay the price for the rest of my life? It didn’t matter that I was set up to fail by the Catholic Church, where I learned as a little girl that sex is a sin, unless it’s for procreation, and birth control is outlawed. Women were an afterthought. Madonna or whore. The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. The mother of Jesus or his charity case, the prostitute.

But that was irrelevant. I never should have let it happen in the first place.

God punished you. You made your bed, so lie in it.

There was an angry-looking guy with an Irish last name. He was from Sandwich, not even Falmouth, but the “A” word got his attention. “Let’s see a sunset picture instead,” he wrote. “No one wants to hear about your past mistakes.”

Then a younger guy who looked to be in his 30s, who worked with a classmate at a local restaurant.

“That’s great but I don’t want to pay for it,” he chimed in, the one in the bar always trying to get a laugh.

Then a woman who affiliates herself with a popular Falmouth church that prides itself on being a “welcoming” environment.

“I didn’t join this page to hear about abortion,” she scolded.

When, against my better judgement, I decided to push back by informing her I merely thought my story might help someone else suffering from hidden trauma, she reiterated her point. In essence, the age-old dismissive shamer.

This isn’t the time or place.

So then, what is the time, and where is the place, to talk openly about mental health, depression, and suicide prevention? Major events, like an unplanned pregnancy, can forever change the trajectory of one’s life, but in particular, the person who becomes pregnant.

The connection between reproductive rights and mental health can’t be overstated, and it should no longer be ignored.

I’ve read, and shared, countless news stories on local Facebook pages, in addition to my own page, to help others  – Cape Codders struggling with financial challenges, health issues, alcoholism and substance abuse, just to name a few. Many of which I wrote as a reporter during my twelve-year career for Wicked Local. Part of my mission as a writer and storyteller is to show people  they’re not alone.

If I had given into my initial suicidal thoughts as a terrified young woman, before my two closest friends helped me access a safe and legal abortion, I wouldn’t have been here to tell those important stories, not to mention my work over the past three years advocating for sex abuse survivors.

Or if I had chosen to have a child with my partner, a heroin addict, I most likely would have ended up with the same habit, or dead as a result. I loved him more than I loved myself, and I would have done anything to make it work if a child were involved.

He inadvertently gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life when he chose heroin over me.

My abortion, and his rejection, gave me a second chance at life.

After all these years, I’ve never experienced a panic or anxiety attack, to my knowledge, but I became nauseous and lightheaded as my heart began echoing outside my chest.

I respect the admininstator of the Facebook page, who chose not to delete my post, but instead had the sensitivity to turn off the comments when similar criticisms came in and it became evident where the dialogue was headed.

But while the first inclination for some was to judge or berate, they were vastly outnumbered by those offering support and even admiration. Some even kindly said that by sharing my experience, I was possibly saving a life. That was exactly why I had posted it.

A few days later, on November 7, a Saturday, the election was finally called for Joe Biden. After living in what has become an unapologetically misogynistic society, I felt a wave of calm, poised for a sea change.

Later that afternoon, I headed to one of my sacred spots in Falmouth Heights to catch the sunset, for like Frank Lloyd Wright, nature is my religion.

I’ve witnessed countless jaw-dropping scenes in my hometown, but this one was special. Maybe because there was a collective serenity amid the small crowd waiting for the day’s curtain call. Salmon, lavender, and tangerine, no filter needed. “After the flood, all the colors came out.”

Each vivid shade offering the promise of change.

I then drove “around the hill,” as we always used to say in my family. Down past the ballpark and the Heights beach, Vineyard Sound hugging my right, heading to East Falmouth to pick up takeout at our favorite burrito place. Fading pastels danced in my rear view mirror as I crossed the Maravista bridge, and I was at peace.

The feeling was shattered shortly after I got home. As I glanced at my Facebook feed, a post by a friend jumped out at me, one word in particular.

I don’t know if he was drunk, or just pissed off about the election, or both, but he missed the irony by announcing, whether his words or a copied post, that his party would accept the results like adults without resorting to behavior such as labeling Biden supporters “babykillers,” or something to that effect. (His statement really didn’t age well considering the deadly insurrection that occurred eight weeks later.)

Just a few days prior, I had shared the most personal story I’ve ever written, in which I described the unfathomable cruelty of that word, one I had never seen him use until that moment. I always kept our political differences out of our interactions because I really liked him, which is why it was even more painful.

Thumbs up and heart emojis appeared instantly, along with enthusiastic words of approval from many familiar faces – people I’ve worked with in the community, siblings of friends, even one of my CCD teachers – but no surprise there.

That familiar tide of shame washed over me.

“Maybe he wasn’t talking specifically about you,” my husband, Chris, said gently, lifting me up off the kitchen floor where I was sobbing.

I practically screamed at him through my tears that every time someone uses that word, no matter who they are, they’re talking about me, or people just like me.

And every time I see or hear that word, I relive the most shameful experience of my life.

I never ended up eating that night.

I’m not looking for sympathy, or trying to shame others as I have been. I just want people to stop shaming us. To think before they judge.

Sticks and stones break bones, but words seep into marrow.

People can indeed make you feel without your allowance, but since speaking my truth and reclaiming my story, I’m healing and growing. I’m learning not to let their words define me.

Since sharing my story, or “coming out,” as a lesbian friend described, I’ve also experienced profound human kindness, often from the most unexpected places, particularly from strangers.

I’ve received countless messages from women who were compelled to share their experience with me, both publicly and privately, some who had never spoken or written the words. Many are still harboring this secret from their partners, spouses, and families. We are forever bound by trust, compassion, and respect.

Revisiting my past has not only been cathartic but also empowering. I got in my car on April 26, an unseasonably balmy day last spring, and drove to Planned Parenthood in Providence. I practically crawled in on that day in 1995, blinded by sunlight, reeling from morning sickness, shame, and guilt. Twenty-six years later, walking into the prison-like facade, enclosed by a fence for safety, I was overcome with gratitude.

As a now 49-year old woman, I felt proud of the writing career I’ve built, which has brought me from Falmouth to the Vatican, and the people I’ve helped with my words.

Others throw around the the self-righteous term “pro-life,” implying the rest of us are “pro-death.” Grafifti was scribbled on a sign outside as a reminder.

“Please don’t kill me, Mommy.” In actuality, it’s impossible to calculate how many lives Planned Parenthood has saved. I’m just one.

I’ve also found a community of support at Recovery Without Walls, where I was invited last spring by my friend, Bill Dougherty, to participate in a weekly acupuncture and meditation group with women in recovery. Acupuncturist Arlene Myers Alexander, a new and cherished friend, incorporates cellular healing meditation as a tool to help manage the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response with emotions such as shame, fear, anxiety, and depression.

There I’ve forged profound connections with inspiring women, all recovering from something. They make feel pride instead of shame. There I’m not afraid to be myself. It’s a place where I’m safe to be vulnerable.

I’ve also been touched by the vocal support and validation from the men in my life, old friends and new, publicly and privately. It’s hard to convey what it means, for, in my experience, men are the loudest voices controlling this narrative, lawmakers aside.

But as I’ve learned from my dear friend Steve Bird, a sex abuse survivor and advocate I’ve worked with for the past three years, no one’s trauma is any less valid. That includes mine.

This past October, my mother and I stood out once again in front of Peg Noonan Park in Falmouth for reproductive rights, but that morning I also joined a group at the Mashpee rotary. This time was different from 2020, when I stood alongside others in Falmouth Village. This time, my sign said it all.

My abortion saved my life.

Any qualms I had about those unequivocal words were put to rest when I met Ann Shea of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition, who embraced me and asked to take my photo. She and Penelope Duby of UCWC have become part of my new support system, while also inspiring me.

I was then approached by a man who appeared to be in his 80s, who squinted his eyes to read my sign.

I tensed up for a second, until he lifted his cane and bowed his head in a gesture of respect.

“I admire you. You are very brave,” he said.

My eyes filled with tears, thinking he was about the same age as my father would be. One of my closest friends, he never knew my hidden pain. I almost told him once but I was too ashamed. Afraid it would change the way he viewed me. I knew deep, deep down, then and now, that wasn’t the case, that he would still love me unconditionally, but shame is overpowering and undermining.

Photo by Ann Shea

I recently watched the Netflix miniseries, MAID, based on the 2019 memoir by Stephanie Land. I could relate so well to the main character, and I got a glimpse of what my future might have been. Alex is in her mid twenties, a single mother of a toddler, and an aspiring writer. Her college plans, and a creative writing scholarship, are put aside as she attempts to leave an abusive relationship while navigating government assistance and cleaning houses.

Making enough money to survive while not making too much to render her ineligible for assistance is a full-time job. One of the most important topics the series addresses is emotional abuse, and how it is just as debilitating as physical violence. The fact that the father of her child didn’t hit her proves to be a strike against her, for although the American social justice system views emotional abuse (and financial abuse) as a form of domestic violence, the legal system doesn’t.

Words and fists are both used to oppress, which the show powerfully illustrates. I know what it’s like to lose all belief in yourself only to believe a false narrative created by a gaslighter. Sometimes I still hear his voice in my head: “Crazy. Psycho. Paranoid.”

Additionally, it shows that poverty, generational trauma, untreated mental illness and substance abuse are all part of the same vicious cycle.

Margaret Qualley and her real life mother, Andie MacDowell, both give stunning performances. I cried long buried tears for Alex, and I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her tightly, telling her she’s smart, worthy, and capable of so many things.

The holidays can be bittersweet. If I had decided to become a mother, I would have given birth on or around Christmas. I’ve always found New Year’s Eve to be melancholic and anti-climactic, like life itself. Too much pressure for perfection.

This year I was lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with Kelly, who, along with Damian, saved my life by simply being there, without judgement.

Some of my happiest Christmas memories involve both of them, including the night I had too many cocktails before Midnight Mass and inadvertently started saying Mass along with the priest. Memories made between Sunset Strip in Mashpee and Worcester Court in Falmouth Heights.

Parenthood wasn’t my journey, but it ended up being theirs, and watching them both perform that role fills me with emotion. They and their spouses have created beautiful families that give me hope for our future.

Instead of pondering the past on New Year’s Eve, Chris and I celebrated what’s to come, watching the sky over MacMillan Pier in Provincetown ablaze with fireworks. A Cape Cod community where freedom of identity is not only accepted, it’s expected.

I’m excited for the future, both personally and professionally. I’ve learned so much about myself since honoring my past. I now know that I’m not any less a woman because I didn’t have children. I’m not a failure, or a sinner. I’m not a criminal.

Most importantly, I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

2 thoughts on “Out of the Shadows: Abortion in America

  1. Sarah, I am always inspired by your writing- you certainly have a gift. Maybe some of that comes from dad and your mom.
    You should be so proud of your decision.


  2. You are as the 80 year old gentleman declared “you are brave.” Not only brave but a truth-teller above all. Your words are an inspiration and thank you for your courage and brilliant writing. Happy New Year and for those to come.


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