Fighting at Fifty: Abortion in America

By Sarah E. Murphy

I was born in 1972, one year before Roe v. Wade, when abortion in America was illegal.

I never imagined I’d spend sleepless nights at age fifty worrying about my nieces’ reproductive freedom. But then again, I never imagined I’d need an abortion.

When I celebrated my milestone birthday last March, I was filled with gratitude for what I now view as a gift given to me at age twenty-three.

My abortion allowed me a second chance, the opportunity to live the life of my choosing. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be, but I do know I wouldn’t be writing this today.

I’ve spent several days over the past year attending rallies on the Village Green in my hometown of Falmouth, Massachusetts in support of reproductive freedom, beginning on January 22, the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I joined the small, hardy group that was undeterred by the “invigorating” New England weather.

As I found a spot behind the fence, I found myself among kindred spirits. Some were there for personal reasons, others to support those of us who have been hiding in the shadows of shame.

Some in attendance broke the law decades ago by seeking abortions, while others are considered criminals for assisting friends and loved ones.

I was one of the few, perhaps only women representing the Roe Era.

When I lost control over what was happening to my body, I had the safe, legal option to choose the outcome. I’ve never taken that for granted.

It felt as if I had been invited to a celebration for an old friend, who was there for me at my lowest, and I could finally join the party.

Since telling my “dirty secret” two years ago, right before the 2020 Presidential election, I’ve been freed of that overwhelming shame I harbored due to the patriarchy, misogyny, hypocrisy, and gas lighting of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was my third time standing out in Falmouth for abortion rights, but my first in that very prominent spot in our town, making it feel even more significant.

We wore green, in solidarity with the Marea Verde, the Green Wave representing the activists and organizations fighting to expand and decriminalize abortion access in Latin America.

Penny Duby of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition, one of the organizers of the event, presented us with green ribbons for makeshift armbands. She also gave me a pin, which I proudly fastened prominently on my green winter coat: Someone You Love Has Had An Abortion.

Penny Duby of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition

The event was bittersweet, like celebrating someone in hospice care, for those of us paying attention to this issue knew the overturning of Roe was most likely imminent.

One of the first people I spotted was State Representative Susan Moran (D-Falmouth). She wasn’t there for a photo opportunity, but rather, because she believes reproductive justice is a human right, not a political issue to be weaponized.

I first met Su over a decade ago, when I did publicity for West Falmouth Library, where she volunteered her time as a board member. I saw firsthand her commitment to her community. I consider myself lucky to call her a friend, and I’m equally lucky to be a constituent, as she vows to continue fighting for reproductive rights.

I introduced myself to the woman next to me, Jill Heine, an international human rights lawyer from Cotuit. She believes abortion is fundamental to women’s health care.

“I’ve worked in countries all over the world, and I never thought I’d be fighting for this in the United States,” she said.

I noticed a woman carrying a neon green sign that read, “I Love Someone Who Has Had An Abortion.” After she gave me permission to take her photo, she offered the context.

Jen F. had traveled from another town on Cape Cod because she felt compelled to be there.

“I carry this sign for myself. I had one,” she said. “I was raped by someone I knew.”

I hugged her, offering my respect for her bravery and candor. People like Jen aren’t statistics, they’re human beings – your friends, family, and co-workers. They shouldn’t be the ones fighting today.

In early May, after the Supreme Court leak, a group gathered again, including Congressman Bill Keating, who has fought for reproductive rights throughout his career, to protect and expand abortion access in Massachusetts.

America will never be free or brave without this fundamental human right, and a nation of forced birth can never call itself civilized.

As plans were being made for a May 14 Bans Off Our Bodies Rally, Penny Duby asked me to publicly share my story. I hesitated at first, but I knew I needed to step outside my comfort zone. I spent so many years in silence that I refuse to be ever be shamed into submission again.

For twenty-five years, I assumed I’d take my secret to the grave. Little did I know, one day I’d end up yelling it into a microphone on my town green. I was overcome by the amount of support I received, including that from my sister, Courtney, who was front and center, filming my speech. Undoubtedly, she and the rest of my family would have been there for me when I was 23 and terrified, but I was too ashamed to ask for their help.

I finally got the opportunity that day to meet Jennifer Longval, a nurse and abortion care provider at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. She contacted me when I first shared my story on Facebook two years ago and a self-proclaimed church-goer lectured me for doing so.

Jennifer is like the woman who was there for me at Planned Parenthood in Providence in 1995, before and after my procedure. Her kindness is one of the only things I remember from that late April morning. She comforted me when I fell asleep, explaining everything to me, and she was there when I woke up, feeling ashamed and disgusted with myself, but so grateful for her presence.

Jennifer is a source of non-judgemental comfort and wisdom to women and people in all stages of family planning. She understands that the decision if or when to become a parent is a personal choice. She’s also there for those who face traumatic and excruciatingly painful decisions when the life of the mother and/or the baby are at risk. They too are not statistics in a political game. These are real-life scenarios, not water cooler sound bites to hurl around social media like proverbial stones.

Donna Buckley, candidate for Barnstable County Sherriff, pledged her support to fight for reproductive freedom, underscoring the importance of voting in every race, from school board to President.

The hatred and ignorance that has taken over our country is emboldened at every level, including a Blue state like ours. As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local,” and complacency is what got us here in the first place.

A few days later, I took another step, when I agreed to share my story on WCAI, the local NPR (National Public Radio) station. I reiterated what I’m now able to say without hesitation: I’m grateful every day that I had an abortion.

When the Dobbs decision came down about a month later, I was contacted by WCAI and the Cape Cod Times for my perspective, and although I wasn’t surprised by the news, it was still impossible to believe, and I was too furious to articulate a worthwhile response. What could I possibly add to the conversation? I’m not the face or the voice of abortion; I’m just one more person who is much more than a statistic.

We gathered, once again, on June 25, the day after Dobbs, an otherwise flawless summer afternoon.

Many of the same faces and the same signs, and also many men.

We were also joined by the ones we’re fighting for.

The event also garnered support from clergy members, both male and female, representing various churches on Cape Cod, not including Catholic.

Rob Galibois, the Democratic candidate for Cape and Islands District Attorney, pledged his support, not only to protect abortion rights but also the rights of healthcare providers.

And on July 4, when my husband, Chris, and I didn’t feel like celebrating our nation’s birth, we recognized the holiday in a different way.

Organized by Finley Lennon and Gracie Howes, the event was held in support of the Green Wave.

It was also hosted as a reminder that reproductive rights belong to all people who can get pregnant, not just women.

I recently returned from Italy, just in time to gather once more on the Village Green. As I sat in Lisbon airport, non-religiously praying my flight delay would be brief and I wouldn’t miss the event, I couldn’t help but feel resentful to be rushing home jet-lagged to this archaic fight.

After two and a half weeks feeling empowered to be a solo female traveler, I was reminded that in my own country, women have always been oppressed by men. My nieces may be able to travel the world but will they be able to exercise their reproductive rights?

The next day, I found myself back on Main Street, USA.

The same people, fighting not for ourselves but for our future.  

It had been my first visit to Rome in three years.  The last time I wandered around the capitol of Catholicism, I was still hiding from my past. Although I had just shared my long-buried secret with a dear friend, it would be another year before I finally shed that unnecessary burden by publicly stating those four words: I had an abortion.

Deep down, I still felt like a dirty sinner, the ultimate disappointment.

Today, I’m no longer ashamed. Instead I’m proud of the life and career I’ve built, and the people I’ve hopefully helped along the way. None of it would be possible without reproductive freedom. I’ll never stop fighting for everyone to have that same right.

To quote “This Is The Sea,” one of my favorite songs by The Waterboys, from the album of the name name, “Once you were tethered. Now you are free.”

Abortion is Health Care. It’s about people, not politics, including the ones you love. Vote Blue.

St. Peter’s Square, 2022

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