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On Sunday, I'll Be at the Abortion Speak Out in New York City

RiseUp is calling on all women to come, speak out, and help build for mass protests on March 8.

Phyllis Chesler
Phyllis Chesler

I had my first abortion in 1959—sixty-three years ago. Of course, it was “illegal” and, as such, made me feel like a criminal and filled me with terror and shame. I thought the procedure would either kill me, hurt like Hell (it did), or that I’d be arrested and jailed. Whatever happened, my life—or my life as I knew it—would be over or ruined. I was nineteen years old and in my second year of college. I had finals to take. I had to do well or I’d lose my scholarship.

Someone told me about the late, great Dr. Robert Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania. He was a principled abortion doctor in terrible times and thus, was always suddenly leaving town, one step ahead of the law. When I got there for my appointment he was gone, gone, gone. I sat on a swing at a nearby playground, lost and lonely.

Of course, I found someone else, a man who may not even have been a doctor, but whose office was near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No anesthesia. Was this my punishment for having had sex—or was it simply cheaper and faster? No matter. I rushed back to school, took my test, carried on with my life.

I had absolutely no regrets. I was enormously relieved. From time to time, but very infrequently, I realize that by now, I could have had a 62-year-old child, be living a lesser life somewhere in poverty, and probably could never have helped lead a movement for women’s rights, and definitely never written any of my books.

I was a “good girl.” Therefore, I had to marry the first man with whom I had sex.

My second abortion took place in early 1962 and was courtesy of the very same man who was, by then, my husband. He wanted to make sure I could not escape from Kabul, Afghanistan, and so, even though I was bed-ridden and jaundiced with hepatitis, he kept trying to impregnate me. Luckily, I got out before I knew that I was pregnant. Had my husband known, I would never have been allowed to leave. I would probably have died there. Medical care was at best sub-standard and my health had already failed.

When I returned to America, my doctor said that I was too ill to carry a child and my mother found a doctor, a sadist really, who, very painfully, induced a miscarriage. As I was having this miscarriage at home, my mother refused to even give me an aspirin for fear that it might delay the process or somehow hurt me.

By 1968, my dear friend Barbara Joans and I were helping women obtain “illegal” abortions in New York City. Mainly, we referred them on. And, by 1970, I was marching, marching, for women’s rights. I signed letters and petitions, attended conferences and meetings, co-founded organizations, delivered keynote addresses at radical feminist Speak Outs, and at professional associations, too.

I find it unbelievable, actually surreal, that we are now looking at slave states and free states; that we still have to keep fighting for this basic, precious right, for the right not to bear babies against our will, not even if we’re the victims of rape or incest, or because we cannot feed the children we already have. Not even if we’re too young and have no family or community support.

Being told that we can have the baby adopted turns us into “surrogate” mothers, again, against our will. And, being told that adoption is an option—the person who says this has never looked at the psychiatric statistics or heard the stories of adoptions gone wrong.

Perhaps all the love and money in the world cannot compensate for the trauma of being separated from one’s birthmother. Perhaps most birthmothers who give up children are haunted forever after by this same separation. These are all politically incorrect ideas. I favor adoption over and above warehousing children whose fathers, as well as mothers, have failed them. But let’s not have too rosy a picture about adoption as an easy, happy alternative to abortion.

I am thrilled that RiseUp4Abortion Rights will be holding a Speak Out on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 27th, at 1:30pm, in New York City, just as “mass lets out.”

In 1989, thirty-three years ago, I was right there together with my then eleven-year-old son, and stood with my good friend, Merle Hoffman and her giant coat hanger. She’ll be there again on February 27th—and so will the hanger. (In the past, desperate women tried to abort using hangers. Many died.)

RiseUp is calling on “all women who suffered before abortion was legalized along with their daughters, granddaughters, partners, and all who care” to come, speak out, and help “build for mass protests on March 8, International Women’s Day @ 3pm in Union Square in New York City.”

When Second Wave feminists marched for women’s reproductive rights we were focused on this single right and did not often bring in other burning issues. The current organizers do just that. Some of their language is very politically correct. For example, the materials tell us:

“The attack on abortion rights is part of a patriarchal Christian fascist program that takes aim at contraception as well as LGTQ rights. Denying the right to abortion hits poor women, and especially Black women and other women of color, with vicious consequences—tightening the chains of both white supremacy and the subjugation of women.”

Poor women and women of color—yes; but I’m not sure how denying abortions directly affects gay men or transgender women (male to female). Maybe this kind of signage is meant to draw in larger numbers—to indicate inclusivity, intersectionality. But gay men, as a group, have not “been there” for women with breast or ovarian cancer, or for women seeking abortions in the same way that lesbians, who are, after all, women, have been “there” for gay men suffering from AIDS.

However, the Speak Out material is also very educational and points out that “forced motherhood is female enslavement;” that “the violent subjugation of half of society must not be accommodated…it MUST BE STOPPED;” that “our only way forward… is to resist… and fill the streets with our fury… Rising up with courage and conviction to defeat this assault while bringing closer a future where women and all people are free.”

Yes, all people should be free but only biological women get pregnant and may need abortions.

Still, I am very glad that such demonstrations have been planned. I hope there are many more. I hope this becomes a mass movement. Only if we fill the streets continuously a la Black Lives Matter (without the antifa and/or criminal violence) will we actually be “seen.”

But this will not be enough.

I hope that this inspired movement or moment does not stop here or remain at the level of performance politics. I am sure that the organizers know that we also need permanent, perhaps eternal legislative lobbying. Clearly, we can take nothing for granted and may have to fight the same fight again and again. We need to vote pro-abortion candidates in and anti-abortion candidates out. God knows, judges, too. We also need theological movements that are pro-choice. All this requires money. Lots of it.

We need to take back the narrative that has turned a woman’s choice about control of her body into a demon’s murderous decision.

As my friend, the late Flo Kennedy said: “If men needed abortions they would have turned it into a sacrament.”


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Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology, the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness (1972), An American Bride in Kabul, and Requiem For a Female Serial Killer (2020).