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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Fifty Years and Now This?


We all knew the Supreme Court decision was coming from male judges and one female monolithic handmaiden, who like the men desired to overturn Roe. I will not add to what is being said and written, except to suggest the article I cite at the end. Yet I would like to relate a few memories that arose yesterday. Also, I've been rereading Lincoln in the Bardo for a discussion with students on Thursday. How appropriate this novel has felt for so much happening of late.

The past two days I've thought of pre-Roe years and the time before birth control pills. One leaky rubber could mean getting pregnant, as occurred to someone I knew in college. In the mid 1960s she ended up in Tijuana, lurking in alleyways to meet what she hoped was a medical doctor who did abortions. She eventually married but could not conceive for reasons related to that night in Tijuana. Years later, thanks to an understanding medical doctor, this acquaintance underwent a procedure that corrected her problem, which the illegal abortion caused; and she gave birth to children she very much wanted.

In my years of teaching high school in the Napa Valley and, as the youngest woman on the faculty, girls came to me on several occasions and sought advice. I speak of students and friends of students who thought they might be pregnant and could not tell their parents. I was able to advise them to go to Planned Parenthood: first to determine if they were pregnant, and second to learn what choices they had. At that time, before the Roe victory, California was allowing therapeutic abortions in cases that warranted them, such as incest, rape, and other circumstances. The state allowed, in other words, exactly what some states now will disallow after the Supreme Court's decision this week. Imagine giving birth to a child if the father was a rapist? And will states disallow termination of a pregnancy that medically reveals a condition such as Down's syndrome?

When I had a second child in 1976, a woman in the maternity ward had given birth to a severely brain-damaged baby. A phone on a wall directly outside the ward meant I overheard her conversations, anguished ones, over the decision that had to be made. The baby would not live without an operation to close the hole in its heart. At that time, she and her husband had a say in the decision. In years to come this woman would have known early in the pregnancy that an abnormality existed, and she could have had a D & C. Is that procedure to be eliminated in states that limit abortion?

I thought a lot yesterday about my time in Venezuela, where for several years I handled charity work for the U.S. embassy. A desperate nun came to the embassy one day to seek funding. She was the director of a home for unwed girls that housed fifty to sixty mothers and their babies. All the girls, the nun told me, had been impregnated by fathers, uncles, brothers, and neighbors, old and young. The home provided training for these young girls with the idea of helping them further their education and gain skills by which they could earn a living. What they didn't need was another child. This spunky nun told me that I could talk to them about how to avoid pregnancy because she was forbidden to do this. It's not as if birth control pills were available in the walk-in pharmacies in Venezuela. And abortion was illegal, obviously. We did help fund the nun's large program; and I devised a class I gave several times, woefully inadequate to the task, though I distributed apples which the girls cut in a new direction to discover a star instead of a dubious core. But think about being born poor and female! A double fate at its core in a country like Venezuela.

And how is this paradoxical? Latin American countries like Colombia, Argentina, and seven states in Mexico have legalized abortion. At the same time, abortion will no longer be available in many states in our country.

Do read Maureen Dowd's opinion piece in the New York Times, June 25, 2022: "The Radical Reign of Clarence Thomas."

Next week: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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