After the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the subject of this week’s column changed her mind about sharing her identity. The abortion she had 23 years ago is something she made peace with almost immediately. Now 45, she has discussed it in the past but feels her decades-old decision is under the microscope today with a different type of lens.
It isn’t regret she’s experiencing, but fear of judgment that could impact her professional life and future opportunities. After agreeing to take our conversation in another direction, “Sharon,” as we’ll call her, enlightened me about a new strain of old-fashioned shaming surrounding the overall concept and act of abortion.
Sharon’s outlook changes twice a month when she’s a phone volunteer for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Growing up as a roving military brat in a large family, she is especially interested in the Department of Defense Safe Helpline, a service for members of the U.S. military and their families, operated by RAINN. Here, she talks freely about the abuse she saw other children endure and is able to relate to young women, many still newlyweds who are without family roots or the support of friends.
“These military wives and daughters are some of the last to come forward about rape so it continues like a tradition on some bases,” Sharon said. “Over the past three years, I’ve talked to two different women, strangers to each other, who reported being assaulted by the same senior ranking officer. One of them told her husband, who begged her to keep it a secret for fear of retribution. The other poor woman never told her husband, thinking even he wouldn’t believe her.”
Bound by confidentiality and policy, Sharon is unable to identify the officer or share more information. She said she hopes the top brass at RAINN is able to do something about the repeat offender.
Sharon’s latest fear is that abortion will become (or already is) illegal in states where much of the U.S. military is based. Discussion of a possible abortion accompanied by mental health therapy is a common topic of hope in many conversations involving pregnancy. Taking that option away is a devastating prospect.
“Most of these sexually abused women are trapped,” she said. “There’s training for experienced volunteers coming up soon about what to say and how to handle things when abortion is illegal in a place where the call stems from. This is important work for me to do, but I am going to feel as helpless as they do.”
Sharon’s own abortion took place at a time when things were going well in her life. She had just finished her first semester of student teaching and was dating a man who wasn’t sure he wanted children. Her mother had Sharon’s oldest brother at 18 and as far as Sharon could tell, never really lived her own life. And, the decision not to have the child made sense as a woman’s personal right. The then-boyfriend was supportive in all phases of the abortion, driving her to the appointment, taking care of her after, and planning a trip for the following holiday.
With a strong mind and clear conscience, Sharon was offered three teaching jobs at the end of the school year and her then-boyfriend proposed marriage a year later. After a month-long girls’ camping trip, she accepted and they have been married for 19 years. They also have two children.
“None of that would have happened if I had a baby neither of us wanted or could support,” she said. “Even if I gave it up for adoption, the opportunity to teach where I am would have been lost and who knows where ‘Jeff’ and I would be now. It was my right to make that choice. It may not be everyone’s choice and really, I won’t act like this is an easy thing to decide.”
In today’s politically charged world, Sharon believes things are markedly different. What was once a personal choice and decision is no longer seen that way by many. She is afraid not only for the RAINN victims but for “everyday women living an everyday life.” She wouldn’t be an effective volunteer without her own experiences, she said, and is worried about the shame and stigma all caring women will collectively feel.
After ending our conversation with an air hug, Sharon looked back at me.
“Tell them to point the microscope somewhere where it will do good for the world our kids are looking forward to,” she said. “That’s everyone’s business and an easy choice.”
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at email@example.com.