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As a queer kid, I struggled to understand what choice means. Now, as a parent, I see it as central to ensuring fundamental freedoms for all of us.
My first protest was 18 years ago almost to the day of the leaked Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. On April 25, 2004, I joined fellow college students and one million others in Washington, D.C. for the March for Women’s Lives to call for “abortion rights.” I stood on the National Mall, listening to preeminent matriarchs — Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Smeal — as the first woman in my family in three generations to not have had an abortion.
My grandmother, the daughter of poor immigrants in the Bronx, tried throwing herself down a staircase when she found out she was pregnant at 19, before she was married to my grandfather. When it didn’t work, she was lucky enough to find a doctor who would perform an illegal abortion. My mother got pregnant on birth control — three times. The first time, she was a graduate school student, recently engaged to my father. She was 24 years old and not ready to have a child.
Growing up, Planned Parenthood was ubiquitous in my household. Pro-choice was a non-negotiable stance for my mother in every election. I went to that rally in 2004 because it was my birthright and my responsibility. I intellectually understood the urgency, but if I’m being honest, the calls of my elders did not rouse the same passion I felt for countless other causes.
As we await for news about the potentially shattering defeat for the pro-choice movement, I have been reflecting deeply about that spring day on the Mall. Since 2004, I have made a career of activism, attended countless other marches, and organized with communities across the U.S. and around the world. In doing so, I developed a fervor and deeper understanding of the centrality of reproductive rights and its many intersecting fights. But I have been questioning why at 19, poised for a career in social justice with a family story rooted in a woman’s right to choose, I did not feel the dire need to join this fight head-on. I was the target audience… wasn’t I?
I wasn’t. The idea of children was distant, if not repulsive, to me at the time. As it turns out, so was the idea of sex with men. I was just coming into my body that I was chanting I had the right “to choose” over. But it all felt hypothetical to me. I understood it was about women, but I didn’t feel like one of them. I saw cis, hetero, mostly white women up on the stage talking about their right to choose. I strained to bring the issue back to myself.
Looking back on that queer kid trying to find her place in the world, fighting for abortion was kind of like fighting for airbags in cars when my main mode of transportation was a bicycle. If you’re a car-rider, I would certainly hope you have airbags and that they never deploy. But it did not feel like an imminent question for me. Plus, the idea of having a family was not only out of reach at a time when gay marriage was a distant dream but also not something I thought I wanted.
The choice to become a parent seemed to be a self-imposed burden that makes all other life and functioning difficult. By choosing to become a parent, you agree to be a less productive worker in a society that champions productivity above all. You are choosing to become less valuable because people with uteruses are given the not-so-subtle message that childbearing makes us less appealing and less worthy of the same paychecks as our cis-male counterparts. Increasingly, parents are choosing to make impossible decisions about how to afford childcare, adequate housing, and food on the table all at the same time – even if you are middle class. So, yes, being “pro-choice” seems like the better, intellectual choice, but these are crappy choices. I felt that innately even as a teenager.
Fast forward 16 years to June 2020. I am sitting in my sister-in-law’s kitchen. Her husband starts to open a bag of spinach right behind me, as I nurse a glass of wine. A wave of nausea pours over me with vengeance and speed. The crunching of the bag feels unbearable, and I close my eyes hoping the noise will pass soon and, with it, the intense need to vomit. As it does, I stealthily reach for my phone and quickly google, “Is it possible to feel nauseous one week into pregnancy.” My wife and I had just finished our first round of inseminations, and I had been feeling weird for a few days.
Google quickly informed me that I had no idea how to even count pregnancy weeks. Apparently, the weekly count for pregnancy starts on the first day of your period. One week into pregnancy, you are on your period. You can only get pregnant during ovulation, which is at week three of your cycle. So, no, I could not be nauseous oneweek into pregnancy, but I could be nauseous four weeks into pregnancy. And so I was.
This would be the first of many shocking realizations throughout this nine-plus month process of growing a human and then becoming a parent. Turns out, even the most “well-educated” amongst us do not understand the ins and outs of pregnancy and childbirth. I had no idea how ignorant I was of my own body — of what it meant to conceive of, grow and birth a human. I did not realize the multitude of questions that had gone unasked in my 35 years of life. This information felt so foreign to me that it was as if it had been intentionally withheld. I was taught to be so afraid of sex and pregnancy, that heterosexual sex could ruin my life at any moment if I was not careful enough. But no one really taught me what happened once I did want a pregnancy or child.
After years of searching, reading and conversations, my wife and I had decided that we did, in fact, want to buck the crappy choices and very actively choose to become parents. Because with two uteruses in a partnership, choice is the only way into that endeavor. Gay marriage had been legal since 2015 — and, with it, the right for us to have the family only our wildest imaginations could ever have allowed ourselves to conjure.
I would not be able to verify my pregnancy with a home test for another week and a half, at five and a half weeks. At six weeks, the only thing viable was my unremitting nausea, yet bills that would insist otherwise were sitting in the legislatures of a handful of states. That rage that I had been searching for since 2004 kindled inside of me. No doctor would see me to confirm a heartbeat until at least eight weeks because, I learned, they are undetectable before that. And this thing growing inside of me is not medically considered a fetus until 10 weeks. Nine months later, the Texas Heartbeat Bill, SB8, was introduced in the state legislature, banning abortions after six weeks. And just a few days after that, my son was born. It all feels so obvious now — what my foremothers were talking about.
I feel shame that I never viscerally understood what was at stake until I went through it. But it is also clear to me that it was by design. Even the most well-educated of women are kept alienated from our bodies. Choice is what one gets when we have privilege. The framing has been all off.
As a friend of mine recently said, “The left organizes around preferences rather than self-interests.” We make great intellectual arguments, but we very often fail to connect them to our daily lives in a way that pulls on our heartstrings and helps us see issues like abortion as the matters of life and death that they are.
Parenthood has brought me more joy and fullness than I ever thought possible. We named our baby “Adi,” which means “wished for” child. The overturning of Roewould not only affect me and millions of other people’s ability to intentionally and actively choose this joy — it would fundamentally shake the legal foundations on which I have been able to build my family. The 2015 Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges legalized gay marriage, based on the precedent Roe v. Wade set on the right to privacy. Turns out, once we lose the right to choose pregnancy, we also potentially lose the right to who we marry, who we sleep with, whether or not we can take birth control. This issue has always been much more far reaching than uteruses.
Perhaps we can stave off the worst case scenario of this Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe completely with enough mobilization. But some degree of loss feels inevitable, and there are myriad reasons why. For example, the movement has focused more on legislative wins than winning the culture war (prioritizing the inside versus outside game), and national organizing led by predominantly white women did not invest enough in Black women leadership on the frontlines. Perhaps most critically, however, we did not create a movement that reflected the intersection of people this issue impacts. I should have felt a part of this movement since 2004. I have not.
I hope this moment will be the one where we finally redraw the lines in this fight. To me, this is about building a multiracial democracy where people are free to be themselves, free to step outside the bounds of what we’ve been told “family” can and should look like. Where we value access to healthcare more than access to guns. Where we understand this to be not just one crappy choice in one desperate moment, but about giving us better choices across the board.
This is about affordable housing and access to public education and childcare that won’t bankrupt us. This is about bodily autonomy for everyone, not just straight women; about men getting the same amount of parental leave as their birthing partners so they, too, can bond with their children in critical ways and more equally share in the parenting; about the LGBTQ+ community having access to gender-affirming treatments and upholding their right to marriage; about young people getting comprehensive sex education so they can know their bodies and make more informed decisions about what they want for their futures.
As we stare into a post-Roe future, we need to recognize the intersections: access to this medical procedure is more than an “airbag” we hope to never deploy — it’s critical to ensuring the most fundamental of freedoms for the majority of Americans.
In mid-May, I marched across the Brooklyn Bridge with tens of thousands of others in New York and around the country for the Bans Off Our Bodies protests. This demonstration felt different. I saw queer kids, men of all ages and families joining the fight. We have more access to information about our bodies. We have so much more language now about what choice really means — no forced pregnancies, no forced births. We’re getting there. Fellow marchers seemed to understand that abortion is not just an airbag — it’s a safety net for all of us. My 19-year-old self would have felt the communion and the centrality of the moment.
Erin Mazursky is the founder of Rhize, a global network that trains and supports the next generation of activists building today’s most critical social movements. She has traveled the world supporting social justice activists in over 15 countries fighting for everything from women’s rights to climate justice to democracy
First published in Waging Non-Violence. Included in Vox Populi with permission.