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Ezekiel and the Pride Bear

My Turn on Oprah
by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Perhaps the oddest place I ever found myself was seated in the back of a stretch limo in Chicago in 1986, riding along with the head of the National Right to Life Foundation and a teenager and her mother, who opposed parental consent laws for abortion.

The mother and daughter were in the midst of suing a Planned Parenthood clinic in Ohio for allowing the girl to have an abortion although she was underage, in essence challenging the state's lack of a parental consent law for abortion. I was going on Oprah with (or, more aptly, against) these three, because I had had an abortion as a teenager and was opposed to parental consent laws for abortion. My own mother was flying in that morning from Philadelphia, having attended a National Abortion Rights Action League dinner the night before with Kate Michaelman, the head of that organization. Kate was also appearing on the program. As we rode through downtown Chicago, Fay __ smiled pleasantly and made small talk: "I feel sorry for Sarah," she remarked, "because the audience is going to side against her."

She was halfway right. Half of the audience-plants from the anti-choice side-was outraged by my actions and beliefs. The rest of the audience was devoutly pro-choice.

In 1986, the terrain abortion had been standing on—closer to terra firma since the 1973 Roe v Wade decision—had been dramatically losing its solidity. With the Hyde Amendment, the Webster decision (see sidebar to learn more), the swelling crowds that had begun to harass women at clinics, quicksand was more like it. Five years earlier, when I'd had an abortion as a seventeen-year-old, federal monies had paid for my procedure simply because I was under eighteen. When I'd gone to the clinic, not one protester tried to dissuade me in any way. By the time I was working at an abortion clinic, some of the clients I counseled had mistakenly first stumbled into the bogus problem pregnancy center in town, where they were subjected to gory videos depicting fetuses being torn limb from limb. This place offered only one option: adoption placement services for pregnant women.

Amongst my clientele, teenagers from strict Catholic families would express terror at what would happen if their parents found out they'd gotten pregnant. "They'd disown me, throw me out, make me have the baby, make me give it up for adoption, make me marry the guy..." These young women had not gone on the Pill for fear of being caught using birth control by their parents. In turn, that avoidance of one supposed sin—birth control—lead to a larger one: abortion. I worked with teens bound for college, teens who were already parenting a child or children, teens with health concerns that made rendered a full-term pregnancy a precarious prospect, teens who simply didn't feel—as had been the case with me at seventeen—ready for parenthood. In various ways, most teens who chose abortion were choosing the same basic thing: to grow up before deciding when or whether or with whom to become parents. And that's what the pro-choice movement was fighting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to ensure women the right to do.

·····

Being on Oprah was discovering that the green room was really green, that the lights onstage blazed hot, and that there were abrupt cuts to commercial breaks. I stared out past the bright lights to a sea of faces, some warm and others hardened by hatred. I was shaking all over. However much I believed in my decisions, I was exposing something very personal (also, very political) on national television. I wasn't going to talk about my preference for blue or vegetarianism; I was going to say I'd had an abortion at age seventeen. The audience was intensely polarized. Oprah barely said hello to anyone on the panel before taping began, seemingly because the hour ahead was bound to be so contentious. This show aired back when Oprah did not soft pedal issues nor talk about spiritual journeys or self-esteem the way she does now, and it was before she made public disclosures about her own life story.

My mother and I—reproductive rights activists both—wanted to use this television exposure as an opportunity to get two key points across. The first point was that young women were capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies. The second point was that very young women, say eleven- or twelve- or thirteen-year-olds, did tell their parents about their pregnancies unless there was a compelling reason, like incest, that stopped them from feeling safe enough to confide in the adults responsible for them.
So, on national television, I recounted a truncated version of my own story. At seventeen, I'd gone to get a diaphragm, only to discover that I was already pregnant. A senior in high school, I was about to go to college. I did not want to have a child when I did not yet feel capable of taking care of myself. My boyfriend, who was a few years older, did not want to have a child, either. While I did tell my mother before I had the abortion, I didn't need her help deciding what to do about the pregnancy; I believed it was my body and my right to make the decision whether to continue or terminate the pregnancy. Not my mother's decision nor my boyfriend's decision. Mine. The other mother-daughter duo was hysterical by the hour's end. And one woman actually asked my mother, "How can you look at your own daughter now that she has killed you first grandchild?"

After the show was over, I returned to my regular life, which included working as an abortion counselor at a health center. The very next day, a teenager came into the clinic with her mother and father. Through the receptionist's window, they recognized me. As we walked back toward the counseling room, the mother asked, "Weren't you on Oprah yesterday?" I nodded yes. Usually, I did my job without disclosing my abortion experience. But here I was, having shared my personal experience with the nation, and so it was now part of the public domain. The sixteen-year-old, ashamed to have messed up with birth control, had dark eyes pooled with tears. The boyfriend was no longer in the picture. Her parents, extremely worried about her health and safety, wanted very much for her to have a clear shot at making her way to adulthood unfettered by the duties of parenting. She wanted to know about the immediate: whether the procedure hurt, and the longer term: whether I'd felt any regrets about my abortion.

Never had I imagined that the events of my high school senior spring would shape my life so. It wasn't so much the abortion decision itself as the way that experience galvanized my feminism, galvanized my desire to give back by helping other women as part of my own life's work. Reproductive rights, a broad umbrella as I've come to understand it, sheltered abortion as its center for me. I found myself wanting to be the kind of abortion counselor who did not trip on words when describing the procedure. The phrase, "kind of like a vacuum cleaner," stands out as my own counselor's faux pax, since it brought something too much in everyday life to this singular experience. More so, I wanted to be the kind of counselor who subtly encouraged a woman's own sense of empowerment. I hoped that the women I worked with felt stronger afterwards, proud of themselves. Of course, this would not be the case for every woman I met. Still, I hoped there could be something positive for each woman, along with whatever else she felt. This teenager, who was able to draw hope from my own experience, was a case in point. She brought together the anonymity of my work with the sudden burst of fame Oprah provided. She also proved that my story—a common story—had the power to help someone else.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser, a former reproductive rights activist and abortion counselor, now writes fiction and essays while raising two (soon to be three) wanted and planned for kids. Her work has appeared in such publications as Moxie, Brain Child, Mothering Magazine, Hip Mama, the Southwest Review & Story Quarterly.

 
The Hyde Amendment

The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976, prohibits federal Medicaid funds for abortion, except in cases where the woman's life is in danger.

In 1993 the exceptions were broadened to include rape and incest. Its impact upon low-income women has been devastating. Before Hyde, the federal government paid for one-third of all abortions; since 1977 it has paid for virtually none. Low income and poor women must forego food or other basic necessities to pay for abortions; otherwise, they must carry unwanted pregnancies to term, often abandoning their education and remaining trapped in poverty.

Webster

In the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court upheld various provisions of a Missouri law that restricted abortion. The decision included a prohibition on using public facilities and/or allowing public employees to perform or assist with abortions in these facilitates; it also prohibited tests for fetal viability. The court also let stand a preamble, which stated that "the life of each human being begins at conception."

Webster opened the door to permit greater states' rights to restrict access to abortion. By decreasing access the hardest hit women are those most vulnerable: poor, young, women of color.