Women reflect on abortions, evoking range of emotions


Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 9:24 p.m.
NEW YORK - Each woman talks proudly of her husband and sons; each raised her family after undergoing an abortion.
Yet Marion Syverson, 47, and Shira Stern, 46, look back at their personal decisions and reach contrasting conclusions about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling 30 years ago that established a constitutional right to abortion.
Syverson, a stockbroker from Hampden, Maine, with two sons in their 20s, regrets the two abortions she had as a troubled teenager and has worked with an anti-abortion group called Feminists for Life to dissuade other women from doing what she did.
"I know abortion hurts women, so I'd sure like to make it hardly ever happen," she said.
Stern, a rabbi from Morganville, N.J., and daughter of violinist Isaac Stern, aborted a fetus in 1984 after sonograms indicated the baby had no brain and was severely deformed. She and her husband, also a rabbi, later had three sons, now in their teens.
"I'm extraordinarily grateful that we live in a country that allows access to abortion for all women," Stern said. "I'm not suggesting that abortion is wonderful, but if we don't have safe access, women will still have abortions, and they will die."
Stern and Syverson are among an estimated 30 million American women who collectively have had more than 41 million abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision of Jan. 22, 1973.
Roughly 1.2 million abortions are performed nationwide each year, yet abortion foes say it is still wrong, even if commonplace. Some denounce it as murder and depict abortion clinics as "death camps."
Kim Oxholm, a consultant from Merion, Pa., had an abortion in Washington, D.C., after an alcohol-fueled fling with a co-worker following her college graduation in 1974.
Now 50, with two college-age sons, Oxholm sometimes volunteers as an escort for younger women as they pass anti-abortion protesters on their way into abortion clinics. She said the millions of women who have had abortions should be more forthright in identifying themselves.
"We ought to have our own lapel pin," she said. "It's not something we ought to be ashamed of."
Many women who undergo abortions emerge with conflicting emotions and no desire to explain their choice publicly. Others, like Carol Wall and Michaelene Jenkins, become professional advocates, using their own experiences as ammunition in arguing different sides of the abortion debate.
Jenkins, 37, had an abortion as a 19-year-old in Minnesota, where she was living with her boyfriend, and later became depressed by her choice. Now married and raising two children, Jenkins has served on the California Pro-Life Council and heads a San Diego-based organization that seeks to persuade pregnant women to spurn abortions.
"I was very much in favor of legalized abortion - I felt it was absolutely necessary for women to be able to meet their educational and career goals," she said. "But it turned out to be very traumatic psychologically. . . . I instinctively knew I had ended the life of my child."
Though she now opposes abortion, Jenkins doesn't believe the time is right for a reversal of Roe v. Wade. She advocates an incremental approach, starting with programs to help young, pregnant women stay on track in their education and careers even if they give birth.
"I don't think we're at a place to close all the doors," Jenkins said. "I want to see options that empower women. Whether women regret or don't regret their abortions, there are very few who feel they had all the options available to them when they were pregnant."
Wall already had a husband and three young children when, despite the use of contraception, she became pregnant again in 1966. Overwhelmed by financial and emotional strains, Wall decided abortion was the wisest choice, even though the procedure was illegal then.
Wall flew to Puerto Rico, wrestled with last-minute fears that she might die, and underwent an $800 abortion at a clandestine clinic in San Juan. She said her family has steadfastly supported her decision.
Wall, 67, made a career of defending abortion rights, serving as director of several Planned Parenthood chapters, working with international family planning groups, and now - from a home in Yarmouth, Mass. - commuting to a part-time job at the Washington headquarters of Catholics For a Free Choice.
Wall respects abortion foes who differ with her on the question of when human life begins. But she says many opponents of abortion seem motivated primarily by a desire to repress female sexuality.
"There's very much the feeling that women need to be controlled," she said.
Wall believes that a woman's decision to have an abortion can be an integral part of being a loving mother and wife.
"I did this partly for my children," she said of her abortion. "I don't remember ever thinking this was just for me. It was part and parcel of our life together, all five of us."
Seven years after the abortion, Wall learned with joy of the Roe v. Wade decision.
"I had an overwhelming feeling that this is what freedom meant," she said. "I can't remember any other day in my life, other than my own personal happy days, that seemed more important to me."
Hazel Weiser, 54, of Oyster Bay on New York's Long Island had an abortion as a single woman in 1980.
Now married to a Planned Parenthood executive, she has encouraged her 13-year-old daughter to be active in supporting women's reproductive rights.
"We've got a generation of women who, perhaps because we grew complacent, don't understand how precarious this right is," Weiser said.
Syverson, the Maine stockbroker, is proud of her career and family, yet says her life probably would've worked out well even if she had not had her first abortion as a 15-year-old growing up near New York City.
"I'm a tough cookie - I could have done fine," Syverson said. "Maybe we'd have an even better existence, though we don't know what it would be, if we'd been able to take a different fork."
Though she would like abortion to be outlawed eventually, Syverson doesn't expect Roe v. Wade to be overturned any time soon. Short-term policy changes should focus on providing more options to pregnant women, she said.
As a rabbi, Shira Stern says she is trained to listen - even to people with profoundly different views.
"There are some very moving stories I've heard on the other side," she said. "For some mothers of children with disabilities, not aborting them was the right thing to do. If you believe in your heart that abortion is not appropriate, you should be supported utterly."
Stern wants to share the "pro-life" label that anti-abortion activists claim.
"I consider myself pro-family, pro-life - and also pro-choice," she said. "I cherish the fact that I've been given the opportunity to create other lives."
After her own abortion, she recalled, "I was tired. I wished I never had to have done it. But I felt it was the right thing for me to do, and I was supported by a community of friends."

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