Women’s March and Rally for Abortion Justice in Buffalo, NY, October 2, 2021. Photo credit: Val Dunne Photography / Shutterstock.com
My boyfriend told me he wanted to keep it—he wanted another chance at fatherhood. He was 45 and I was 20. He’d left a daughter a few years younger than me behind in Dublin. He drank. And I was in fucking college.
At Women’s Health Services on Main Street in Buffalo, NY, there were three women in the tiny room where we had to watch the video—so we really knew what we were doing. I mean, of course we fucking knew, that’s why we were there. But I was shocked that the other women there were already mothers. I thought becoming a mother was the thing you had to be ready for—not taking care of and mothering the kids you already had.
I was the youngest of eight children in an Irish/Polish Catholic family in Buffalo. My first niece was born when I was 7, so I babysat and changed diapers. As a teenager surrounded by chaos, I proclaimed, “I’m never getting married and I’m NEVER having kids.” My mother was obese and ill and I thought that’s what motherhood did to you. Maybe I assumed only young single women had abortions: perhaps I thought if I had one child, I would be forced to have more, or that I would be trapped.
Certainly I hadn’t realized that women could plan their families.
In the United States, cisgender white women keep fighting for abortion rights. For “choice.” What we have been doing hasn’t worked. We forget or never knew or were too racist to pay attention to a key fact about reproductive justice: Black and Indigenous women have a long history of forced sterilization, and of their children being taken from them. No “choice” there. True reproductive justice requires more than stories about personal choice: we need systemic changes.
In 1997, sixteen organizations run by women of color came together to form SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Founder Loretta Ross wrote, “By shifting the focus to reproductive oppression—the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor and reproduction—rather than a narrow focus on protecting the legal right to abortion, we are developing a more inclusive vision of how to build a new movement.” (OFF OUR BACKS, Vol 36, no. 4, 2006)
By focusing only on abortion—on “my body, my choice”—white pro-choice activists have left out all of the other connected social oppressions that come with the decision to have, or not have, a family. The reality of our bodies is that their labor and care and maintenance is contingent on our class and race and caste. Maybe we are getting closer: the Women’s March protests on October 2, 2021 were called rallies for “Abortion Justice.” I hope this means that we will see a more organized intersectional approach in the future.
Sometimes I wonder if the GOP just keep us all fighting for the right to abortion so we don’t have time to fight the full spectrum of reproductive oppression. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to stop going to protests.
In 1992, Mayor Jimmy Griffin invited “Operation Rescue” to Buffalo, and thousands of anti-abortion protestors descended on the city to block access to the clinics. I was living in New York City at the time, and my friend Brooke stopped by and asked if I wanted her Violent Femmes concert tickets because she was going to Buffalo to be a clinic escort.
“I’m going to Buffalo too,” I blurted. New York had seemed too . . . dirty? I was scared.
“We should meet up!” said Brooke. “Where are you staying? We should—”
I changed the subject. I didn’t want to admit that I was going to Buffalo to get an abortion.
Brooke and I were theatre students. Ntozake Shange had articulated my situation, almost twenty years earlier, in her choreo-poem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: “Once I was pregnant & ashamed of myself.”
In Buffalo: signs and screams. A hand on my shoulder, a grab on my wrist, a “DON’T DO IT!” in my face. This was before the buffer zone laws.
At Women’s Health Services on Main Street, the nurse gave me a shot of Valium, which caused tears instead of calm. Dr. Payne warned me, “If you don’t quit crying, I’m going to have to stop.” Legs open, bright lights, the nurse holding my hand: the usual.
Hormone therapy is reproductive justice.
Universal basic income is reproductive justice.
Pleasure-based sex education is reproductive justice.
I was dizzy in the sun afterward, and sat down on the grass by the street. “Stand up, Christen!” my boyfriend barked. It was the first time I’d seen him wear sunglasses. “I don’t want anyone to recognize me!” Fuck you. I lay down.
The taxi took us to my friend Rachel’s mom’s house. She put me in front of the TV with blankets and Advil. My boyfriend went to a bar. Years later, at his funeral, his daughter said to me, “Now he’s in heaven with his baby.”
Healthcare is reproductive justice.
Paid family leave is reproductive justice.
Free birth control is reproductive justice.
Later, my friend Cathy and I would cackle at the Pink Flamingo drinking Canadian beer. “Dr. Payne! Dr. Pain is right!” Dr. Payne actually did stop Cathy’s abortion. Cathy had to finish it with Dr. Slepian. That was before Dr. Slepian was assassinated through his kitchen window. Dr. Press, “next on the list,” was the dad of a boy that I had a crush on in high school. That boy, Eyal Press, wrote Absolute Convictions: My Father, A City, and the Conflict that Divided America (Holt, 2006) about the history of abortion in my hometown.
In September 2021, as Texas lawmakers moved to pass Senate Bill 8, which effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, SisterSong Executive Director Monica Raye Simpson implored activists, “Can we try just this once to decenter whiteness and elevate BIPOC leadership to win back abortion access? We can’t do the same thing and expect to win.”
In the bar, Nirvana blared and I told Cathy, “I wrote a letter of complaint!”
“Who writes a complaint to their abortion doctor?”
I can’t believe I did that. The entitlement.
Lowering the Black maternal mortality rate is reproductive justice.
Stopping racist vigilantism in Texas is reproductive justice.
Eradicating the forced sterilization of asylum seekers without their knowledge or consent is reproductive justice.
In 2015, following the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag and the suggestion to host storytelling groups, I made a Facebook event and invited people over to talk. There were about a dozen of us, sharing details and feelings and solidarity. “I just want cis women to know that it’s not just you,” my friend Seph, a trans man, said. “Becoming impregnated through violence is a threat for me, too.”
I want bodily autonomy for everyone.
Access is all.
I write my story looking for commonalities, knowing it’s not enough. As a cisgender white woman, I had resources and privileges. I know now what I didn’t in that little room on Main Street waiting with three mothers to have an abortion: that access to affordable housing and childcare and food is reproductive justice.
My letter of complaint to Dr. Payne sticks in my mind because it seems selfish, contradictory, and insignificant in the face of the larger problems of abortion access and laws. But asking to be treated decently during a medical procedure is no small thing. I’m actually proud of 20-year-old me for having the guts to ask for respect, even if it was my white privilege that allowed me to write that letter. And still, I’m part of a global community of people fighting for bodily autonomy. Now I write letters to members of Congress.
My abortion allowed me to graduate from college, mature, and grow. It allowed me to become the artist and writer and teacher and curator and woman I am now. It allowed me to mother and love and nurture the children I had when I was ready.
Recently, three Congresswomen, all women of the global majority, testified at a house panel about their abortions. Representatives Cori Bush, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee all spoke from experience. Congresswoman Bush said, “To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Or as Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, writes, “In a reproductive justice framework, self-care is the radical notion that Black women give themselves permission to honor their lives and control their own destinies.”
Abortion does not exclude its own erotics. Freedom is a turn on.
The first protest I ever went to was for reproductive rights. It was in the fall of 1989, at Abingdon Square, and I was a first-year student in New York. Now, 32 years later, Abingdon Square is just four short blocks from where I work teaching first-year students. I’m still protesting for reproductive justice.
In 2020, the exhibition Abortion Is Normal: An Emergency Art Show, brought together more than 50 artists in support of reproductive rights—one of whom was me. My installation, “IWantYourBlood,” displayed vials of menstrual blood donated by my collaborators and friends, cis and trans. As an artist, I’ve participated in other feminist public actions about abortion. In 2018, as No Wave Performance Task Force, we bought Mifepristone and Misoprostol, commonly known as “abortion pills,” online and walked 14th Street with a cart full of Plan B to hand out and signs on our backs saying “WE HAVE TWO ABORTIONS TO GIVE AWAY.” Since the pandemic, restrictions requiring patients to take the pills in a medical setting have been lifted. The activist group Plan C is calling for universal access to abortion pills, raising awareness about self-managed abortion, and asking doctors to use advance provision—getting a prescription in advance—so people with uteruses can have Mifepristone and Misoprostol in their medicine cabinet should they need it.
Around the world—from the Domincan Republic to Brazil to Poland—protesters have been fighting abortion bans. In 2021, Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian journalist and founder of the FEMINIST GIANT newsletter, published “Abortion Is Normal: On Being Brave”—the title a nod to the emergency art show in New York City. In the essay, Eltahawy explains why she felt it was more dangerous to tell her abortion stories than to expose the human rights violations of the Egyptian regime. “It is incumbent on those of us who can, to talk,” she writes. “Not everyone can talk and survive.”
We tell stories to learn from each other, to find love and solidarity in experiences both shared and not shared. Will more stories help? Only if they are combined with political action.
After the abortion, I didn’t arrive at my parents’ house and tell my mother, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, “Guess what, Mom, I had an abortion.” I didn’t want to burden her. Now I am a mother, and I would love to be burdened.
I had thought my mother’s Catholicism was rigid. I had thought she was a victim of forced motherhood. Now I know she exercised her rights as an autonomous human: at her funeral, one of my sisters told me our mother had at least one abortion after I was born.
I asked my sister how she knew.
“I drove her.”
Christen Clifford is a transdisciplinary artist and writer who teaches at Eugene Lang College, The New School. Thank you to Carolina Franco, PhD. Christen asks you to support reproductive justice by donating to @theafiyactr, @indigenouswomenrising, and @thebridgecollective.