I was born the same year that Henry Morgentaler helped legalize abortion in Canada. At the time, my 24-year-old mother wrote a letter to the editor of her local paper. She wrote about feeling my heartbeat, feeling my feet kick at her from the inside, how the Bible told her life begins at conception, which means you have a soul inside you the second the sperm invades your egg. Her letter was not for other women, nor was it about other women—it was about her. But she’d married my father at 18 and had never had to make the hard choice so many women have to make: my life or the life of a group of cells?
Recently, I read a news story about how important it is for women to tell their abortion stories. Until now, I had not told mine. I only discussed my abortions quietly with another woman when commiserating or seeking advice. I didn’t speak about them with my family or friends. My abortions were a series of traumatic landmines in my life, the implosions rippling through my body and identity, sending shockwaves through my professional life, my intimate relationships and my sense of myself as a woman.
In my mid-30s I decided I didn’t want children. I considered the benefits of tubal ligation. But a quick internet search brought up page after page of stories from women whose doctors told them they were too young, that they’d regret it, that they needed to write a two-page report explaining their choice, or that they needed to get a psychiatric evaluation first.
As women, we must constantly remember that whatever freedoms and independence we think we’ve won can be swindled away from us by one patronizing doctor or one religious zealot who thinks his beliefs should be law. Women do not stand on solid ground—anytime we think we do, someone pushes us over.
Last Friday, Roe v. Wade was overturned in the United States. While Americans may gaze longingly toward Canada with envy, it is is crucial to know that, while abortions in Canada are not a crime, they are not easy to get. You can’t just walk into a clinic. The entire province of Ontario has only 23 abortion clinics. Just to put that in perspective, there are almost eight million women living in the province. If you’re an international student or an immigrant or a refugee in bureaucratic limbo without health insurance coverage, an abortion could cost you anywhere from $600 to nearly $3,000.
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I had my first abortion when I was 20. I had just moved to Montreal. It was an abundant summer full of promise. I had dreams of travelling and attending university. I lived with my boyfriend and his buddy in a shabby two-bedroom apartment in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood. I was between jobs and sometimes played my guitar on the street to make money.
When I got pregnant, I was shocked that my body could do something so grown-up. I was young but I was also practical. Looking around our apartment—the flag for a curtain, the couch we’d dragged in off the street—I decided whole-heartedly that this was not an appropriate time for us to parent a child. I didn’t even think about it. I chose to not wind up on welfare. I chose to not create a lifelong blood-link with a boy who spent his days playing video games and smoking pot. I chose to save my life.
The second time I got pregnant, my partner and I were living in a basement apartment by the beach in Victoria. We were in our mid-20s; he was working as a dishwasher and I was a barista. We were both making just above minimum wage. I thought we were in love. Friends of mine had started having children. Parenting didn’t seem easy but it seemed feasible. Self-consciously, I watched my belly grow. My sister came to stay with us.
The sonogram showed a tiny grainy fetus clasping its hands as if in prayer. I bought baby clothes, took long walks and told my parents. One morning, I woke up soaked in blood. I rushed to the emergency room, where a nurse placidly told me to sit in the waiting room. I grabbed a passing doctor’s sleeve, frantic. “I think I’m having a miscarriage.”
“If you are there’s nothing we can do to stop it,” he said.
I was not having a miscarriage, I soon learned. I had a massive subchorionic hemorrhage. Laid out on a cold pleather bed crinkling with paper, the technician showed me the blood, like a vast tarpit, on the ultrasound. The 12-week-old fetus was in there somewhere, lost in the murk.
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I was prescribed bed rest for the next nine months if I wanted to keep the baby. Even then, because of the magnitude of the hemorrhage, there was a possibility of delivering a stillborn. I was only 25 years old. My dishwasher boyfriend would not be able to support us on his paycheques for the next nine months while I stayed horizontal. “You do not have to go through with this,” the doctor told me, to his credit. “Pregnancy should not be a prison sentence.” He booked me into a women’s clinic and again I was released from having to sacrifice my life—but this time it felt less liberating.
A few years later I was raped. What started out as a consensual date quickly became a forceful interaction that left me pregnant. Immediately I was thrown back into the trauma of the last pregnancy, the feeling of utter physical helplessness, that I had no control over what happened to, or in, my body.
When this man said he would marry me and take care of the baby, I agreed. I was on my own and believed that by marrying him and having the baby I’d be doing the right thing. But his assaults on me persisted into physical violence. After he told me he planned on taking the baby away from me the moment it was born, I decided I couldn’t do it. It was one thing for me to endure such abuse. It would be another thing altogether to let a man like that father a child and drag me through custody battles for years. I did not want to turn my life into that. I did not want to turn a child’s life into that. After I got my third abortion and left him, he immediately got another girl pregnant. She emailed me on Christmas Day to say this man had just punched her in the face and taken off with their baby. Again, my freedom felt double-edged.
Because I had the privilege and luxury of not being forced into motherhood, I put myself through two university degrees. I published two books. I became a teacher. I began to thrive. I can afford therapy and groceries. I can afford to pay my rent. I have created a life for myself, without apology.
Like every woman who has made the choice to forsake the opinions of others in order to value their own life, I am fraught with trauma, guilt, shame and an aftermath of hormonal upheaval and emotional turmoil. Certainly, it is triggering both for me to share these shattering, vulnerable memories, and for women to read them. But even more shattering, even more triggering, is for women to have their trauma rubbed in their faces by smug clueless fanatics so far removed from the daily personal lives of women that they celebrate the ruination of their liberty as a victory.
Abortions are common. Multiple abortions are common. Miscarriages are common. We are women. Our bodies cannot be controlled; sometimes they can’t even be understood. Telling our stories is a first step, but seizing power and autonomy must be the next. A handful of religious zealots must not be the thing we stumble on—they must be the things we walk over on our way forward.
Ceilidh Michelle is an author from rural Nova Scotia. Her first novel, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, published by Palimpsest Press, was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Her second book, a work of non-fiction, Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Points in Between, was published by Douglas & McIntyre in September of 2021.