Tue, May

My Body, Myself


GUEST COMMENTARY - In addition to being a child of communists, an immigrant, a pot-smoking Jewish Yippie, a friend to Black Panthers, a woman who slept with America’s enemy, a prime suspect in a famous bombing, and a woman who tried to bend her sexual boundaries, I’ve also had an abortion.

With that, I’m no longer an outlier—so have at least one-third of women in the United States.

Some months after the Debacle in Dallas, I drove Lindequist to San Diego. Jerry and Abbie, with typical Yippie exaggeration, had boasted that a million young people would occupy that city at the 1972 Republican National Convention to protest the Vietnam War. I too was seeing red—the bloody kind. By then more than three million Indochinese had been poisoned, burned, maimed, or killed, and more than 50,000 Americans had sacrificed their lives. The war at home raged on.

In March or April of 1972, I arrived in the offices of the anti-war San Diego Convention Coalition to this news: Paula Tharpe, a 22-year-old spokesperson for the Coalition, had been shot and wounded that January. City officials confirmed to the New York Times that “right-wing vigilantism has plagued San Diego’s small radical community for several years, and that no arrests have ever been made.”

The person who told me this was a wiry 40-something man who wore a white clerical collar beneath his prominent Roman nose. The Reverend Paul Mayer had been born a Jew, rejected Judaism, spent eighteen years as a Benedictine monk before being ordained a Catholic priest, then left the priesthood. Like Stew, Reverend P. had been named an unindicted co-conspirator, in his case for an alleged plot to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I recognized my type—male Movement celebrity. Given my failure to change my sexual orientation combined with what I thought were Reverend P’s decades of celibacy—he did not disclose to me he had been married—I figured both of us might enjoy making up for lost time. It was easy to begin a casual affair.

After a month or so of off-again, on-again sex with Reverend P. in my bedroom of the stucco house I shared with four activists, I awoke one morning to find an army of bile invading my throat. My stomach heaved. Fifteen minutes of queasiness passed, only to return with flu-like persistence the next day. And every morning for the following week. No tell-tale red arrived to stain my morning sheets. It dawned on me I must be pregnant. Pregnancy tests were not yet on the market. I figured I was at most six weeks along.

My control issues emerge most strongly when they involve decisions about my own body. I did not question for a millisecond that I would have an abortion. In 1972, my confidence in that decision could not be undermined by being forced to wait a mandatory 24 hours to reconsider, listen to a fetal heartbeat, view a black and white image of cells inside my womb, have a cold wand thrust inside my uterus to perform an ultrasound against my will, or walk through a line of picketers, faces distorted with hate, yelling at me that if I went through with an abortion I would kill my baby, a sinful act I’d regret every day for the rest of my life.

I did, however, excoriate myself—not Reverend P.—for getting pregnant. It was my sense of self-importance that did me in. I’d spent too much time on the road protesting wars to waste my time seeking out a doctor willing to prescribe contraceptives, even though I’d heard that, earlier that year, the Supreme Court had legalized oral contraceptives for all women—not just married ones. After Texas, my need to find a doctor to prescribe oral contraceptives wasn’t strong. I delayed, I procrastinated, I was lazy. It was easier to stay loyal to my diaphragm with its gooey contraceptive gel. But diaphragms can fail.

Even in San Diego, that staunchest of Republican cities, abortion was available by 1972, but not until January 1973 was it declared legal. I needed only to get a word-of-mouth recommendation from my sisters in San Diego’s anti-war movement. As soon as I realized this, my panic ebbed. But given who the father was, I did, however, allow myself an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Here I was, Judy Gumbo, impregnated by a lapsed Jew and former monk who had been ordained a priest then left the Church.

Only a Yippie Goddess of Absolute Absurdity could have concocted such a stunt!

As a recent arrival in San Diego, I had no close women friends or relatives to accompany me to my fact, except for Reverend P., I felt independent but also isolated, a feeling I was now ready to accept after Boston and then Texas. Lindequist was my closest female friend in San Diego. I told myself it was no big deal to have an abortion alone; I was, after all, a woman of courage determined to live my life as I chose to live it. And pay whatever consequences that entailed.

A young receptionist smiled at me from her desk inside a run-down, single story, Spanish-style building on a four-lane San Diego street roaring with traffic. She asked only for my name, address, and payment. The $30 I handed her came—again, and as usual without their knowledge—from my parent’s less and less frequent infusions of cash. I had no second thoughts. Leo had once told me the money he gave was for the revolution. This was my personal revolution. For my body. Myself.

I removed my canvas sandals, shorts, and underpants in a room whose casement windows let in enough San Diego sunshine to color its walls with a greenish jail-like tinge. I counted on my Yippie sense of the ridiculous to get me through. The gurney I climbed up on took up almost the entire room; I crunched my butt down so I could fit my toes into cold steel stirrups and stretched my knees apart. The young receptionist draped a green cloth over my knees and bare vagina. A man entered. I assumed he was the doctor based on his white coat. The man did not introduce himself. Nor did he offer any sedative except to say, “This won’t hurt much.”

Yeah, right, I thought, unnerved by the man’s indifference. No humor here: Was I taking this abortion stuff too lightly? Then I remembered. Although Stew and I were now miles apart, emotionally and in real time, my mind jumped to Stew’s tale of how he and Joanne, his about-to-be first wife, had traveled to Tijuana in the early 1960s. Their procedure room was cramped and dirty. Instruments lay uncovered on a dingy wooden side table. Stew waited on a lobby bench while Joanne screamed. Back in Berkeley, Joanne developed a raging fever; they both feared she would die. That was serious. I was lucky. No matter how ridiculous I felt, how impersonal the manner of this man in the white coat, his instruments were covered with white, sterile gauze. The black and white floor on which my gurney rested was clean and shiny. Such modernity reassured me, the buzz of overhead florescent lights calmed me, I shut my eyes until a loud whrrrr startled me out of drift. I looked up to see the reassuring presence of a plastic yellow sunflower—strategically placed—dangling above me from the ceiling.

An impressive sucking noise started from what sounded like an electric motor. A hard tip at the end of a plastic tube entered my vagina. My cramp was immediate, sharp, and deep. The tube withdrew, the cramping stopped. Then started up again. A few spasms more, each as painful as the first. Those cells inside my body brought together by accident now were gone. My first trimester abortion took no more than ten minutes.

I walked out of the clinic elated, my nausea evaporated, my entire body relaxed. My recovery was that quick. I felt neither sadness nor regret, just the opposite. I felt free.

In a paroxysm of gratitude and relief, I grabbed Lindequist’s steering wheel and, oblivious to a police car positioned outside the clinic, made a joyful and illegal U turn across four lanes of San Diego traffic. Given my euphoria, the traffic citation I received felt less absurd than the ticket for the bald tire signed by James Bond that I’d been given in Pennsylvania. Once again, I had my life back.

* * *

In bed in our San Diego house the following evening, before Reverend P. and I had sex, but not until after I’d engaged in a one-woman monologue with myself about whether or not to confess to this former Catholic priest that I’d had an abortion, I decided to be honest.

I blurted out, “Paul, there’s something I need to say to you.”

“What’s that?” Reverend P. replied in all innocence, his hands stroking my back in a way that made me tingle as if I was being caressed.

“You know how I’ve been saying I wasn’t feeling well? Turns out I was pregnant. I went to a clinic yesterday and had an abortion.”

Then, as if to rationalize my behavior I added, “It didn’t feel like such a big deal.”

I watched Reverend P’s face change from pink to white as he sat up and said, a wobble in his voice.

“Why didn’t you tell about this before you did it? Why didn’t you ask me first?”

There are reasons women have abortions without informing the father. Every woman has one—most frequently rape or physical abuse. My dominant reason was ideology.

“It’s my body. It was my decision, not yours,” I replied, defensive but unbowed.

Reverend P stood up, turned his naked butt to me, slipped on his pants, and silently left the room. He also left my life. I would not see him again until decades later, when we greeted each other as old friends, him sitting on the grass surrounded by his wife and children at yet another rally against yet another imperial war.

Often, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I will attempt to seek spiritual enlightenment not through LSD or weed but by attending an uber-liberal, Reconstructionist synagogue. The service provides me a mechanism to enter my personal holy of holies and repent my sins. Neither guilt, remorse, nor shame ever arose in me about my abortion. My sin was to have avoided confrontation by dismissing Reverend P’s religious convictions out of hand. I lacked the empathy and likely the courage to involve Reverend P. in a decision I considered mine alone. I knew Reverend P. to be a staunch believer in equal rights for women and minorities, so I took the easy route. I assumed but did not ask.

Today I am a mother and a grandmother. I am forever grateful I had access to abortion care when I was 29 years old, single, broke, and employed without pay in the service of ending unjust wars. This I know: had I allowed those cells to grow, my life’s course would have altered in a manner unfair to any unborn child and untenable to me. In 1972, that year before Roe v. Wade became law, having an abortion wasn’t a sin, it wasn’t a crime, and it wasn’t a baby. 

(Judy Gumbo is one of the few female members of the original Yippie core group. Judy is the widow of Yippie founder Stew Albert and of David Dobkin, a founder of Berkeley Cohousing where Judy now lives.  This article was featured in Counter Punch.).