Many years ago I was a college freshman. A pregnant one. The precise details aren't relevant here, but I didn't know exactly what to do. I was in school during the day and working an overnight shift as a waitress (6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the Howard Johnson, where I ate a lot of pancakes on my breaks). Maybe this sounds crazy, but it wasn't a difficult decision for me — I wanted to have a baby. I was ambitious and naive, which turns out is a powerful combo. I continued school and the pancake shift after I had my daughter. We made it through to the other side in a remarkable way. I am, I believe, one of the luckiest people in the world; my daughter is smart, brave and awesome. We were Gilmore Girls, IRL.
This is my story of teenage pregnancy, or unplanned pregnancy, or whatever the world calls a pregnancy that isn't, well, perfect. It worked out for me and my daughter, but our circumstances were unique. I was lucky, able to make a decision that not everyone in my situation would be able to make.
On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an op-ed taking aim at pro-choice advocates who, in light of the robust national conversation about the role of abortion rights in politics, link economics and access to abortion. Lori Szala, who is the national director of client services at Human Coalition, a Dallas-based anti-abortion nonprofit, writes, "Of course unplanned pregnancy presents challenges. But it doesn't have to lead to economic failure." In arguing against choice, Szala shares her own story:
When I became pregnant at the beginning of my senior year in high school, my community pressured me to abort. I grew up in a single-parent, working-class family that barely had the resources to send me to college. Doing that, and helping me raise a child, seemed out of the question. Feeling that a birth would make a mess of my future, I scheduled an abortion.
I asked a close friend to drive me to the appointment. This woman had been in the same situation just months before and, without much contemplation, aborted her child. Weeping, she explained how she was depressed and had considered suicide. She begged me to cancel the appointment, and I did.
I'm not in a position to dispute Szala's experience or that of her friend, nor do I want to. And surely I cannot argue with someone who thinks abortion is murder (something she suggests earlier in the piece). I'm not equipped for a Holy War, nor do I have any real footing with which to argue that position. However, I do think it worth arguing that the decision to bring a pregnancy to term is much more complicated than "figuring it out financially," or using "more creativity and more effort" to improve a pregnant person's economic prospects. Nothing important, especially not the highly personal choice of whether or not to have children, is that simple.
Just a few years before having my daughter, when I was in high school in the Deep South, one of my best friends was faced with a similar decision. She was a teenager and pregnant and had a lot to consider in her decision. She was a high school student, a literal child not yet ready for the responsibilities of motherhood. She was from a working-class background and didn't have a strong financial backing. To add to that, the father was not in the picture, and her family wasn't going to be supportive if she decided to become a parent.
A friend drove us both to the clinic. We literally scraped our pennies together, for the gas money as well as for the procedure. I sat in the waiting room, a child myself, trying to process what kind of a profound choice was being made. In the end, it was the right decision for her: She thrived as a young adult (from my view, she wasn't depressed and I never heard her say she regretted the decision). She went on to earn advanced degrees and, eventually, have children. Looking back, I am confident this was the right choice for her.
Szala says that "abortion is not a solution to the host of systemic injustices driving poverty." This is true; as she states, the poverty cycle is perpetuated by things like access to healthcare, affordable education and that pesky wage gap, to name just a few. But women like my friend weren't using abortion to solve for economic injustice alone. She wanted a different life for herself. She wanted to be able to have children after she had lived her own life, obtained a degree and started down a career path, to become a parent in partnership with her husband.
I made a different decision, and it was right for me. I had the support I needed, from family and friends, and I knew I could make it work. It wasn't always easy, but we did it. My daughter is in college now. She has the full support of her family, a clear focus on her future and the economic resources to navigate the world positively. I could not be more proud of her. And if she got pregnant, I would be supportive of whatever she decided. I would never want her decisions to be limited just because she has a setup that would allow her to have a child. I would help her make whatever choice she wanted.
The choice debate is not just about having access to money or "sucking it up" to make the "better" decision. Having or not having a baby is a choice you make in a very specific moment in time, based on, yes, economics, but also emotional well-being, community support, life stage, religious belief and more. I am grateful for the choice I made. And I'm grateful that my friend was able to make the choice that was right for her, too.