Grace Paley is the most intelligent, generous, incorruptible writer I ever knew. Her daughter says, “I learned from her that precision requires a warm eye, not a cold one,” and so did we all. Keen wit and real modesty seldom occur in such happy alliance. Who she was is what she writes. She never shows off, never bullies. She asks us, “what do you think about this?” and is interested in our answer. She takes nothing for granted and everything as worth rethinking. Her writing on social issues remains timely because it was never superficial; she held understanding more useful than judgment. Very few writers can match the offhand voice, with its unmistakable oral cadence, in which her poignant, funny short stories are told. Her poem “Responsibility” set the standard she herself met, and her poetry, always at the service of moral issues, is still giving readers lines to live by. The excellent new anthology of her work is a gift of her generous spirit to the rest of this century. I hope it finds the love, warmth, and honor it offers us all.
–Ursula K. Le Guin
It was the late 30s, and we all knew that birth control existed, but we also knew it was impossible to get. You had to be older and married. You couldn’t get anything in drugstores, unless you were terribly sick and had to buy a diaphragm because your womb was falling out. The general embarrassment and misery around getting birth control were real.
There was Margaret Sanger at that time, and she had a clinic right here in Manhattan in a beautiful house on Sixteenth Street; I still walk past and look at it. As brave as the Margaret Sanger people were, they were under very tough strictures. It was scary to go there. I was 18, and it was 1940 when I tiptoed in to get a diaphragm. I said I was married.
When I was young, it really angered me that birth control was so hard to get. Kids who were not as sophisticated as we Bronx kids just didn’t know what to do. But I never felt that this was happening just to me. I had a very good social sense then from my own political family. I also had a lot of good girl friends, and we used to talk about it together. We had in common this considerable disgust and anger at the whole situation.
I grew up in the Bronx in a puritanical, socialist, Jewish family. My mother was particularly puritanical, and all that sex stuff was very hard for her to talk about—so she didn’t. My father was a doctor, but we still didn’t talk about such things. I really never felt terribly injured by all that. It just seemed to be the way it was with all my friends. We considered ourselves freethinkers—in advance of our parents.
Most of my friends married early. I married when I was 19; then my husband went overseas during the Second World War. I would have loved it if I had had a child when he went overseas, but we had decided against it.
When he came back, I was in my late 20s, and in the next couple of years, I had two children. When the children were one and a half and three, I got pregnant again. I don’t remember if my birth control failed . . . I wasn’t the most careful person in the world. Something in me did want to have more children, but since I had never gotten pregnant until I really wanted to—I was 26 and a half when I had my first child—I had assumed that the general mode would continue.
I knew I couldn’t have another child. I was exhausted with these two tiny little kids; it was just about all I could do to take care of them. As a child, I had been sick a lot, and people were always thinking I was anemic . . . I was having bouts of that kind. I was just very tired, all the time. I knew something was wrong because my whole idea in my heart had always been to have five, six children—I loved the idea of having children—but I knew I couldn’t have this kid.
Seeing the state I was in, even my father said, “You must not have another child.” That gives you an idea of my parents’ view. They didn’t feel you had to just keep having babies if you had a lot to do, small children, and not a lot of money.
[pullquote]”I knew I couldn’t have another child. I was exhausted with these two tiny little kids; it was just about all I could do to take care of them.”[/pullquote]
And my husband and I were having hard times. It was really rough. My husband was not that crazy about having children anyway; it was very low on his list of priorities. We lived where the school is now, right next door, and were supers of the rooming house. He was just beginning his career. He eventually made documentary films, but he’d come back from the Army and was getting it all together, like a lot of those guys. So anyway, it was financially hard. But it was mostly the psychological aspect of it that would have been hard for him.
In the 1930s, my late teens, I really didn’t know a lot of people who had had abortions, but then later on—not much later, when I was a young married woman in the 1940s—I heard much more. People would talk about it. By then, women were traveling everywhere—to this famous guy in Pennsylvania, to Puerto Rico. And you were always hearing about somebody who once did abortions but wasn’t there doing them anymore.
I didn’t ask my father for help. I wasn’t really a kid, stuck and pregnant and afraid that the world would fall down on me. I was a woman with two small children, trying to be independent. I didn’t want to distress him. He already wasn’t feeling very well; he had a bad heart. And he really couldn’t travel; he lived in the North Bronx, and I was living on Eleventh Street—it would have been a terrible subway trip. I just didn’t want to bother him.
I talked the situation over with the women in the park where I used to hang out with the kids. None of them thought having an abortion was a terrible thing to do. You would say, “I can’t have a kid now . . . I can’t do it,” and everybody was perfectly sympathetic. They said to me, “Ask So-and-so. She had one recently.” I did, and I got a name. The woman didn’t say anything about the guy; she just said, “Call.” I assumed he was a real doctor, and he was. That may have been luck.
My abortion was a very clean and decent affair, but I didn’t know until I got there that it would be all right. The doctor’s office was in Manhattan, on West End Avenue. I went during the day, and I went with my husband. The doctor had two or three rooms. My husband sat and waited in one of them. There were other people waiting for other kinds of care, which is how this doctor did it; he did a whole bunch of things. He saw someone ahead of me, and when he put me in another room to rest for a few minutes afterwards, I heard him talking to other patients.
The nurse was there during the procedure. He didn’t give me an anesthetic; he said, “If you want it, I’ll give it to you, but it will be much safer and better if I don’t.” It hurt, but it wasn’t that painful. So I don’t have anything traumatic to say about it. I was angry that I had to become a surreptitious person, and I was in danger, but the guy was very clean, and he was very good, and he was arrested within the next year. He went to jail.
I didn’t feel bad about the abortion. I didn’t have the feelings that people are always describing. I may have hidden some of the feelings, but having had a child at that time would have been so much worse for me. I was certainly scared, and it’s not something you want necessarily to do, but I don’t see it in that whole ethical or moral framework. I guess I really didn’t think of the fetus as a child until it really was a child.
But you’ll hear plenty of abortion stories. I will tell you what happened next after that was over, which is what I really want to talk about. I became pregnant again a couple of years later. I wanted to have the child, but my husband didn’t. It was very hard; I didn’t know what to do. I was kind of in despair.
I got three or four addresses, again from women in the park. My husband wasn’t going to come with me. Partly I didn’t want him to come; I probably was mad at him. I had this good friend, and she said, “You’re not going alone.” I was very grateful to her. She said, “I’ll go with you,” and she did.
I remember very clearly traveling to those places—to the end of Long Island and the end of Queens and the end of Brooklyn. I went to each one of these guys, but they wouldn’t do it. One guy said, “Look, if you weren’t married, I would risk it, but you’re married and maybe you just have to make do.” He felt I didn’t need an abortion that much. I’ll never forget. The only person we could find was some distance away, and didn’t sound very good to me at all. I was frightened . . . terribly frightened.
A week or two later, I remember, it was a freezing night; I was visiting people, and I ran home very fast. I was distraught and terrified because I was going to have to go either to Puerto Rico or someplace else. It was late in the pregnancy; it might have been the second trimester. That night I ran home at top speed—I can’t tell you—in the cold, crying, from about eight blocks away. I ran all the way home and just fell into bed. I remember I had a terrible bellyache from the running.
When I woke up the next morning, I was bleeding fiercely. It seemed to me I was having a miscarriage. I’d had another miscarriage, and both my children were born early, so it was not a weird thing that this would happen to me.
So I called this doctor I’d been to several times before, and he said to me, “Did you do something?” I said, “No! It’s just like the last time I had a miscarriage. I’m bleeding.” And he said, “Call somebody in your family. Get some ergot [a drug that stops uterine contractions].” I said, “Don’t you want me to come over?” and he said, “No! Don’t come.”
By this time my father had had a serious heart attack, so I didn’t tell him anything about it. I continued to bleed. I bled and bled, for three days, four days. I was really in terrible shape, and I couldn’t get anyone to take care of me. On about the third or fourth day, my doctor finally said, “Come over.” He had to do a D&C.
Sometime after that, when I spoke to my father about it, he said, “That doctor was being watched. There’s no other explanation. He was a kind guy. He knew you. He must have recently done something, and he was scared.”
These things are not talked about a lot, this kind of criminalization of the medical profession, the danger these doctors were in. It meant that they could not take care of you. It’s not even about abortion.
A good friend had an even clearer experience with this. She also was bleeding at the wrong time and it didn’t stop. She went to the emergency room here at a Catholic hospital, and they refused to take care of her. They just flatly refused. They said she had to have a rabbit test to see if she was pregnant and the results would take a couple of days. They would not touch her because she might be pregnant, and they might disturb the child. She continued to bleed, and they would not take care of her. She was a little skinny woman; she didn’t have that much blood. Well, she wasn’t pregnant. It turned out she had a tumor. It was an emergency—she had to be operated on immediately.
Your life, a woman’s life, was simply not the first thing that hospital had on its mind at all. Not only that: Even if the doctor had compassion—as in my friend’s case, one of the doctors was very anxious about her—they couldn’t do anything unless they were willing to risk a great deal.
I think women died all the time when abortions were illegal. The horrible abortions were one way; the other was the refusal of institutions—medical, church, and state—to care for you, their willingness to let you die.
It’s important to be public about the issue, and I have been for years. I helped organize one of the first abortion speak-outs in the country, which was held at the Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City back in the late 60s.
But I’ll be very truthful. I never liked the slogan “Abortion on demand,” and most of my friends hated it. We’d go on marches and we could never say it. It’s such a trivialization of the experience. It’s like “Toothpaste on demand.” If somebody said there should be birth control on demand, I would say yes. That would make a lot of sense. If I ask for a diaphragm, if I ask for a condom, I should just get it right off the bat.
But an abortion . . . After all, it’s a surgical procedure and really a very serious thing to undertake. It’s not a small matter. Just because I didn’t suffer a lot around my abortion, suffering is not the only thing that makes something important. I didn’t suffer but it was important. And when you say “on demand,” it ignores the real question, which is: where are you in your pregnancy? If you’re in your sixth month, it’s probably not wise, not good for you, even dangerous. Not that I think if a woman goes to a clinic and wants to have an abortion, she shouldn’t have it when she needs it. It’s just that there’s a lot to think about.
The last demonstration that I went to was in Montpelier, Vermont (Mobilization for Women’s Lives, November 12, 1989). There were about 2,500 women and men. The governor spoke, a woman governor, Madeleine Kunin; and, one of the great highlights, an older woman—older than me, even (I’m 67)—from Catholics for a Free Choice spoke; and I spoke.
[pullquote]”They want to return us to a time when even our children weren’t our own; we were simply the receptacles to have these children.”[/pullquote]
I said that abortion is only the tip of the iceberg. These guys who run at the clinics—and by the way, our Burlington clinic was really raided, with people knocked down—are point men who make the noise and false, hypocritical statements about human life, which they don’t much care about, really. What they really want to do is take back ownership of women’s bodies. They want to return us to a time when even our children weren’t our own; we were simply the receptacles to have these children. The great novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries were often about women who knew that if they took one wrong step, their children would be taken away from them.
And another point I made is that abortion isn’t what they’re thinking about; they’re really thinking about sex. They’re really thinking about love and reducing it to its most mechanical aspects—that is to say, the mechanical fact of intercourse as a specific act to make children in this world, and thinking of its use in any other way as wrong and wicked. They are determined to reduce women’s normal sexual responses, to end them, really, when we’ve just had a couple of decades of admitting them.
My generation—and only in our later years—and the one right after mine have been the only ones to really enjoy any sexual freedom. The kids have to know that it’s not just the right to abortion which is essential; it’s their right to a sexual life.
Obviously, the AIDS epidemic had not yet assaulted that next generation when I spoke/wrote this piece.
Excerpted from A GRACE PALEY READER: Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Grace Paley; Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley; Introduction by George Saunders. To be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April 18, 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Nora Paley and Danny Paley. All rights reserved.