I’m Debbie Matthews. In 1983, I had an abortion.

Writing that is one of the bravest and most subversive acts of my life.

I’m of the first generation of women who came of age after Roe v. Wade. The decision was less than a decade old when I had my procedure. It was safe and legal, but there was a huge stigma surrounding it—like the shame an unwed mother was made to feel a generation earlier. This was especially true in a sleepy little town like Elizabeth City, where everybody knew your name and felt they were entitled to know your business. 

In the fall of 1982, I was fresh out of high school and working part-time in a hospital lab. My mostly female co-workers very close and supportive, like big sisters. And because they were chemists and biologists, I went to them with my embarrassing questions. When I became engaged to my high school boyfriend, they were among the first I told.

They were the ones who told me to go see my OB/GYN. It was just after the New Year, and I was worried I might be “in trouble,” as they called it. My doctor gave me a drug containing a strong dose of hormones. He never said the word “pregnant” or “abortion.”

Nothing happened.

I knew the truth, but I tried to convince myself that everything was OK. One of the lab techs finally talked me into letting her run a pregnancy test.

“Debbie,” she told me, “you’re as pregnant as a goose!”

I’d never heard that phrase before—or since.

I was only eighteen and blissfully un-self-aware. But I knew two things about myself: I didn’t want to be a mother. And I couldn’t carry a baby to term and give it away.

My friend Bo had had a second-trimester abortion when we were in high school. She’s gone out of town and missed school for a week. When she came back and told me about it, she talked about the procedure in a harsh, removed way, like the words were being ripped from her throat. She described the pain and fear as if it had happened to a stranger. Then she never spoke of it again.

While fiancé and I were still struggling with shock and guilt, my girlfriend Rhi approached me with her boyfriend, Zach, who had something he wanted to discuss. In the sweetest, most heartbreaking conversation I’ve ever had, he offered to marry me if I wanted to keep the baby but my fiancé didn’t—or if I had the abortion but my fiancé dumped me because I was “ruined.”

In the end, like every girl I knew in my situation, I went to a clinic in Virginia, away from my hometown’s prying eyes. Unfortunately, privacy was not in the cards.

Either because of the medication I’d taken earlier or just bad luck, I had complications, and I had to be admitted to the hospital where I worked for surgery and the subsequent recovery. This, of course, meant everyone in the hospital—and, soon enough, most of E City—knew what I’d done.

Overnight, a bookworm and honor roll student who hadn’t kissed a boy until sixteen, who’d had one boyfriend her whole life, became a slut, subjected to rumors of the worst sort. My reputation was shredded by people who didn’t know me. So-called friends gleefully recounted to me the “things folks were saying.”

There was an unspoken social contract then: Young unmarried women had good reputations and were treated as such—with respect and patriarchal protectiveness. Unless, of course, evidence of their whorish behavior was made available.

For the rest of my time in Elizabeth City, I wasn’t allowed to forget, even if that were possible. I could see it in their eyes. The reactions varied by sex: Women treated me like the good ladies of Atlanta treated Belle Watling, as if I were a personal affront to their own virtue. The men looked at me as if I were naked and on sale. In everyone was an angry judgment, with a touch of guilt, as if I was what was wrong in the world.

You see, I’d failed to keep my shame behind closed doors, where it belonged.

And until I decided last week to tell my story, I was complicit in the shame. It was the price I felt I had to pay.

But you know what? I—and all women—have paid enough for the privilege of autonomy. And with self-righteous men in Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, and—if Speaker Tim Moore gets his way today and finally overrides Governor Cooper’s veto of Republicans’ cynical “born alive” bill—North Carolina deciding that they have the right to dictate my morality, medical decisions, and reproductive choices, the time has come to stop negotiating for the scraps of our own goddamn freedom.

So yeah, I’m Debbie Matthews. And in 1983, you’re fucking right I had an abortion.

Not that it’s any of your business.

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One reply on “I Had an Abortion. I Refuse to Be Ashamed of It.”

  1. Please do not use the Gadsden flag on this story. It is a symbol of white supremacy.

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