Last month, Alabama joined an increasing number of states that have approved restrictive abortion laws. Out of 27 Republicans in the majority of the 35-seat State Senate, 25 white men voted to criminalize the procedure, with the only exception being made for serious health concerns for the woman. Six other states, namely Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio, have instead passed so-called “heartbeat bills,” prohibiting abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. At around six to eight weeks, most women are not even aware that they are pregnant.
I am not sure at what stage my friend was when she found out. We were just teenagers in our last year of high school. I imagine she had known it for a couple of days before she could find the courage to come to me and borrow 4,500 pesos (roughly 100 dollars).
I was living in the Dominican Republic at the time, a country where abortion is illegal in all cases, and where the criminal code imposes prison sentences for women who end a pregnancy and for the medical personnel helping them. Every attempt to reform the law has crashed against a wall of machismo, conservatism, and religious beliefs.
My friend started the conversation on MSN (that is what we used after school in the pre-smartphone era). She said she had a favor to ask. Dímelo, I typed. She said she needed money urgently. I remember rolling my eyes. It was not the first time one of my classmates had approached me for financial favors. After all, I was still la gringa and they assumed I was loaded with euros.
Her request was, however, beyond any reasonable expectation: she wanted 4,500 pesos, an amount that likely bought you a month of groceries in the DR. The salary of a public-school teacher was just slightly higher.
I got suspicious and pushed her to tell me what was going on. She refused and I pushed her harder. “I am not going to be a sucker,” my Italian blood was whispering in my ear, “if I’m going to give you this sum then I must know why”. She finally confessed that she was pregnant and she needed an abortion. There was a doctor who could provide it for her, she explained. She had talked to another girl in school -US-born, liberal family- who agreed to contribute too.
I knew she was messing around with her high school sweetheart. I knew her mother was insanely strict (she could never hang out with us girls at night). I knew we attended a private school managed by equally strict nuns.
I remember e-mailing my older sister in France for advice. I wrote, “I don’t know what to do. I am scared, I don’t want to be responsible for her. What if she dies?”. I was only seventeen, facing a horrifying situation that almost no girl in Europe and North America has had to deal with. I remember thinking, “how lucky we are, enjoying those rights won through feminist battles, and taking them for granted”. Talking to my sister made me realize that, with or without my money, my friend was going to do it anyway. If I wasn’t going to help her, she would find a cheaper, more dangerous method. This had nothing to do with my body, it’s just that I could have actually made it easier for her; though for the record, I am pro-choice. I felt that I had the chance to make a difference.
I put the money in an envelope and called her to my house. She promised to pay me back in a couple of days. A week went by and when she came back, she handed me the same envelope and explained that she hadn’t done it because she just hadn’t needed to.
I pretended that I was okay with her comment and let it go. My selfish, teenager ego felt slighted that she had not been comfortable enough to admit that she had had an abortion. Not only had I not been a good friend, but I also hadn’t been a good woman in solidarity.
Miles and years away, last spring I visited one of the Planned Parenthood clinics in New York. Before security escorted me in, I was briefly harassed by the 2 or 3 protesters standing outside in the rain. They screamed at me, “Are you interested in alternative information?” Eleven years after I lent money for an abortion, I knew better than to engage with “pro-life” people. Maybe I should have told them that the only alternative options I am interested in are birth control, sexual education and free healthcare. If these are not available, then there must be a law allowing abortion. Laws on abortion exist because abortion exists, not the other way around. I wish my friend and all women, whether in the DR, Alabama, or Italy had that option.