How the right to abortion made my authentic life possible
By Suzanne Roberts
I’m on the eighth day of a twenty-five-day backpacking trip, climbing a rocky mountain pass in California’s Sierra Nevada. I’m hot and tired but also full of joy. As I look out toward the vast range of light, I’m full of gratitude for the body that got me here and my past decisions that have enabled me to choose to live the life I had always imagined. It’s no coincidence that the words of two male explorers and nature writers, Muir and Thoreau, are in my head, for the outdoors has historically been occupied by men, with women mostly relegated to domestic spheres, rearing and raising children. I’m 51 and my life’s path was made possible by remaining childfree by choice — a decision every woman should be able to make for herself. I want to tell you my story because secrecy breeds shame, and there’s nothing shameful about making the best possible choices for ourselves.
My life would be very different had I been forced to go through with the pregnancy I terminated nearly 30 years ago. It would not have been possible for me to live the life that has brought me so much happiness, and to make meaningful contributions to the world by teaching and mentoring other writers — if the right to a safe and legal abortion hadn’t been available to me when I needed one.
I was 24 and swirling in a well of grief because my father — still Daddy to me — had just died. I started dating a man from my graduate program: an older man and an artist. A writer with a sharp intellect who drank too much whiskey and shouted at me. In all of these ways, he was similar to my father. But in some ways, he wasn’t like my father at all. He asked me why I thought I was so special and made sure I knew he didn’t think I was. We broke up and got back together so many times my friends started calling him my on-again-off-again. He was having sex with another woman, but he denied it, calling me crazy for asking (I would later learn the term for this behavior — gaslighting). I put up with this because I was young and had so little regard for myself. I couldn’t see past my grief.
I got pregnant around the same time as my on-again-off-again’s other woman. I may have lacked self-confidence, but I also knew if I didn’t terminate the pregnancy, I would be tied to him (and possibly her) for the rest of my life.
I was young and poor and would have to drop out of graduate school. My father died with a mountain of debt, and my mother still worked in retail and didn’t have the means to help me raise a child.
Though I had it better than most, I was a first-generation college graduate, and although I could imagine my life’s trajectory, my situation was tenuous at best. My on-again-off-again had been adopted and made it clear that was the only option he wouldn’t agree to. And in truth, I wouldn’t have been able to do that either. I do not see an embryo or a fetus as a baby, so having an abortion is not the same as giving away a fully formed little person. And if not being able to give my child away is some moral failing on my part, so be it.
But also, there’s this, which is as important to the story as anything else. Right before Daddy died, I had just returned from hiking California’s John Muir Trail. I hiked the trail with two other women, and while I was out there, I fell in love with the outdoors, specifically the Sierra Nevada. And being so in love with the mountain wilderness made it possible for me to extend a little bit of that love to myself. The body I had berated for being too big, too clumsy, and too slow, became the body that carried me up and over mountain passes, through rushing creeks, and across snowfields. Hiking through hail, the blazing sun, and lightning storms made me realize I could be afraid but still keep going. I could be uncomfortable and scared and tired, yet still, keep putting one foot in front of the other. I felt strong and free, and I wanted to write stories about it. In the outdoors, I am the best possible version of myself. And being a better person also means I’m a better citizen of my community and of the world.
Shortly after I found out I was pregnant, my on-again-off-again (now back on) and I were laying on his futon on the floor of his apartment, and I looked up at the window, out at the falling rain, feeling grief and confusion about my father and my situation. My on-again-off-again was sleeping off too much Bushmills. I was thinking about the almost life inside of me. The windowsill was full of dead moths, their dusty wings disintegrating, and it felt like a metaphor. I felt like if I went through with the pregnancy, the wings I was just beginning to form would turn to dust, too. I was young and poor and would have to drop out of graduate school. I wouldn’t be able to move to the mountains I so loved, to move freely through them on my own terms. I would become a single mother, struggling the way all single parents do, with very little time to write the books I hoped to write. I likely wouldn’t even have the time to read a book. I would forever be tied to the man who was now drunk-snoring next to me. I counted the years before high school graduation, and one thing became clear: I didn’t want to be pregnant, I didn’t want a baby, and I didn’t want a child. I wanted to live a life of adventure and travel. I saw the future life I now live, and I needed it.
These days, I’m glued to the news, and the circumstances for women around the country are direr than my own pregnancy was. Some are unable to abort dangerous pregnancies, some are little girls forced to carry pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, and some are now denied cancer treatment because the drugs might lead to a miscarriage. Everything is always in degrees, but every woman should have the ability to terminate a pregnancy for any reason. Not wishing to be pregnant is enough. In 1973 when Roe v. Wade passed, affirming the right to an abortion nationwide, I was just a baby. I grew up as a girl, and then a woman, believing I had autonomy over my own body, and I could choose to live the life I imagined. Having an abortion would keep the future I had envisioned for myself intact. I would choose abortion to save my own life.
In the majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Samuel Alito writes, “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision …” and that the right to an abortion is not “deeply rooted in history and tradition of our people.” The Constitution was written in 1787 when women had virtually no rights; the Constitution also protected slavery and the slave trade. Although the US Constitution promises to “promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” the original document was meant for only a certain segment of the population: white men. Now we are seeing our laws revert to protect only that population once again.
According to Alito, “Ordered liberty sets limits and defines the boundary between competing interests,” meaning that a potential life now has more rights than a pregnant person. Our general welfare and the blessings of liberty is contingent on our ability to choose whether or not (and when) we choose to carry pregnancies to term. While it’s true that some women have families in their pursuit of happiness, other women — like me — could not pursue the lives they are meant to live if they are forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies. And though motherhood was never my dream, it’s a dream in need of protection, meaning women should not have to carry out pregnancies before they are ready nor seek out dangerous abortions that could lead to infertility or death. The right to safe and legal abortion is essential to women’s healthcare.
This is not about babies; it’s about controlling women, about forcing pregnancy and motherhood onto us so we assume our (proper) domestic roles. It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that the post-Roe v. Wade era brought many more women into the outdoors, including the first woman to solo hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart (1976); Arlene Blum’s all-women ascent of Annapurna (1978); and the publication of the groundbreaking Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille (1976). And the irony of recent social media memes about safe places for abortion access referred to as “vacation” or “camping” is obvious enough. Camping, along with other outdoor activities, is made harder, if not impossible, by forced pregnancy.
I do not regret the decision. We’re not supposed to say that having an abortion was the best choice we have made for ourselves; we are not supposed to say that our lives — the lives of girls and women — are more important than the almost-life of the fetus. And we are definitely not supposed to say that we would rather ski and hike and travel than raise children.
And some women who enter into parenthood with loving partners or have tons of family support and resources can certainly do all of these things — but I wasn’t one of those women, and I’m grateful I had access to safe and legal abortion, making it possible for me to choose the childfree life I wanted to live: one where I lace up my boots, head out the door, and follow a path through the woods alone.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, and Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties. Roberts was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler and splits her time between South Lake Tahoe and a green van named Shrek. suzanneroberts.net
Main image: The author backpacking near her home in Lake Tahoe (Thomas Greene).