Round Table: In the Wake of the Overturning of Roe v. Wade
The history of “the abortion issue” is quite different than the history of abortion; for abortion has existed all over the ancient and modern world, pretty much unregulated in the first four or five months of pregnancy (until “the quickening”), until the last two hundred years. In the American colonies and United States, recipes for herbal abortions were published and shared. Life “begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb,” was the English common law that guided the United States laws on personhood.
The first anti-abortion law in the United States was in 1821, in response to a sex scandal, and it penalized abortions performed after the quickening, not before. But the first real controls over abortion were exercised by slaveholders over their slaves. If a slave lost a pregnancy, the slave owner lost property.
In a bizarre twist, the recent Dobbs v. Jackson case that overturned Roe v. Wade keeps referring back to slave laws like a criminal who can’t stay away from a crime scene. As Prof. Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the nonprofit think tank CHILD USA, notes: “The Court majority thinks Dobbs is just like Brown v. Board of Education. It compares its overruling of Roe to overruling Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that slaves were property; overruling it meant slaves were free people with constitutional rights. In Dobbs, this Court views itself as liberating the fetus against pregnant girls and women. For them it’s a decision about liberty, not oppression.”
This idea that women’s bodies are property that does not belong to a woman herself has existed, as well, in many cultures, far into the past. Even rape of free women was initially viewed as a property crime against a woman’s father or husband.
In this round table we have invited women to reflect on childbirth, miscarriage, and abortion. Pichchenda Bao, a university-educated stay-at-home mother of three, a woman of faith, reflects on the nature of the human soul; Hyejung Kook describes her wrenching, medically complex miscarriage, and explores the potential for the criminalization of complicated miscarriages like hers in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson. Iris Jamahl Dunkle shares her experience of an abortion as an experience of the liminal space the soul inhabits on its way into and out of our physical life on this planet Earth. In the final essay, I reflect on the moral and ethical implications of denying women ownership of their own bodies, as well as the very real dangers to women in giving birth, and my own decision to keep an unplanned pregnancy as a religious, single woman.
Because you might recognize some of the schools I attended. Because I applied to medical school. Because I have a large vocabulary for a large variety of uneasy topics. You might be surprised that I’m a stay-at-home mother. Because I birthed three children. Because my body carried each seed of them to fruition. Because I labored in pain and released them from my body without help. You might be surprised that I didn’t dream of becoming a mother. I only dreamt of being loved. Because my ambitions are nonsensical. Because as a child, I learned the sun would die eventually, and I felt the profound dread that was the pull and prick of grief that is my own looming mortality. Because I continued to live anyway and learned to find the depth that rests beneath the surface of all things and learned to pay attention. You might be surprised that this is not a poem. This is me, saying you don’t know the whole of anyone. You might not even know the whole of yourself. So why, why, why, why would you think anyone anyone anyone has the right to determine the future of other people? What control do you think you will gain? What is power do you hope to wield? I, too, have been inside the Church. I, too, was taught that each life was an irreplaceable thread, unmistakable, unique through all time. But do we know when we are the warp, held fast, stationary, and when we are the weft, crossing over and under? We don’t. We were told to have faith in the loom. We have forgotten about the spinning wheel, the piles of uncombed wool, and the sheep grazing in the abundant fields.
Hyejung Kook: Missed Miscarriage
I was thirty-one when I got pregnant for the first time. We had been trying for about a year and found out when I was at six weeks. We were elated, but only one week later, I started bleeding. Trying to keep calm, I went to my OB’s office for an ultrasound which revealed a collapsed gestational sac and no visible embryonic pole. The tech said she needed to confer with a doctor and directed me to a small, windowless room to wait. I sat, seized with dread and worry until an hour later, a nurse stuck her head in and brusquely said, “Why are you still in here? You’re having a miscarriage.” I was devastated.
I didn’t know until I experienced pregnancy loss that 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage and that this was why women usually wait until the second trimester to share their happy news. Furthermore, I learned the body needs to pass what is called “retained products of conception.” You can 1) wait for the body to pass things on its own 2) take misoprostol, or medical abortion pills 3) get a D&C, dilation and curettage, a surgical abortion. The cervix is dilated, then the uterus is carefully scraped with an instrument called a curette.
My doctor advised a D&C, saying it was the quickest way to start trying to conceive again. I chose to wait, but after two weeks of bleeding and weeping and feeling broken, the follow up ultrasound showed I was experiencing a missed miscarriage, where the body keeps trying to sustain a non-viable pregnancy. I decided to take misoprostol, thinking it the less invasive choice. The OB warned me that the bleeding and cramping could be severe and prescribed pain medication. It was terrible, with intense contractions and blood clots bigger than golf balls, but instead of taking the meds, I tried to escape my pain by attending an alpaca festival. While unsuccessfully haggling over two alpaca wool teddy bears, I was suddenly driven to my knees by contractions. I grabbed the edge of the display table and tried to pull myself upright but doubled over again, and the disconcerted seller offered to come down in price. I named the bears Fuzzy and Wuzzy and held them as I cried during the drive home.
At my next follow up, there was still vascularized tissue, so I took a second dose of misoprostol and had another round of bleeding and cramping. At my third ultrasound, there was still a stubborn 14-millimeter patch of not-a-baby. I had been miscarrying for six weeks at this point, and the doctor told me there was risk of infection which could lead to infertility and death, and she urged me again to do the D&C, but I decided to wait. Just hours before my fourth ultrasound in eight weeks, I spontaneously began bleeding. The nurse who had so callously informed me about my miscarriage ended up being the ultrasound technician. She kept complaining about the blood—I think it made it harder to get a clear image—but I was finally done miscarrying. I have never been so glad to be a bloody inconvenient mess for a person.
On August 2nd this year, eleven years after that missed miscarriage, I voted to preserve abortion rights in Kansas. I don’t know how much more painful my experience might have been or if I would have become infertile or even died without the medical care options I had. I made the choices that felt right for me at the time, but had I known what I was going to experience, I would have done the D&C and spared myself eight of the most difficult weeks of my life.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle: The Dying Pear Tree
The half-dead pear tree leans toward the gravel
drive, flaunting its dead wood, its lack of blossom,
and memory enters the field of my mind,
bright flame, a red fox running, a signal fire—
Years ago, we met for dinner before
a Joni Mitchell concert. I barely
knew you. It didn’t matter. We both were
on a threshold without knowing it.
Over dinner we shared wine and stories.
And were surprised that Joni’s voice had transformed
from glass to gravel. The next day, as scheduled,
I went in for an abortion. It was clinical.
While my body cramped and expelled, I made
reparations with myself because shame
walked the sterile halls in strobed steps. I left
emptied of more than the five-week-old fetus.
Then the next day came the terrible news
that you had died: slipped in the shower, broke
your neck. Because you were a woman
living alone all assumed it was suicide.
Shame sang through the great hall of the church
where you were remembered, and I recognized
its hollow voice, its echoing out. What
had passed nonchalantly between strangers
that night had become a new, a confessional
built of glass, a fortress against languish,
a compartment of camaraderie I
still feel two decades later, looking at
the dead pear tree splayed across the too blue
sky. How I told you. How you listened. How
even now the sky sings back to me in
a gravelly voice that I, that you, need
I know the decision to rescind Roe v. Wade, depriving women of this choice, was based, at least in theory, on Christian beliefs and morals, but I am almost speechlessly passionate in my belief that by “saving” unborn fetuses from the women who are carrying them by taking the decision about a woman’s own body from her, we degrade half the world’s population, relegating women to the status of property; half the population without moral agency.
As I told my mother in response to her grief at my religious conversion to modern orthodox Judaism from Roman Catholicism: religious convictions are not rational, and they cannot be proven. So you can’t ever claim your way of believing is “true” or “right.” That is why religious tenets are called “faith” or “beliefs.” And so, as I write about giving birth to an unplanned daughter, as a single mother, 15 years ago, I am trying to separate the realm of faith from the realm of judgement. I am writing this because I am religious; I am a woman. I kept my baby. I chose to keep my baby. I had the choice.
Had I not had the choice, I would not have been able to mother my child in any real sense because I would not have been recognized as an adult human being by the State, by society. Sure, my body would have gone on creating the fetal neural network; my breasts would have continued to let down milk for the baby once it was born. But how could I have taught my young daughter that she has agency in this world, and she needs to develop a conscience and the ability of ethical reasoning, if I myself had not had moral agency?
I had the choice, and I chose to keep the baby; but I can imagine other circumstances in which I would have chosen not to. The material world is no joke, and the one I entered was already, in many ways, aligned against me. I’d grown up below the national poverty line. I was a first-generation university graduate, and I had put myself through college (it was still possible then). I got pregnant 6 months into my first tenure-track job after my Ph.D. My pregnancy meant I was 60% less likely to get tenure, and I depended on this tenure for health insurance and income. So did my daughter.
I’d planned a home birth, having come from a line of midwifes, so I was utterly unprepared for the placenta previa that almost accidentally killed my baby by my refusing a c-section at first. I didn’t know I’d have placenta previa in advance, and so, had I died, it would have been death from any stupid, preventable problem that people die from all the time. I knew a woman, a rising star in her field of research, who chose to carry to term, although she had to refuse cancer treatment to do so. She left behind a grieving husband, who supported her choice (he’d have supported her either way), and a two-year-old who would never know her mother, in addition to the new baby. She left so much work behind that she was only beginning to pioneer. I am grateful this family had the choice.
I also know more than one mother who chose to save her own life by terminating. And I know women whose physical lives were not directly at stake, but who would never have survived giving birth mentally and emotionally. It’s shocking how many women I know who have terminated fetuses conceived in rape. I know a woman who survived, even after an miscarriage, only when she repeatedly failed to take her own life. I know women who did not want to go through with it. And later, they did. Or they didn’t.
But I am absolutely certain this is a choice only a woman can make. Only she knows the intricacies of her family, her circumstances. Having a choice does not mean you’ll abort your fetus. Though you might. Having a choice means that one is given the dignity of being considered a human being, fully endowed with the ability to choose what is the most moral and ethical thing to do for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, and one’s world.
Pichchenda Bao is a Cambodian American poet and writer, an infant survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, daughter of refugees, and stay-at-home mother in New York City. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize nomination, an Aspen Words Emerging Writer fellowship, a Queens Council on the Arts grant, a Bethany Arts Community residency, and a Kundiman retreat invitation. More at www.pichchendabao.com.
Hyejung Kook’s poems have appeared in POETRY Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Other works include an essay in The Critical Flame and a chamber opera libretto. Born in Seoul, Korea, she now lives in Kansas with her husband and their two children.
Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning poet and literary biographer whose work challenges the Western myth of progress. Dunkle’s fourth poetry collection, West : Fire : Archive (Center for Literary Publishing, 2021) challenges preconceived, androcentric ideas about biography, autobiography. Her 2020 biography, Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020), rewrites the narrative presented of Jack and Charmian London by recreating Charmian’s life through her perspective. Dunkle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. www.irisjamahldunkle.com/
Marcela Sulak is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, City of Sky Papers (Black Lawrence Press, 2021) and the lyrical memoir Mouth Full of Seeds (2020). Her four translated collections of poetry from the Czech, French, and Hebrew have been awarded the NEA Translation Fellowship and long-listed for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She has co-edited the 2015 Rose Metal Press title, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Associate Professor of Literature, Sulak directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing and is the Managing Editor of The Ilanot Review.