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My mother's abortion 

National View

On June 25, I sat with my mother and sister in the gallery of the Texas Senate to support Wendy Davis, a Democratic senator, in her filibuster against legislation that would limit abortions after 20 weeks and impose new regulations that would leave just a few abortion clinics open.

We were part of the crowd who raised our voices in anger as the Republicans who control the Legislature tried to shut down Davis, who spoke continuously for about 11 hours — unable to eat, drink, sit, lean or use the bathroom — to run out the clock on the session. We remained in the gallery until 1:30 a.m. on June 26, when state troopers finally made us leave. An hour and a half later, celebration erupted when we learned that the filibuster had succeeded.

Sadly, the victory was fleeting, as Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has summoned the Legislature back into special session to take up the issue again this week.

The legislation comes on top of Texas' sonogram law, which Perry signed in 2011. It requires a doctor to conduct a sonogram at least 24 hours before an abortion and to give the woman the opportunity to see the results and hear the heartbeat of the fetus. Though she can choose not to view the images and hear the heartbeat, the doctor must describe what the sonogram shows.

Her story

My mother, Sherry Matusoff Merfish, sat and yelled in indignation beside my sister and me in the Senate gallery. She has two graduate degrees and has built an immensely satisfying career as a political fundraiser devoted to the election of women who support abortion rights. She also embodies maternal warmth.

My mother chose to abort her first pregnancy, in 1972. She and my father, who celebrated 40 years of marriage on Jan. 6, met as undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin. They got engaged. Then my mother became pregnant. She was 20, and he was 21.

They knew they were thoroughly unprepared to be parents, but abortion was illegal in Texas at the time (unless a woman's life was at risk). This was the year before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, a case originating in Texas, affirmed a woman's right to have an abortion until the fetus was viable.

Fearing the stigma that would result if their families knew they had engaged in premarital sex and not used contraception, my parents did not tell their parents when they traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., to end the pregnancy. My mother remembers, vividly, that the doctor who performed the procedure treated her as though she was a criminal. A few months later, they were married in San Antonio.

Emerging faces

Until recently, fear of shame has kept her quiet about her experience, even as she passionately, publicly supported reproductive freedom. This is the first time we've discussed her abortion in public.

My mother waited until the evening before I began my first year at Wellesley College, in 2001, to tell me about her abortion. Her voice shook but never broke as she described her fear and her decision. She ended by reiterating that her choice was the right one and that her love for my sister and me was unequivocal. (She had told my sister, who is two years older, before she began college.)

I was shocked: At 18, I naïvely believed that only other women — not my family and certainly not my mother — needed this right that our family had long supported. We had volunteered at Planned Parenthood and canvassed for candidates who supported abortion rights.

My mother said she wanted to reassure me that I had no reason to doubt her support in any situation I might face in my own life. Although it took a few years for the shock to wear off, knowing made me even more proud of her and more determined to defend reproductive rights.

Recently, I heard my mother reveal her experience to four friends who are devoted to protecting women's right to choose. Strikingly, two of them revealed that they had had an abortion, and the other two had close friends who'd had an abortion. None had told my mother before.

What the movement for reproductive rights needs is for the faces of freedom to emerge from the captivity of shame. To my mother's generation, I ask: Speak openly about the choices you have made.

To all women: ask your mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and partners about their reproductive histories. Show that abortion has myriad faces: those of women we love, respect and cherish. You have the power to cement in the minds of your communities and families the importance of reproductive freedom. You have made decisions that are private, even anguishing, but the weight of this political moment demands that you shed light on those decisions.

The opposition is frightening, as more states try to restrict abortion, but there is tremendous power and safety in numbers. You are part of a society of women who have been incredibly courageous; I ask humbly for yet another show of that bravery.

Beth Matusoff Merfish, a native of Houston, received a Ph.D. in May from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

  • Until recently, fear of shame has kept her quiet about her experience.

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