When abortion was legalized nationwide in 1973, I was a teenager, and bothered by the idea of “easy” access to abortion, “abortion on demand” or “abortion as contraception.” Like many others, I worried about women “taking abortion lightly.” Even when a student in my high school quietly disappeared for a while, I didn’t question my judgments. She was pregnant, people whispered. Did she go to New York for an abortion? Or carry it to term and put it up for adoption? I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t ask her how she was doing after her return to school. Instead, finding comfort in moral clarity, I chose to remain convinced that we needed to control irresponsible women through restrictive laws.

What changed my thinking was reading the memoir of a French country doctor who paid house calls to poverty-stricken patients at their tumbledown family farms during the postwar years. Contraception was illegal in France until 1967. Abortion was legalized a year after the United States, but during the war, abortion was a capital crime. One abortion provider was guillotined as a warning to others. Anyway, this doctor drove out to a remote farm with no indoor plumbing, mud everywhere and children everywhere. He was stunned when his patient, a haggard mother in her 30s, told him, “Doctor, I’m pregnant again and you must help me. If I have to bear one more child, I will kill myself.”

For me, that changed the face of women seeking abortions. This woman had conceived a child almost every year since her marriage, with 15 more years before menopause. The story flooding our airwaves during the U.S. abortion debates was that of the young, unmarried woman sleeping around in the wake of the 1960s sex revolution. So, I never thought about parents just wanting to limit the number of children in their family to maintain their sanity or financial stability. But, indeed, in the U.S. today, some 60% of women seeking abortions already have children. I’d never imagined abortion as a responsible decision.

I’d also never considered that without access to contraception and abortion, women who conceived easily could feel betrayed by, even victimized by, their own body. Imagine the internal war of you versus your body that keeps conceiving long after you’ve had enough. The well-worn line, “Well, if you didn’t want a child, you should have thought about that before you had sex,” didn’t hold up here. What about the relationship between husband and wife? Would a husband also be willing to limit sexual relations with his wife to when they wanted another child? For a particularly fertile wife, that could mean making love only a few times until menopause.

Why would we think it our right to put such pressures on a relationship? Why would we want to force that woman to bear an 11th child, I wondered? What kind of inhumane legal system would force another child on someone who already had 10? And if we all agree that forcing 11 children on a family is too many (people choosing 11 is fine — I’m talking about forcing), then how many children do we think we do have a right to force on a woman and her family?

Once I had broken away from the stereotype of the “loose woman,” I had to ask, Why would we force a pregnancy and/or child on anyone who didn’t want one — or another one? Why would we do that to a woman, her partner, a baby (if the pregnancy resulted in a birth)? How am I demonstrating the value of life if I trample on the ability of others to make key decisions affecting them and their family?

Looking back at my earlier moral clarity, I realize that I was assuming higher moral ground that made me feel entitled to pre-empt other women’s ability to make decisions central to their lives. I was denying them the very autonomy that I would want. Women and families make complicated decisions every day. Abortion is not simple. Laws are blunt and not always the best answer. I’d rather offer people the space and means to think through decisions for themselves. This is how I choose to value life.

Palermo, a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress, is a Lewisburg resident and French professor at Susquehanna University.

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