Michelle Kinsey Bruns

Pro-choice on Amtrak: The time I told a group of anti-choice teenagers about my abortion

Michelle Kinsey BrunsEd. note: This is a guest post by feminist activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns, who tweets as @ClinicEscort. Read her full bio after the jump.

The recording on my iPhone begins with ten seconds of ambient mechanical noise: the sound of an Amtrak train crossing the Potomac River, as heard from an empty, rattling vestibule between two of its cars. Then comes the click-whoosh of a door opening to one of those cars, and the rising voices of excited teenagers, arranging their luggage and settling into the seats they have just claimed. Twenty-one seconds in, very close to the microphone, there is an audible swallow. At forty-four seconds, one voice rises over the chatter: “Excuse me, please…?”

That is my voice (and my swallow). The other voices are those of fifty-five Catholic high-school students from Louisiana and their chaperones beginning their trip home from the 2013 “March for Life” in Washington. I am standing in the middle of their reserved car. I am about to tell them that I had an abortion, and I am about to tell them why.

I was one of them once. A Catholic-school kid, that is—never a marcher against abortion rights. I’d made up my mind that I was pro-choice by middle school, around the time they were forcing us all to watch the then-new, now-debunked anti-choice propaganda film The Silent Scream. I could never get past the terrible trap that an unwanted pregnancy must seem to be to the person enduring it. I spent a lot of time, back then, thinking about imprisonment and escape.

By fifth grade, Sister Miriam’s response to my attempts to contribute to Religion or Current Events classes was, “You can put your hand down, Michelle. We know what you think.” In seventh grade, I withdrew from a school speech contest because they wouldn’t let me talk about the one thing I wanted to say: the necessity of safe, legal abortion. 

Still, while I never had the chance to attend the annual March for Life in DC as a student, I might’ve said yes if I had, even in my capacity as Student Most Likely To Burn In Hell. What kid would say no to the chance for adventure hundreds of miles away from the classroom and the same faces that populated it year after year?

So I can’t really blame the littering, adolescent hordes who descend on Washington every year for being there. I do roll my eyes when their numbers are used by the Catholic hierarchies as evidence of a vast groundswell against the scourge of abortion, when it’s more a groundswell against the miseries of diagramming sentences on a dull gray January day.

When I remember how much effort my parochial school put into stifling dissenting opinions like mine, I know the Catholic kids who swarm my city each winter aren’t as well-informed as some of them think. So most years, I’m there at their March for Uterine Conscription too, in front of the Supreme Court with friends and like-minded strangers, holding pro-choice signs and arguing with dozens of adolescents—puffed up on privilege and inadequate adult supervision—who believe they are experts on sexuality and fetal development and parenting and medical tragedy and rape and regret.

This year, I had business in New York. I left town the day before the march. I swallowed my weird guilt for not being in DC—like those naïve kids and their exploitative handlers were getting away with it if I wasn’t there telling them they were wrong—by telling myself I’d attend in 2014. As long as there are field-trip-loving Catholic-school kids, there will always be a March for Life.

I got my chance to counterprotest much sooner than I thought.

When I boarded the #19 Crescent Amtrak train, New York to New Orleans, the day after the march in DC, I noticed an entire car, the one between my car and the café car, was being left empty. According to the conductor, it was reserved for fifty-five students who would come on in DC. Other passengers speculated that the group was headed for the Super Bowl in New Orleans the next week, but I felt sure these were marchers. I would share the train with them for only a few minutes—between their boarding in Washington and my stop in Alexandria, right across the river. It would be just enough time to tell them that I, like 1 in 3 American women, had had an abortion, and to let them hear, for perhaps the first time in their lives, a positive, no-regrets, post-abortion narrative.

I put a call out on Facebook, asking if any friends could board in Washington with a Flip cam, for posterity and maybe for safety too. What if nuns came at me with rulers? Or maybe the kids would fall upon me and rend my flesh once they had heard my confession—Catholicism is pretty bloody. No one stepped forward to volunteer, but I decided that if the students were indeed marchers, I would do my speech anyway, alone.

At Washington Union Station, the lights went off while the station crew swapped out the train’s engine from electric to diesel. I waited in the dark, thinking of all I would want to say. When a crowd of white teenagers finally appeared on the platform outside my window, their sweatshirts bore the name of a Catholic school in New Orleans. Some were still carrying their “I Am the Pro-Life Generation” signs, helpfully provided by Americans United for Life. I was right. I was on.

Minutes later, as the train began to cross the Potomac, I waited in the vestibule between my car and the marchers’. Outside, Pentagon City rolled by. Crystal City. Potomac Yard. I had at most 5 minutes before my stop. I turned on my iPhone’s voice recorder, waited ten seconds to make sure I was really going to do this, and then I opened the door to the marchers’ car.

The kids hadn’t settled yet. Most were anywhere but in their seats, stashing coats or pawing through backpacks that smelled of unwashed teenager laundry. I kept moving forward, not sure what my plan was. On my recording, their voices say “watch out, watch out!” to warn each other that someone is trying to pass. You can hear me saying “thank you very much” in a smaller voice than I even knew I had.

My audible swallow is louder, even. Finally, in the middle of the car, there was nothing to do but raise my voice and speak.

“Excuse me, please…?

“I wanted to say thank you for coming to Washington. We love it in my city when you come to visit us. It’s a gorgeous place and we’re very friendly to visitors.

“But what we’re not so crazy about is when people come and try to tell us how to live our lives. I know, as a person from the South myself—Georgia—that you all understand that.

“1 in 3 women in this country has an abortion. Sixty-one percent of them are already mothers. They all do it citing the difficult circumstances of their lives, and the priority of the families they already have.

“I had an abortion when I was eighteen. I had been an abused child; I had just gotten out of a place where I often went to school with two black eyes. And that abortion saved my life—”

My voice started to shake with adrenaline and nerves.

“—in the sense that I was able to take it back and become successful the way I am today. The rest of my family’s lives are still very poor, and very tough, and I love them dearly but I wish that they had had more options for themselves.”

Around now, an adult man with gray hair and black clothes strode up to me, asking “Who are you. Who are you?” The kids, for their part, were mostly silent, mostly listening—quite a bit more polite than they are when swarming the annual counterprotest at the Supreme Court, but here they only had me outnumbered fifty to one, so maybe that was the difference. I ignored the man, and kept speaking to the kids.

“I want you to think as you grow up and into adulthood about putting this passion that you have for this cause into making healthcare available for everybody; into making, for example, executions illegal if you are pro-life. Think about the inequities that force women to say say, ‘I want this pregnancy but I cannot raise a child.'”

The man in black stepped closer. “Who are you, ma’am?” I held up a finger—stay right there—and spoke directly to him: “I am a private citizen, who exercises my rights.”

I raised my voice again and finished. “Thanks for coming to Washington. Again: 1 in 3 women. I’m one of them. I will never be sorry. I will always be proud. Think of that, as you grow into adulthood. Thank you. Have a safe trip.”

Seconds later, the conductor announced the Alexandria stop. I walked back to the vestibule, picked up the bag I’d left there, and stepped off the train.

There was so much more I wanted to say—and there were places where I misspoke or oversimplified, in my rush, in my anxiety. I wanted to tell them that of all the cities in America, New Orleans is one where the reality of lives lived with one foot poised at the edge of the abyss should be plainly apparent to even the most privileged eyes. I wanted to say that New Orleans is two-thirds black, and black women have a fourfold maternal mortality rate over white women in this country. I wanted to talk about the recent Turnaway Study from ANSIRH, showing a rate of domestic violence among women who were turned away for abortions much higher than among those who got the abortions they sought, the implication being that pregnant women often stay in abusive relationships—a thing that I had intuited to be true when I was very, very young.

I wanted to say that even if a person who wants an abortion is not healing from a health emergency or a broken life, she has every right to exercise control over the use of her body and the direction of her future and it is a sin to suggest otherwise. Lastly, I wanted to return to the idea of not having the resources to continue a pregnancy, by saying that on the other hand, there are some women, including me, who actually never wanted children at all, and that is just fine.

But mostly I just wanted my voice not to shake. I can only imagine the patronizing emergency spin (“clearly a very troubled woman”) that occurred the moment I exited that car. It’s true I was troubled when I was eighteen. When I found I was pregnant, I told my boyfriend that I would kill myself, but if he wanted to raise a child, I would wait to give birth, and then kill myself. I had attempted suicide before, ending up hospitalized, at thirteen, for weeks. By eighteen it had begun to seem I might survive my childhood, but I didn’t believe I could survive being responsible for someone else’s.

Since then, though, I have survived and thrived in a way that would have quite simply not been possible without the abortion that cleared a path for me to eventually get here. I could explain, try to describe my husband and my activism and my career and my education and my friends and my dogs and my travel and my thyme plant and all the ways in which my life is so much more free and full than I dreamed as a child or a teen, but I’ve done enough justifying of my life to strangers this week.

You’re going to have to take my word for it. You’re going to have to trust me.

Michelle Kinsey Bruns is a longtime feminist activist and organizer who’s taken part in abortion clinic defense actions at clinic protests in seven states, using social media and online campaigning to organize, fundraise, and recruit volunteers to fight clinic harassment and other barriers to access for people seeking abortion care and other reproductive health services. She is on Twitter at @ClinicEscort.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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