Editor’s Note: This article was written in May of 2022
As I write this, I am reveling in bits of good news during increasingly dystopian times. Two years out of active cancer treatment and nearly 32, my annual MRI came back clear this week. Before each scan, I spend days in purgatorial scanxiety, keenly aware of the possibility for bad outcomes. This time, either due to exhaustion or the fact that my scans have become so routine, I fell asleep during the procedure, somehow soothed by the loud mechanical hum (and Taylor Swift on my headphones). The gown was floral and flowy, serving Golden Girls vibes (10/10 in my gown rating hierarchy), and the nurses swaddled me in a warm blanket. Also as I write this, I am achy and feverish from my fourth COVID vaccine dose yesterday, and war rages in Ukraine. These are strange times.
On Monday, I cried to my therapist about the fear I’ve felt since the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked. I have felt this terror only a few times in my adult life, all within the last several years: my cancer diagnosis, the realization that COVID was a big and scary deal (and I was immunocompromised), and now, as my health is once again under threat. It’s the kind of chest-tightening anxiety that keeps you from sleeping and floods the body with adrenaline constantly. When you finally sleep, it’s a reprieve, but upon waking you remember all that is weighing on you. The common theme among these experiences is physical danger, partially or solely influenced by policy. This time, I am also alienated from my own family members, some of whom are no doubt celebrating a development that represents another existential threat to me. I want to cry to my mother and seek her comfort like I would for other visceral fears, but I know she cannot (will not) provide it. I have a wonderful and wide support network, but there is something uniquely agonizing about needing comfort most from the person least able to provide it.
I grew up in an extremely “pro-life” household. I attended Catholic school and sat in on my mom’s Pro Life Society meetings at our church. I volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers, prayed outside of abortion clinics (I am horrified by this now), and donated my allowance to the Vitae Foundation on one occasion when I was eight, earning me an article in their newsletter. I perched on my parents’ shoulders at a Bob Dole rally, and cried when Bill Clinton was elected in ‘96 (I was six years old and completely devastated at what this would mean for “the babies”). Even as I got older and grew more progressive in my views, abortion remained a sticking point. It took years of friends opening up to me, new life experiences, my own cancer diagnosis and fertility preservation treatments, and a whole lot of deprogramming to arrive at my current stance. There are so many arguments to be made; frankly, I am exhausted from years of trying to make them for my mother, and I won’t re-litigate them all here.
But, what’s clear to me is this: You can only outlaw safe abortions, and this is not about protecting life or upholding Christian values. If they wanted to protect life and reduce abortions, they would advocate for universal healthcare, a strong social safety net, free childcare, paid parental leave, free birth control, and a thousand other things they vote against. They would support efforts to preserve our planet and reduce cancer causing chemicals in our air and water. They would wear masks and get vaccinated and would have welcomed efforts to curb the virus’s spread. A belief in the sanctity of life only when it is developing in the womb (and not when it takes the form of the hungry, or homeless, or sick, or poor) is myopic, and a selective disdain for politics is born of privilege and denies the real impacts of policy on life.
Whether we like it or not, policy shapes our lives directly. In my case, my cancer (diagnosed when I was 29) fed on hormones, and after chemo and radiation and surgeries, I require an additional ten years of hormone blocking therapy. Any pregnancies will be tenuous (given that chemo may have caused fertility issues) and must be very carefully timed because of the risk they will pose to me (which, to be clear, is extraordinarily difficult for me, as someone who dearly wants children). My fertility preservation experience was one of the first and only times I felt I might make headway with my mom. Surely, I hoped, she’d understand that her pro-life commrades’ advocacy efforts directly impacted me; insurance coverage for fertility preservation (and healthcare in general) is spotty at best, thanks in large part to conservative opposition. Even with a grant from Livestrong and discounted rates for cancer patients, we were out of pocket to the tune of about $15,000. The procedure was only minimally successful, resulting in one single embryo, for which we now pay monthly rent. That goes without mentioning the implied guilt of my long-internalized notions about life beginning at conception. If that is true, I suppose I am a terrible mother, since our “child” is in a freezer.
My mom took it upon herself to name our embryo. She called it Jack, as in Jack Frost, a nod to its cryopreserved state. When I told her how hurtful that was, she apologized, but the act betrayed a serious lack of understanding and sensitivity for the heart-wrenching situations I’ve faced, and those that lie ahead (and, more broadly, a gaping hole in her appreciation for the importance of reproductive rights). She’s also sent me articles about women who successfully carried babies to term while fighting cancer, and has reminded me that “there’s always adoption.” I’m sure these actions are, in part, a coping mechanism for her. She has to find humor and hope in the face of such terrible grief, and each time I’m sure she intends to be positive and helpful. I cannot imagine the pain of watching a child endure cancer. But I can speak directly to the pain of being the child of a mother who has (unintentionally, but by virtue of a willful denial of her political stance’s real impacts on me and all women) voted and advocated against my interests.
One of the medications that prevents my cancer from recurring is also used as birth control at certain doses, and I go to the hospital each month to have this medication injected. Each month, they first take my blood to make sure I am not pregnant. I am constantly reminded of my mortality and enmeshed with it—the risks of pregnancy. In a post-Roe America, will my medications remain available? Will I have to jump through endless insurance hoops to receive them? And if I become pregnant at a time that is not safe? What then? If I become pregnant and experience a cancer recurrence? The single embryo we pay rent for each month; what about it? What if we can no longer afford it? What if we never need to use it? What if we use it and the pregnancy does not work, resulting in miscarriage? What if the miscarriage then needs to be removed? What if I am forced to carry the embryo because it is now “a life,” even if it is not safe for me? My mother would probably say she believes in some exceptions for extreme cases, but she does not see that her side will (clearly) not make room for nuance, and that the terrifying dominos won’t stop falling at Roe. We face hard enough decisions without lawmakers invading our bodies and our access to healthcare.
Even though, as a Texas resident, I have effectively lived in a post-Roe state since SB8 took effect, the leaked opinion represents another rug of security suddenly pulled out from under me. I am grateful to be financially solvent enough to travel for care if necessary, but this will pose a real threat to me and so many women (Adolescent and Young Adult [AYA] cancer patients in particular). This is to say nothing of the fact that limiting access to abortion will disproportionately impact the economically disadvantaged and families of color, nor of the trigger laws it will usher in, targeting same-sex and interracial marriage and a host of other basic rights.
A very small, sad part of me hopes the worst will happen to me so that my mother will be forced to confront the inconsistencies of her beliefs; so that she will have to watch me choose between my survival and “murder,” knowing all the while she raised me to believe that abortion is distinctly evil. Perhaps then, she’d change her mind and see that by advocating to overturn Roe v. Wade for all these years, she has directly undermined my safety (undoubtedly the last thing mothers wish to do). But I fear this will remain theoretical to her and many others, who see their quest as a noble one, and the only issue worth voting for. As the U.S. runs out of infant formula and the supreme court speaks of a “domestic supply of infants;” as our country crests one million COVID deaths, and as we face an uncertain and terrifying future, they somehow see this as a victory. They fail to see the flaws in their logic because they are so deeply convinced this is the right thing (and maybe more importantly, their stance isn’t based on logic at all). As my best friend pointed out, their views come from emotion and sentiment, which are impossible to confront logically. So perhaps emotion–mine–will work? As the living, breathing, 31 year old child of my mother, I am asking for her protection. She can’t shield me from cancer, she can’t absorb my pain and grief, and she can’t do anything to change my possible infertility. In fact, the only way for her to protect me (my safety, my happiness, my future) is by changing her long-held beliefs.
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This is such a powerful article. I am also appalled by the lack of women’s rights in our country, but as the mother of a cancer patient/survivor, that’s the part the really hits me. Everyone should have their mom support them during cancer treatment. I know, that’s a very broad generalization. But that’s when you need your mom the most. I understand that not all cancer patients have that support, and my heart breaks for them.
Madeline, you’re an excellent writer – thank you for this thought-provoking article. My best wishes to you.