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Stories Behind Women's Reproductive Choices

A woman's decision whether or not to have a child, to continue or terminate a pregnancy, to adopt or engage a surrogate, is often a difficult one, and each choice has a downside. VOA's Faiza Elmasry talked with the co-editors of a new book that explores the complexity and consequences of a variety of reproductive decisions, written by the women who made them.

As fiction writers, Karen Bender and Nina de Gramont have always believed in the power of story telling. When they decided to write about women's reproductive options, however, they chose to tell true stories. They collected and edited 24 essays written by women about their real-life experiences.

"The essays were so personal and honest in a way that surprised Nina and me," Karen Bender says. She points to "If," by Susan Ito, as an example.

"'If' is a powerful essay about her experience having a late term abortion with her first pregnancy," she says. She developed toxemia pregnancy around the fifth month. She was going to have a stroke. She had to have an abortion even though she didn't want to at all."

Abortion is just one of the experiences shared in Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion. In "Bearing Sorrow," Bender says, writer Janet Ellerby recalls when she got pregnant for the first time. It was in the 1960s and she was 16.

"She is sent away to a home for unwed mothers," she says. "She has a child and is essentially forced to place it for adoption and regrets that for her whole life."

Bender shares her own personal history of choice. In her essay, "Accidents," she presents an image of her grandmother jumping down the stairs. She was trying to miscarry her fifth child, who turned out to be Bender's father. She also tells about her mother's sister, who was mentally retarded, wondering whether anyone in the family wished that that aunt had never been born. Then, Bender talks about her own pregnancy scare and her choice not to have a baby.

"I was in graduate school," she says. "I had a birth control accident and went to get the morning after pill. And the doctor [at the women's clinic] refused to give me the pill. She just didn't want to. Then, I got it from the hospital, from a male resident who just said, 'O.K.' It made me see how to have other people to decide for you what's right is just not right."

Her co-editor and friend, Nina de Gramont, shares her experience, too.

"My essay 'Water Children' is about my two pregnancies, the first of which ended in miscarriage, and how it changed my personal views of pregnancy and abortion," she says. "Before I became pregnant myself, I had always been so absolutely pro-choice. I had never thought about what terminating a pregnancy actually involved. After I miscarried, it was hard not to equate this experience with abortion. In my essay, I wanted to talk about how I can still politically be firmly pro choice and yet, personally, have complicated feelings about abortion itself and what politics calls 'the personhood' of a fetus."

Editing other writers' works, de Gramont says, allowed her to see the complicated feelings behind the choices they had made. "Mother's Day in the Year of the Rooster" by Ann Hood, she says, was especially emotional.

"When I received the first draft of that essay, I was sitting in the kitchen with my daughter, reading it, and I had to shut myself in the bathroom because I was weeping," she says.

Hood recounts the anguish of losing her 5-year old daughter, who died from a virulent form of strep infection. Then, she chronicles her journey to China to adopt a little girl.

"She writes with so much compassion about the people in China who abandon their babies," she says. " Before I read this essay I was very judgmental of people who would do such a thing. Then reading her essay, it made me realize that people who do that really feel as if they have no choice."

De Gramont and Bender say they hope their collection of essays will help readers realize that no choice is absolutely wrong or right. It all depends on a woman's circumstances at the time. And whether or not they regret it later in life, the editors say, these women were courageous when they made their choice... and when they decided to share their experience with others.