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The sexual abuse I suffered as a child made access to abortion a necessity

Without Roe, what will become of kids like me?

The author in the early 1970s, around the time the abuse started.
The author in the early 1970s, around the time the abuse started.Read moreDebbie Millman

I thought I was the only girl in the world it was happening to. He told me if I told, no one would believe me. He told me if I told, he would kill my little brother and my mother. He had a menacing collection of sharp knives and I believed him. I always believed him. I was 11. Still in elementary school.

It began in the bathroom. First, there were showers. Then, one evening when my mother went out, he laid me flat on the bed and got on top of me. It was the heaviest weight I had ever felt. I laid there still, staring at the red and white box of Marlboro’s peeking out of some sweaters stuffed on a shelf in my mother’s open bureau. She had tried to quit; I suddenly realized she had failed, and this scared me.

That first year I did everything I could to avoid being alone with him. I stayed late at school. I buried myself in Seventeen magazine and Nancy Drew books at the library. I distracted myself with the local newspaper, attempted challenging word puzzles, used the Billboard Top 20 column every Sunday as the following week’s listening checklist on my transistor radio. I read about Watergate and Elvis Presley and the release of POWs. I wore several pairs of pajamas to bed — one layered over another — so it might take longer for him to get to me.

But nothing stopped him. The second year, I discovered a letter to Ann Landers in the advice column of the newspaper from another girl who was experiencing a lot of what I was and realized it wasn’t just me. Ann urged the writer to tell someone, anyone. But I knew I couldn’t. I cut the column out and hid it under my mattress. Knowing it was there gave me comfort.

Meanwhile, he became more brazen. I started menstruating and began to wonder what would happen if I got pregnant. My first periods were erratic, and I never knew if I had conceived. One month went by without a period, then two. I didn’t know what to do. I began to make elaborate plans: I would run away and live with my cousin in Miami. Then I remembered I had no money to fly to Florida. To protect my brother and my mother, I decided I would have to kill myself so no one would ever find out. I considered this every day for several months while I waited for my period. And I waited.

Then I got an idea.

I told my mother I was assaulted at school during a late afternoon play rehearsal. My story had details: I was knocked out in the girls’ bathroom and when I came to, my skirt was hiked up around my waist. I didn’t know what happened or who did it and worried I might be pregnant. Horrified, my mother notified the school and took me to see a gynecologist.

The doctor examined me and told my mother he did indeed find scar tissue, but the amount suggested I was having sex on a regular basis; this was not a one-time thing. He shook his head and declared that my story just didn’t make any sense. He decided I had a boyfriend. “In any case,” he said as he frowned, “she’s not pregnant.”

My mother and I drove home in silence. When we got there, I took the newspaper to my bedroom, climbed onto my bed, and closed the door. I saw that the Supreme Court had voted on a new case that gave all women the right to have an abortion. My heart started pounding and I realized that if I did get pregnant, I now had choices. I wouldn’t have to kill myself. My brother and my mother would be safe. Maybe we’d be OK.

I am now 60. I’ve grappled with my trauma in the ways I can, but what always stops me cold are the memories of how terrified I was when I thought I might be pregnant, how my life would be over, one way or another.

This is what is at stake when we talk about abortion. In Pennsylvania, the stakes are even higher. The right to an abortion is protected for now, but only by a thread. The Supreme Court has shifted power to the states to decide on abortion. The governor’s race matters more than ever. Josh Shapiro, a candidate for governor, will protect abortion access. Doug Mastriano will ban it.

I have young nieces living in Pennsylvania, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on abortion, I worry that they will not have autonomy over their bodies as they grow up.

Not being pregnant was my salvation. When pregnant people were given the right to bodily autonomy, all the kids like me were granted that salvation, too. And now, we might lose even that. Every child deserves a better future.

Debbie Millman is a writer, designer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and host of the podcast Design Matters. @debbiemillman

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.