Here at LOLA, we’re not ones to shy away from delicate topics. We’ve discussed our periods with everyone we know, including all the men in our lives from our dads to our investors. We’ve talked orgasms (or lack thereof), fertility (ditto), and mastectomies with amazing women who have been kind enough to share their stories. But we hadn’t tackled one of the most divisive cultural issues of today (and yesterday, and probably tomorrow): abortion. Until now.
We sat down with Barbara Kass, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist and mom of two, who has had three abortions: first at age 20, again at age 26, and then at age 44. In addition to her personal experiences with abortion, Barbara is also a vocal advocate and fundraiser for the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF). In our interview, she opened up to us about everything from finding an abortion clinic just one year after the historic Roe v. Wade case to talking about her abortions with her children.
Jordana Kier: How old were you when you got your first abortion?
Barbara Kass: I was 20 [in 1974]. I was in college in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin. I had a friend whose cousin was a gynecologist in New Jersey, and I had it there. It must’ve been in the spring or at the end of the semester somehow. It was a first trimester termination and it happened so fast… I have one memory of my boyfriend at the time sitting in the waiting room. But other than that… we’re talking 42 years ago. It was overwhelming because I was young.
JK: Were you using birth control?
BK: Yes. I went on the pill prior to Roe v. Wade, because I didn’t want to deal with an illegal abortion. And then when Roe v. Wade was passed [in 1973], I started using a diaphragm. And then I had an IUD. When IUDs came on the scene, I had an IUD for a few months. I used the dalkon shield, which was the first mass marketed IUD. If you look at it, you don’t want that inside you. It was also eventually taken off the market because people died. But, I got one. And it was really bad and gave me bad cramps. I was feeling miserable, bleeding for four months, and so I got it taken out. Condoms weren’t widely used at that time.
JK: What prompted your decision to get your abortion?
BK: I was 20 years old, and I was in college. There was no way I was having a child. I didn’t skip a single beat. I don’t remember contemplating anything else. It was a little upsetting because I was so young and I was overwhelmed because I had to figure it out and it was potentially expensive.
JK: Who did you talk to beforehand? Did you tell your family?
BK: I didn’t tell my mother. But, people didn’t tell their mothers things back then, like you guys do now! I told my boyfriend and my friend, who told me about her cousin [the gynecologist]. I made the arrangements.
JK: How did you feel bringing up this topic?
BK: Frankly, I have more of a sense of the stigma around abortions now than I did then. We were very young, and my friends were just really sympathetic, because nobody wants to get pregnant [in college]. But I guess there was that stigma, of being pregnant. That was more palpable to me than the abortion. And, also, this was post Roe v. Wade, so it was all very new territory. Maybe we weren’t sure what the stigma should be.
JK: What about your second and third abortions — can you talk about those?
BK: The second time I got pregnant, I was using a diaphragm but I thought I could play around with the rhythm method a little, because diaphragms are a pain, you know? I took one little chance and I got pregnant. I was 26, in graduate school, and I wasn’t married. I felt a little sad because I had little baby pangs… it’s probably something biological or hormonal. I was with my now husband and I remember we walked around Northampton. We talked about it, but neither of us wanted to have an unplanned child. So I went to a place called Eastern Women’s Center that is I believe the precursor to Choices. It was in midtown [Manhattan].
With my 3rd abortion, I was 44 and I didn’t think I could get pregnant! I mean, 44! At the time, I was seeing a private gynecologist, but she was affiliated with St Vincent’s in the Village and she couldn’t perform an abortion since Catholic hospitals restrict reproductive health services of the doctors who are affiliated with them. So I changed gynecologists.
JK: Talk us through the experience of getting an abortion.
BK: It wasn’t absolutely nothing because it’s invasive, you know? It felt like a bad pap smear. I was numbed, and then there’s a little suction where they take out the fertilized egg. They [my abortions] were all very early D&Cs [dilation and curettage]. Afterwards, you have cramps, and they tell you not to lift anything heavy for 24 hours.
JK: Was it easier to make the decision the second or third time around?
BK: When I was 19 or 20, I had no second thoughts. At 26, we thought about what it would be like to have a child then. At 44 I was like, no way. I remember crying a couple of times with each one. I never really felt ambivalent.
JK: Have you talked to your daughters about abortion?
BK: Yes. In 2000, when my kids were 10 and 7. I organized a Planned Parenthood mailing about Gore for the election. There were a bunch of neighbors and kids, and we sat around and stuffed envelopes, and abortion came up. One of my kids asked me if I ever had an abortion.
And I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t think about it, I just said, yes. A lot of people even at the table looked uncomfortable that I had said that, but, frankly, I really didn’t think of saying anything else. One of the kids asked me why and I just said I was too young to have kids.
The thing is, I wanted to be unobtrusively sex-positive without making a big deal about it. People get pregnant by accident or by mistake, or for whatever reason. Regardless of how they got pregnant, be it yesterday or 6 weeks ago by their carelessness, they still have a right to an abortion. People should be able to decide. I felt, when I went through it, I had a right to decide. I didn’t feel ambivalent about my rights in that regard. People should have control over their bodies.
JK: What are you doing now with NYAAF to further the conversation?
BK: Because of this country’s restrictive abortion laws, people can’t get quick abortions. There are waiting rules in a lot of states, so people can’t get an abortion as soon as they realize they are pregnant. And they end up needing a later-term abortion, which is more expensive and more invasive. They think their abortion is going to cost $400 and take an afternoon, but in reality it’s going to be $1500 and take three days.
NYAAF is an abortion fund, which raises money to pay for abortions that people need but can’t afford. Every state — some have more than one, Texas has two — has abortion funds which work with clinics to pay for abortions. In NY alone, they grant about $1,500 – $2,000 a week to provide abortions. NYAAF funds about 300 abortions a year in New York State. I’m amazed with their work and I raise money for them every year.
JK: Do you still use birth control?
BK: [Laughs.] I mean, I’m 62 years old. I don’t have any ovaries left.