04/02/2012 09:59 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

The Lessons of The Scarlet Letter Today

Long life and lots of experience have taught me that nobody ever
changes their mind about abortion. But to put a face, or at least a
name, on the subject, here's a story:

Fifty-three years ago when I was 16 I sat in the family doctor's
office in Wheaton, Illinois, while my father, who was wearing a suit and
tie and his Kiwanis button, told the doctor that "we think Linda might
be pregnant." Brief examination demonstrating that was indeed the
case, the doctor asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to die, but
that didn't seem like a reasonable answer, so I said I wanted to get
married. It never occurred to me there was another option.

The doctor, who had seen my mother through a few miscarriages and had
delivered my younger sister, proposed abortion, said he knew a surgeon
who had injured his hands and was now performing them in a nearby, and
seedier, suburb of Chicago. The doctor had recently sent his wife's
best friend there.

So I had an abortion. My father cashed in some bonds to pay for it. He
never forgave me, of course, and my mother just cried. When a few
years later I told her the man who has now been my husband for 50
years had brought up marriage, she said, "Oh, Linda, does he know?"
Used, damned, shamed, everything but the red letter A on my chest.
Everybody has their own idea of punishment; mine is the image of my
father in the doctor's office while my mother cried at home.

Whether or not I go to hell for this deed is yet to be determined, but
when I hear arch, facile condemnations tossed off about events like
this I get mad. Pronouncements about my -- and all the other girls' --
low self-esteem and inability to say no are insulting, sexist and in
the end irrelevant. I know several women, in this nice neighborhood,
who have had abortions. Reasons: they were too old, they were not
healthy, the fetus was malformed, missing organs, would live briefly
and painfully. None was lacking in self-esteem or, heaven knows, the
ability to say no. Where is the sin here?

At the time of my abortion I was a lonely sinner. Much later I learned
that several of my classmates had the same experience. That we all
faced it alone, that we were so ashamed, so shamed, is all but

I think the question of whether insurance pays for birth control is
really a front for the roiling fears and wishes and regrets we all
have about sex and life and death.

Insurance pays for many things I don't approve of and yet I'm not at
the barricades. I think dexa scans are an agent of the devil, for
example, constructed out of whole cloth by the rapacious troops of the
medical-industrial complex. But go ahead and have them, and let
insurance pay for them and let GE reap another fortune. And who says
the gimpy knee that needs replacing isn't the knee-owner's fault? Too
much aerobics (low self-esteem), too many ice cream bars (inability to
say no), bad genetics, bad behavior, bad karma, cataclysmic failure of
the cartilage.

I am so glad that my granddaughters will never have to feel the
low-clouds-and-thunder disapprobation that I experienced. They will be
good to themselves, honest citizens, kind humans, and if they want to
be, good mothers like their own mothers.

In the meantime I think we all should be rereading The Scarlet Letter.
It's a story that has much to say about women and men and the shifty
ideas of sin.