One Writer Puts A Face To The Abortion Debate

During election season, a lot of the discussion around the issue of abortion is political. But for the women who undergo abortions, it's a deeply personal, and often painful, choice. Writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer recently shared her story in the essay, "My Jewish Abortion." She talks about it with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time to go "Behind Closed Doors." That's the part of the program where we talk about issues that we often discuss only privately.

And today, we want to talk about a subject that continues to spark emotional conversations and intense political debates. We're talking about the subject of abortion and every now and again, we are reminded that behind these political debates are individual women making individual choices.

The former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, an opponent of abortion rights, eloquently reminded us of this when she spoke about her own decision to go forward with her last pregnancy, when she was still serving as Alaska's governor. Here's a speech she gave in 2009, at a fundraising dinner for a right-to-life group.

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SARAH PALIN: I found out that I was pregnant while out of state - first, at an oil and gas conference. And while out of state there, just for a fleeting moment, I th- oh, I knew, nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know. Um - I thought, wow, it is easy - could be easy - to think, maybe, of trying to change the circumstances. And no one would know. No one would ever know and...

MARTIN: But there are, of course, women who do choose to have an abortion. An estimated 30 percent of American women will have one by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that researches issues like this.

And not only that, there are many women who feel it is the right choice.Our next guest is a writer who recently decided to speak publicly from that perspective. Sarah Tuttle-Singer is now a mother of two, and a blogger, living in Israel. But when she was 19, she was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley when she discovered she was pregnant. Sarah Tuttle-Singer shared her story in the piece "My Jewish Abortion." It originally appeared on the Jewish parenting site Kveller, in May.

And Sarah Tuttle-Singer joins us now. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SARAH TUTTLE-SINGER: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And I wanted to thank you for being willing to talk about this as well as to write about this. Because one of the things that we've noticed is that often, people can bring themselves to write about something very difficult, but they can't talk about it. And so I guess I wanted to start by asking you why you wanted to write about it.

TUTTLE-SINGER: There were many reasons. But I think the primary one was in a climate where abortion is such a polarizing topic, I felt that putting a face to the debate might be useful. And as you mentioned before, one in three women - or, you know, 30 percent of women - will, at some point in their life, choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. And I felt that by coming out in a public way and saying hey, I'm one of them, I might be able to help others do the same. And that could lead to greater discourse, and greater understanding, between such opposing camps.

And then I also felt, you know, setting that aside, that I wanted to share. This was something that - well, at the time, it wasn't incredibly painful. It became incredibly painful later on, when I was pregnant with my daughter seven years later. And I had a hard time reconciling a previous decision with the excitement of seeing this tiny blip on an ultrasound monitor and saying wow, that's a baby; that's life.

And so this was a very challenging, very painful process for me. And writing about it in this essay, which is actually part of a larger book that I am working on, that deals with this topic, was a step in healing. And then putting it out there and inviting reaction - both the positive and, you know, bracing myself for the negative - was also part of that as well.

MARTIN: At some point, I'm going to need you to explain - or it will become clear why the piece is titled "My Jewish Abortion." But I wanted to go back first, and just talk about where you were emotionally when you were 19 years old, a freshman in college, and you found out that you were pregnant.

TUTTLE-SINGER: Oh, I was all over the place. It was - um - I'll never forget the call I made. I actually, I tested at the student health center in Berkeley, and I tested with a friend. We both thought there was a possibility that we could be pregnant, and so we did it together. And the nurse thought it was, you know, some sort of sorority pledge thing. And we explained no, we're actually concerned. And my friend and I tested in adjoining bathrooms, and then we brought in our - you know, our specimens, our samples. And a few hours later, we had to call for the results. And I was really not expecting to hear the nurse say to me, oh, you are pregnant. That was the last thing I wanted to hear. And it was certainly something that felt so beyond the realm of possibility - which looking back on it now, is ridiculous. Of course, I could've been pregnant; in fact, I was. And I just remember feeling this shockwave of overwhelming dread, sadness, the sense that I was now grown up and had to make a very grown-up decision...

MARTIN: You wrote that one of...

TUTTLE-SINGER: ...even though my friend was right next to me.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. What about her? Do you mind if I ask what happened with her?

TUTTLE-SINGER: Oh, she got her period the next day. She was fine. She was not pregnant. But she was so supportive, and very much there for me. In fact, she is - she's Catholic, and she never said anything to me to make me feel like she was judging me or ashamed of my decision, or angry at what I ended up doing. Would she have made a different decision? I don't know. I never asked, and it's irrelevant. But she was, and still is, a very good friend.

MARTIN: You wrote that one of the feelings you had when you found out you were pregnant was quote, "nice Jewish girls don't get knocked up freshman year of college." And I'm thinking that, you know, sometimes when you are part of a minority group, you know, there is this sense that you have to be an example. You know, you've got to...

TUTTLE-SINGER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...you know, represent the group and that any, you know, personal failing - real or perceived - is, somehow, a reflection on the whole group. And I did wonder whether you were feeling some of that; that in a way, you kind of let down your side.

TUTTLE-SINGER: Absolutely. In fact, in Ashkenazi Judaism, we say - Ashkenazi, meaning European-based Judaism - we'll say oh, that's a shanda for the goyim - if a member of the Jewish community behaves in a way that doesn't represent the community as people would like it to be represented. So sure, that crossed my mind. And then in the aftermath of what happened, there was a lot of relief that I was able to realize that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, Jewish girl - nice or otherwise - to be in this kind of situation.

MARTIN: If you're joining us just now, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with author and blogger Sarah Tuttle-Singer. She's talking about her provocative essay in the Jewish parenting - published in the Jewish parenting site Kveller. It's called "My Jewish Abortion."

And let's go to, now, why it's called that. I mean, you did decide that you wanted to go forward with an abortion, and that you did have insurance. But there was a co-payment of about $250...

TUTTLE-SINGER: Worried about the cost...

MARTIN: ...and at that time in your life, it could have been - you know, it might as well have been, you know, $1,000 because it was money that you didn't have. How did the - your Jewishness fall into this? Or tell us, now, why you call the piece "My Jewish Abortion." What happened?

TUTTLE-SINGER: Well, when the social worker told me that I needed to come up with $250, and she saw this baleful look of dismay cross my face, she also noticed that I was wearing a Jewish star. And she said - she asked if I was Jewish. And when I said I was, she said well, there are organizations that support Jewish women in this situation. And she was able to put me in touch with them. And not only was it so helpful financially - because I was able to continue on with my choice, and have an abortion - but it was also a huge relief to know that there were other members of my community who understood that these things happen. And they were there not to judge and not to blame, and not to say anything to make me question the decision I had already made; but to say OK, you're in trouble, we're going to support you, and we're going to make sure that you can be safe and that you can heal.

MARTIN: There's been a really interesting reaction to your piece as - of course, you know better than anybody. I mean, there are a number of people who wrote in to the site, to say thank you for writing this because I, too, felt very alone; and I'm grateful to hear that you experienced so many of the things that I did. But there were other people writing in - as you would imagine - very angry, and also feel that...

TUTTLE-SINGER: Sure.

MARTIN: ...particularly as a Jew, that this is a choice that - a decision that should not have been made given that, you know, you lost the 6 million - right? - is what people will say. We lost the 6 million during the Holocaust and if anybody needs to stand up for life, it should be, you know, the Jewish people. Some people even went so far as to, you know - I mean, I don't need to repeat a lot of that stuff but, you know, Nazism, of course, was raised.

TUTTLE-SINGER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that?

TUTTLE-SINGER: Well, first of all, I think that it's wonderful that Kveller.com and my editor, Debbie Kolben, put up this piece to begin with because it does invite debate. And it will invite comments that are - range from thoughtful and articulate, to almost hate speech. And the critical comments were hurtful, to a degree. But I also feel that at the time, the last thing on my mind was doing what was right for the Jewish people. I felt this overwhelming burden - as it was - to make a very personal choice.

And I think that that's what's important; that when a woman looks down at a plus sign on a pregnancy test, or gets a call from the doctor with results that she doesn't want to hear, the choice that's made has to be in her best interest, and has to come from what that voice inside of her says is the right choice to make. And we should not take on the burden of Jewish identity in this. You know, we've got enough on our shoulders.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Sarah, I just can't hope but notice that I still hear a lot of emotion in your voice as we are speaking. And I know we just met, so I could be over-interpreting - and you're kind of far away. But do you still feel a lot of emotion around this even now, so many years later?

TUTTLE-SINGER: Sure. It never fully goes away. And while I don't regret what I chose to do, I regret that I had to choose what I chose. And I really hope that my daughter - I have a daughter and a son - I hope that when my daughter is 19, that she will - that she will protect her body, and not get pregnant unless she really wants to be pregnant because it is a very- it's an excruciating choice. And it's one that's never made lightly, not by any woman.

MARTIN: Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer living in Israel. She was kind enough to join us from Jerusalem. Sarah Tuttle-Singer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TUTTLE-SINGER: Thank you, Michel. Thank you very much.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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