Snapshot of Matt
When I was in the throes of thinking through the premise for this book, I found myself discussing it at with the husband of a friend.
He gave me good advice when he said, “Don’t forget the men.”
Too often, in the passion of putting a face on the difficult discussion of abortion rights, we forget the many faces of the men who love the women at the center of the discussion.
Matt is a square man, now past 50 and gray-haired, but once sporting a full head of thick blonde locks. His skin is fair and his cheeks ruddy. He has smiling eyes and a familiar gaze.
Matt’s story speaks of those men who come from a generation when back alley abortions were the only ones available. As the responsible partners of the pregnant women of those times, these men had their own sad stories to tell.
In Matt’s case, he was just 20, living in a southern state where there was little if any support for abortion as a legitimate consideration for any pregnant women. He came from a Catholic, middle-class family and says his father never really spoke with him about sex or contraception. In fact, he says, “…He died and never told me he loved me.”
But just as they existed in other places, individuals with varying degrees of medical training profited from the desperation of some women and offered illegal, clandestine and often dangerous abortions for exorbitant amounts of under-the-table cash.
A Marine veteran, Matt had returned to the university in his home state and was partying in his fraternity house in those days, as many sophomores tended to do. At one party, he got drunk with a coed who also had too much too drink and they ended up having sex. This pattern wasn’t, and isn’t, unusual at all.
These kids hardly knew each other: they were not in love, just acting on the alcohol fueled hormones of their age.
After that night, they saw each other on campus, chatted, but never really dated. Matt says there was an awkwardness between them because they were both, in some way, uncomfortable with what had happened at the party.
A few weeks later, the 18 year-old Maryelle, called to say she was pregnant. They were in a state where 21 was the age of majority and abortion was against the law, though illegal operations were available.
Maryelle came from a wealthy family, had traveled widely and was more worldly than Matt. As his mind scrambled with the news and he wondered aloud what they would do, she informed him point blank that she was going to have an abortion.
Her sorority, interestingly enough, had an abortion fund, even then in 1972. They loaned her $200 and she said she had another $100 of her own, but she needed $200 more from Matt to pay the doctor.
Matt says now that in those days a young man in his position was expected to either marry the woman or pay for her medical care, whatever she decided. He sold his stereo and a prized camera he had bought in Japan to come up with the money and Maryelle made all the arrangements for the abortion.
Matt says now he wasn’t even sure what was involved in an abortion. He was embarrassed to ask anyone but he did ask Maryelle what he should expect after the surgery since they would have to drive three hours in a car to get to the office where the surgery would be done. Maryelle told him to get a room since she doubted she would be able to travel for a while, so he did.
I wondered what the three-hour ride was like, and Matt said it was awkward since these two young people were thrown together by their own youthful bad judgment but, beyond that, they didn’t really know each other. He says now that he passed much of the time with her in the car asking her technical questions about what she was about to go through.
“The moral questions never became an issue,” he says. Maryelle was clear about her decision, and he never questioned it. They were both, he now observes, just “trying to get through it so they could get on with their lives.” It was clear to both of them that they were in no position to consider having a child together and marriage seemed absurd given the distance between them without alcohol and a party for a backdrop.
Maryelle asked to be left at the medical building and told Matt to fetch her three hours later. She never asked him to come in with her and he never volunteered.
He spent the next few hours hanging around this strange town and returned a little early to get Maryelle.
They went to the hotel room and she rested, but she was bleeding quite heavily.
A few hours later, Matt noticed she was getting gray and he thought she was hemorrhaging. He finally convinced her they had to go to a local emergency room.
Maryelle was covered by her father’s health insurance and, as a minor, she knew the ER was about to blow her- and Matt’s- cover.
Within a few hours, Maryelle was in the recovery room after a necessary follow up procedure to stop the bleeding. Shortly thereafter her parents arrived.
Matt says now that the mother went right to her daughter’s side without a word to him, but the father immediately took his fists to the young man and was beating him up so badly the ER staff intervened and suggested Matt leave the clinic so calm could be restored.
The Vietnam vet was relieved in a way, he offers, since he wasn’t sure he couldn’t be arrested for this illegal abortion complicity. This was another matter his pride had prevented him from seeking information about. He knew it was against the law but didn’t know what his or Maryelle’s punishments might be.
In the weeks that followed, Matt tried to telephone Maryelle at home, but those answering the telephone there would not put him through to her. Finally, one day, he reached Maryelle’s mother.
To his surprise, the woman thanked him for saving her daughter’s life.
“If you hadn’t done what you did and brought her to the hospital, she would be dead today,” she said. She also apologized for the father’s rage as expressed in the beating but said,” He was only acting the way father’s react…”
Matt sheepishly allowed that he certainly understood how the parents must feel about the situation.
After that, he and Maryelle saw each other on campus, but Matt noticed, “it was hard for us to look at each other, and neither of us wanted to keep remembering” the nightmare they had shared. Interestingly, he felt they bonded around the abortion in a way they hadn’t before that situation threw them together in such an intimate way.
The epilogue to this story is as interesting as the story itself. Now, three decades later, Matt says that if he had known more about what abortion involved and if he had thought about the potential for human life inside Maryelle, he would have had a harder time dealing with his Catholic faith at that time. His ignorance allowed him to go forward, but he now feels pregnant women and their partners should have the kind of full disclosure and counseling most responsible abortion clinics build into their services.
No one should have regrets later because of ignorance about the procedure itself. But Matt cautions that informed consent is different from trying to dissuade or persuade the woman one way or another. In the end, he still believes it is the woman’s choice and hers alone.
The fact that Matt continues to be thoughtful about the fact that he and Maryelle had created the possibility of a child had the pregnancy gone to term is not evidence of psychosis: it is simply the predictable conclusion of one rational, thoughtful person who has been in this situation.
Matt says this abortion story became the second most life-altering experience of his growing up. The first was Vietnam.
Years after he and Maryelle had gone their own ways, Matt married a woman whose professional life eventually led to a position in a medical setting where abortions were also provided. He says he felt so supportive of her work because he never wanted his nightmare- and Maryelle’s- to be a part of his own daughters’ lives.
In the end, Matt’s perspective on the three-hour ride into that great unknown abortion scenario he knew nothing about, and which ended so badly and could have ended even more tragically, made him committed to women’s choices despite his personal reservations based on his faith and background.
I asked him frankly if he felt he could ever drive his own daughter to an abortion clinic one day if she asked him, pointing out that that would mean the termination of an eventual grandchild?
“It always has to be up to the woman,” was his clear and unhesitating response.
The feelings of the men in abortion decisions are often overlooked. This happens because of the fear that if too much attention is paid to those feelings, the men will be empowered to override a woman’s decision to terminate. More important, the woman is the patient and her health and decisions must be primary.
Matt’s story proves that some partners, despite their own ignorance of the procedure or their personal reservations about the decision, can come to understand the necessity for this choice to exist and the need for women to control their own reproductive destinies.
By the end of our interview, Matt isn’t looking at me, I notice. His gaze is in the distance, focused on one dark night, and one bleeding woman whom he felt responsible for saving.
All these years, one marriage, and two grown children later, that night is still as real for him as it was when her blood was flowing onto his jeans as he carried her to the car.
“Don’t forget the men,” he warns.
I realize we mustn’t.