U T E R O - N A U T




Part I


Forewarned by her caring mother, Shawnta noticed some radical rightwing pro-life demonstrators with Bibles and scripture-emblazoned banners were stationed down the block from the brand-new Margaret Sanger Memorial Privacy Center, as the state-of-the-art, feminist billboard-crowned abortion clinic was named. "You've come a long way, baby!" proclaimed the billboard, picturing an ipod-wielding, slinky young black woman with red dyed corn row hair style in black velvet and studded leather straddling a Harley Davidsen.

Fortunately, she was able to avoid them as she was dropped off at the entrance by her mother who was on her lunch break from work, and as for her boyfriend, he said he had to look for a "quality position for a person of his exceptionally high caliber" the last minute and couldn’t escort her in-—so that meant her mother had to leave work and transport her---as the jolting and the seats of buses were too hard on her in her advanced pregnancy.

Feeling a bit abandoned and anti-climactic ("been there, done that," though she hadn't), Shawnta began to wonder if it was such a good idea after all, but she was there—-and she thought she might as well go in and take a look around. That was all--just take a look around.

The security guard, coming out from a booth decked with Grand Opening balloons and streamers, checked her out head to foot visually and with his wand for explosives and knives and guns and Bibles, and she was allowed past to the receptionist.

The casual medical facility décor—-some generic, big huge potted plant on the floor, gold-framed pictures of hazy, watered-down pastels of multicultural scenes that didn't pretend to be either oil or reproductions of real paintings—-not one baby in them, of course-— presented instead the Pride of her gender, the heroic efforts of women to advance reproductive rights and the absolute, unabridged, First Amendment right to “privacy”—-along with some standard abortion banners—“A woman’s body is NOT everybody’s business” and “Privacy is a Woman’s First and Basic Right to Her Own Life!”, and "Breasts Aren't a Real Woman's Identity!"--all echoed what her mother (who had never kept a boyfriend for more than a few years at a time) had told her already, so she was prepared in that sense. Oh, she was prepared!

But why this horrible, pre-abortion sag in her spirits? And, should she stay, what happened next?

She had only vague ideas, since her mother was sterilized after giving birth to her and had not needed an abortion after that, and her friends who had aborted didn’t want to talk about it. They all said to her they had "moved on" with their lives.

Had they? After one or even two abortions even in high school, they seemed the same as ever to her, before and after the "procedure". But what could she know about the experience? she wondered. After all, she had just turned nineteen, graduated less than one year from high school, and was just really beginning her adult life, though she hadn’t yet moved out from her mother’s apartment into her own.

One thing she did have for sure going for her-—even without needing parental consent after 12 years of age in her state--she had the full, committed support of her mother and her latest boyfriend, who both agreed repeatedly that she didn’t have the time or resources to devote to a baby just now.

True! She was job-hunting, and going through a training course, and a baby was just out of the question. Besides, her boyfriend reminded her a number of times he couldn’t handle the disruption a baby would bring to their budding relationship. What with her boyfriend living in with her, her mother’s apartment was just too small too for an addition to the body count-—and so, all in all, it seemed wise to not let it go any further.

She had gone on too long as it was, and was afraid it was too late. What then? That scared her a bit.

She had the 700 bucks in cash from her mother to pay for it, but was she too late for the procedure? That was the question on her mind as she gave her name to the receptionist. The girl glanced at her fact sheet, which she filled out at the counter, and said, “No, don't worry, we can probably squeeze you in somehow, though it will be a bit tight with this terrific caseload we've had since the day of the grand opening. I just have to know when you can be available for the counsellor and prep work—-what days, times, and so on. If there is any problem, they can spot it ahead and take care of it then, and nobody’s the loser. Well, Shawnta, what works for you? We’re here 9-5, Monday through Friday, and we have a number you can call any hour of the day and night. And, before I forget, you get a special deal, if you give us names of your friends for referrals!”

Two days later, she stepped heavily and carefully off a bus (it was impossible to get another ride and her boyfriend had just had his Lexis repo-ed by the bank that financed it), she arrived on the scheduled day and was ushered into an office to wait for the counsellor, The receptionist left her alone, shutting the door quickly enough to dislodge a broom and attached dustpan, which fell to the floor with a bang. Shawnta, for nothing better to do, glanced at the furnishings.

Even with the lifesized poster of a stark naked post-operative patient smiling at her shrunken belly, it looked more in use as a broom closet than a psychologist’s office-—for there were even buckets beside the brooms and bleach containers and mops half-filled with scummy water.

There was no window either, which made her feel closed in. The bleach smell was the worst, however. Fighting a sense of being trapped down in a deep, stuffy plastic pipe, Shawnta shifted uncomfortably on the backless, swivel chair.

Why couldn’t she shift to the one good chair, while she waited? she wondered. But it belonged to the clinic psychologist, Dr. Poniewozak, she noted, from the various national psychologists' society certificates and gold-framed university graduation class picture on the wall.

She got up with difficulty and went to look at the picture. She couldn’t tell which gowned graduate was her counsellor standing in the ranks of hundreds of gowns and mortar boards at Miami University in 1973. Besides, the class was so young-looking, with the seventish look of long hair on the men and the sixties still hanging over on the women, with only a few showing wire rim glasses, long straight hair, and no makeup and bras. “That’s me, back row, twenty third from left,” a cheery if not pleasant voice interrupted her, and Shawnta spun around. she saw a tall, thin, graying woman with a horsey face, yolk-like eyes swimming in large spectacles that weren’t fashionable any more--not since the seventies or eighties she guessed.

“I was tall as the men so they stuck me with them,” Dr. Poniewozak explained, as she offered the swivel to Shawnta. “Fine with me too! While the boring president's and chancellor's and academic dean's patriarchal speeches were going on, I had quite some good arguments with the male chauvinists about patriarchal stereotyping!” She carried a clipboarded paper in her hand, and went and sat down at her desk. She examined the paper momentarily, then looked over her spectacles to Shawnta, who was beginning to sweat in the airless, freezing cold, bleach-reeking room.

“I am Dr. Poniewozak, as you already know. Call me Dr. Joan, if you prefer. You are Shawnta Placentia, I take it. Now please sit and rest. This should only take a minute. Now what are you confused about, dear? Let’s get any problem you might have cleared up now. I can answer all your questions--all your questions. Well?”

The psychologist glanced at her watch, then back to Shawnta, who was still trying to adapt to the surroundings and feel sure enough of herself to share her feelings.

“Well,” she began, with her usual shy smile, “I am getting pretty big as you can see, so I was in the area and thought I'd stop in for a moment, as I am wondering-—“

“Report says third trimester,” Dr. Joan interjected with businesslike brevity, getting right to the point. “But that’s no problem. We process thirds all the time here with the latest equipment we have on-line. Nothing to difficult for our expert Privacy team!”

Shawnta shifted again in the impossible swivel, which was hurting her now. “But it may have grown quite a bit by this time, so I was just thinking.”

Dr. Joan’s eyes turned up. She leaned forward, her elbows on the desk. “Who put that silly idea in your head? Nonsense!” She fumbled for something in her upper desk drawer, then rushed it in person to Shawnta to look at. With the picture or graph in her face, Shawnta tried hard to see what it was. Dr. Joan started explaining it immediately, her voice slow, measured, and very caring as if she were talking to a little child. “See, dear. This is a third trimester fetus. A fetus, understand? It’s not much more than a blob of tissue, as you can see yourself. Uninformed, uneducated people claim it’s a person, who want to save thirds like this one! How absurd and unmedical! It’s a blob of protoplasm—-that’s all. A blob!”

Even with the picture so close, Shawnta couldn’t see the “blob” as well as Dr. Joan claimed she saw it. The photocopy was dark, somewhat smeared, and she could only barely make out the outlines of a “blob” in the picture.

Dr. Joan whisked it back to her desk. “I can understand your concern,” the psychologist continued before Cynthia could comment further on the poor photocopy, “ but it is not founded on the facts--scientific, medical facts. Medically, you’re well within the perimeters of a safe privacy procedure—-I can assure you that! Well, now, we are running out of time for this interview and orientation, I’m afraid.

Do you have any more questions, dear? Let’s get everything perfectly clear before you go in to the prep room—-you don’t want to disturb us all here by wanting to leave the last minute or postpone the procedure or something like that, right? A girl who did that upset everything—-and then she came back the next week saying she had reconsidered. You can imagine, how difficult that made it for us—rescheduling her and all. You wouldn’t want to follow her example, would you? We can’t run an efficient clinic without full and committed cooperation from clients.”

Dr. Joan smiled so sweetly even with her horsey facial bones, waiting for the expected response, that Shawnta found it almost impossible to speak her own mind, as she really wasn’t sure of it herself. Why wasn’t her boyfriend supporting her decision by being present? She could understand her mom being absent, having to work, but her boyfriend, after walking off his rental car job hadn’t found any work in months—-and Welfare was all that was coming in these days for her—-which wasn’t enough to buy him all the electronics and videos, not to mention his beer and cigarettes, he was demanding she get for him. Her mother was complaining too--the refridgerator was always near empty, no matter how much she went for groceries.

“I—I'm sorry, Doctor, I can’t exactly tell nothin' much from the picture. My baby may be more grown than the one I think I see in this picture—“

Had she made a rude noise or something? The doctor, to Shawnta's senses, seemed to stiffen up as if highly offended.

“'Baby'? Fetus, dear! And ’More grown’—“? Dr. Joan interrupted with a bit of testiness in her sweet, caring voice. “Molds, yeast, fungi, malignant tumors and cysts, and various parasites and nasty, deadly pathogens in body fluids grow too-—which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with them as soon as we can, so what are you trying to say, dear? I don’t quite understand your delaying what you said yourself was clearly necessary for your getting that wonderful position you deserve as aide to Senator Kantwell.”

The word finally came to Shawnta, struggling with tears of impatience and frustration and fear. “Developed, I mean then!” she blurted out. “How do I know it isn’t thinking and feeling things by this time? How do I know it won’t know or feel what is happening to it?—“

An abyss seemed to open before Shawnta. She felt something black and like a giant industrial vacuum at her opened womb, beginning to devour what strange, nameless people dressed in pale green hospital smocks and caps were tearing out of her.

“That is absurd! How can a simple mass of tissue, which is no more than a blob of frog jelly, think and know anything? It simply can’t! You’re afraid of nothing at all! It’s all be over in a few minutes. Minutes! Thousands of little black girls like you--! It isn’t developed, it is just what I showed you in the photograph-—a blob of frog jelly.”

Dr. Joan glanced again at her watch.

“We really need to be going over the prep procedures with you and get started, as the Privacy Team will be waiting for you every minute you are late,” she said. Shawnta, who hated her boyfriend at this moment for not using condoms and letting her go through this alone, squirmed on the hellish swivel. ”But wait a moment. I am not sure about this. If there is any chance it will feel and think anything, I just couldn’t do this.”

Dr. Joan went to her bookshelf and pulled out something published by the leading abortion provider in the U.S.--a book used to convince young pregnant girls in public schools. She shoved it at Shawnta, flipping the pages rapidly. “There! All the world’s most expert gynecologists on record in this anthology-—all stating the exact same thing I've been trying to tell you—- it’s a blob, a blob, no more than that. Look for yourself!”

She riffled the pictures and articles, rapidly as before, than whisked the book away and back to the bookshelf, where it stood alongside a small gold bust of a middle-aged woman, with “Margaret Sanger, Founder of the Privacy for Women Movement” inscribed on the base.

Dr. Joan caught Shawnta’s gaze and moved in between the bust and Shawnta. “In less than a minute, it will be too late to take you today, for we have other cases back to back that can’t be delayed even ten minutes. Why not get this over with now, dear? It is so convenient to do it now, and not postpone it another day. What good would that do? You want to be free to take that exciting, new job for the senator, as you wrote down here, and you aren’t prepared financially to be both a single parent and a job holder, so you really need this procedure. Your medical history also indicates a family tendency toward high blood pressure and diabetes, and this pregnancy has already given you diabetes, correct?”

Shawnta could not deny it. “But my family doctor said it will probably go away after the baby--er, fetus--is delivered for possible adoption,” she said as if in defense of her pregnancy and the “blob” squirming inside her as if he or she were hearing every word of the session!

Dr. Joan grinned, ear to ear. “Well, if you terminate it now, the diabetes will go away all the sooner, right? Just another good reason to do it now, rather than risk the diabetes hanging on and causing all sorts of complications, such as infecting your toes and feet, so they have to be amputated.”

The swivel, by this time, was killing Shawnta. She had to get up, so she rose somewhat weakly, her head dizzy with the lack of blood that was all going to her now churning middle.

She felt Dr. Joan catch her arm almost immediately. “But that’s what they all say, dear. They don’t really know if it will go away or not. You don’t want to risk it hanging on after the birth," she repeated. "Diabetes leads not only to amputation, but blindness, even sudden death due to a heart attack—- it would be the end of any kind of quality of life for you, and you’re so young, just launching forth on a grand, exciting career with the government! Imagine, you've got the chance to work for a U.S. senator, and you're willing to risk it all for--for what? A blob of frog jelly! I simply can't fathom what you are thinking about--it certainly isn't about yourself! And adoption--if that is your choice--won't protect you against a single thing I've mentioned, and that is only a partial list!”

Shawnta, feeling faint and dizzy, felt herself escorted from the office and down the hall By Dr. Joan. Told to sit, she found herself sinking down in a comfortable chair, with several nurse-dressed individuals, male and female, With Dr. Joan no where in sight, Shawnta tried to get back some control of her life. “But I wasn’t through with the doctor. I was trying to explain something—-“

That was as far as she got. They were too busy to hear her, it seemed. The prep work and then the procedure itself took place as Shawnta continued to struggle with her feelings And doubts about what they were doing to her.

The two nurses, the anesthesiologist, and the doctor-—whose name was so foreign and full of syllables she couldn’t take it in--were very quick and routine with all they did to her. An hour or so later she was in the recovery room, or what she thought was a recovery room. The washing up was completed, and she had been painted with antiseptic solution. She was laid on the single table, a sheet draped over her naked body. Would they come and take a picture of her for a poster? she wondered, getting silly momentarily.

Where her clothes, shoes, and pocketbook were, she had no idea. She felt so strange, with the anesthesia still numbing her lower body parts.

She touched her tummy, and it felt sunk and wrinkled up like a collapsed beach ball. The feeling was so awful after having felt months of movement there she jerked her hand away-—the “frog jelly blob” was really gone! Gone forever!

The discovery made her almost nauseated out on the table. She didn’t know what to think. Then a realization crept over her-—something was wrong—but what? She had known mentally, what they would do-—and had requested it, after all, but now that it was done—it wasn’t what she had expected. She hadn’t really expected what she felt now—-not at all!

A nurse cracked the door, then came in. She smiled brightly, checked a few items on a report, then said she would be right back.

“Please rest a bit more and we’ll give you some medication and instructions for post-privacy procedure care.”

Shawnta tried to rest, but her thoughts were churning. She badly wanted to find her clothes and shoes and get dressed. It would make her feel more human, more like her old self, She felt she had somehow lost an essential part of herself in the clinic-—like she wasn’t Shawnta Placentia any more. But, then, who was she?

There was a mirror. She got up slowly, sliding off the tall table. Maybe the mirror would tell her, she thought. Holding the sheet around her, she took a look. A stranger looked back at her. Who was this puffy-faced, dead-eyed zombie in the mirror? Who? What had happened to herself? What Had they done to her in the other room? What she saw-—or, rather, did not see-—made her scream, and scream, until the door burst open and nurses grabbed her hands and stuffed something in her mouth that made her choke.

"Please shut up!" someone said. "You're disturbing the procedure in the next room!"

When she awoke, she was lying stretched on a table, fully clothed, and Dr. Joan was drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair. “My dear, you were quite upset about something a few minutes ago, and so you had to rest under a sedative we administer in such cases. I do hope, after your little rest, you feeling better, so you can make it home, or should we call a cab for you?”

Groggy, feeling ashamed of herself for screaming (for she could still hear her own screams), Shawnta only wanted to get away the very sound of that now loathesome voice of Dr. Joan's and the stench of bleach. No one had never dressed her, not since she was a little girl! Why had they done this to her? she wondered. She never wanted to see any of the people again at the privacy center. After what they had done to her-— taking away the person she had been, then clothing the stranger she had become like a little Barbie doll--what were they but monsters, the whole lot of them?

How could they justify what they had done to her, and then smile and act like everything was normal?

She rose by herself, made her feet move, heading for the door. “No, I can make it home myself.”

Dr. Joan pushed a packet of instructions for post-operative care at her, along with some medications. “These are yours, dear, and you can read over the instructions at home. If you have any questions, please call immediately. We are here to help you anyway we can. You do believe that, don’t you? Shawnta, I am asking you a question—-Shawnta-—”

Her voice rose shrilly.

Nodding to the female horse in women’s clothes, Shawnta fled from the room with the packet in her hand. She hardly glanced at the receptionist in passing. The street with its noise and cold, raw air and exhaust and roar of traffic were heaven to her after the stench of bleach, pine sol and antiseptics of the privacy clinic.

Dirty and deafening, it was real life—-and she felt, even with her legs and lower body so numb she couldn’t feel the pavement, that she was Shawnta Placentia again and could make it home on foot if she had to.

She got two blocks away from the clinic, then something went wrong. Her shoes got slushy, and she had to stop to look. That was her big mistake. She looked.

The packet of instructions and medications dropped from her hand to the pavement. People came running toward her as she knelt down, her bloody hands over her face.

Why wasn’t she screaming? Women used to scream when things went badly wrong. The slinky fox on the H-D super bike might not scream--but she wasn't that liberated. She could still scream--but absolutely nothing happened in her throat. It was like frozen, numb, soaked in chloro-something.

That was all she could think. Why wasn’t she able to get out one sound from her mouth-—try as she could to make a sound? She tried massaging it with one hand. It didn't work doing that.

Why were people's faces staring down at her, doing nothing? nothing!

PLEASE GO TO PART II, "The Argonaut."

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