'My daughter asked me what I thought about a woman's right to choose. I knew I'd have to tell her the truth ... I was raped and had an abortion'
Michelle Alexander was a first-year law student when she was raped by an acquaintance. Fearing she would be unable financially to provide for the baby, she had a termination. But what she didn't plan on doing was having to explain her decision to her 12-year-old daughter
My 12-year-old daughter recently asked me what I think about abortion. She walked into the kitchen, poked around the refrigerator, then spun around and blurted it out: "I can't decide what I think about abortion. I want to know what you think."
My daughter is an avid consumer of the news. Unlike myself at her age, she's genuinely interested in political news - news about climate change, racial and gender justice, and the next election. As her question hung in the air between us, I knew immediately that she had read the news that our home state, Ohio, had just banned nearly all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Kentucky had already done so, in a law that's since been blocked by a federal judge. Alabama would soon follow. Several other states were lining up in the queue, eager to strip women of the right to choose.
I took a deep breath. Her question took me by surprise and yet I had been waiting for it since the day she was born. I always knew the time would come when I would have to tell my daughters the truth: I was raped. And I had an abortion. One day, you may face these challenges, too.
By age 45, nearly one in four women in the United States will have had an abortion, despite a steep decline in abortion rates since 2008 that experts say is due largely to increased availability of contraceptives. The likelihood of rape is also high.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. This estimate strikes me as absurdly low, given what I know about my close female friends and family members.
I did not call my mother after I was raped, but I called her immediately after I learned that I was pregnant as a result. It was my first semester of law school and I was terrified that everything I had hoped for my future was suddenly unravelling before my eyes.
At the time, my father was unemployed. My mother was working a minimum-wage job. Miraculously, I was at Stanford Law School with a chance to pursue my dream of being a civil rights lawyer. But now everything was falling apart.
I was devastated, emotionally wrecked, not only because I had been raped, but because I was pregnant with my rapist's child. I wondered aloud whether I should just quit law school and give birth to the baby that had been forced inside me.
My mother listened quietly. She then told me that she, too, had been raped at about my age. She was raped by her boss when she was 20 years old. It was her first sexual experience. As she choked back tears, she said she never wanted her own daughter to experience the same fate.
I begged her to tell me what to do: should I have this baby? But she gently refused. "This is your choice, Michelle. Thank God you have a choice."
I found it difficult to face what had occurred. Like countless women, I found a way to blame myself. Why did I drunk-dial him at midnight? Why did I say he could come to my dorm room at that hour? Why didn't I scream? He wasn't a big man; he was rather skinny - muscular, but lean. Couldn't I have fought him off?
I did say no, over and over, and tried to stop him. But his hand slipped over my mouth to silence me and his forearm pressed down across my shoulders to pin me to the mattress.
I didn't call the police - not after he left my dorm room and not after I discovered I was pregnant. I never once imagined that calling the police could help my situation. It could only make things worse. I envisioned prosecutors, courtrooms and interrogations.
I was trying to survive my first year of law school, worried I might fail, wondering how I would make it through my first round of exams. The last thing I wanted was to become a court case myself.
Nor did I want a baby. I had no extended family to fall back on; no one who could loan me money to help raise a child; no place to go except to my parents' rented home - a place that felt temporary, at best, given their financial insecurity and recent eviction. I did not want to give a baby away and I did not want to raise my rapist's child.
At the time, I felt terribly alone but my circumstances were far from unusual. Black women in the US have the highest rates of abortion in the country, undoubtedly due to the severe wealth gap between black and white families - a gap that holds even among the poor.
The white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 (£14,242) in wealth - primarily due to intergenerational wealth transfers - while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zero.
Although women of all colours who are poor are far more likely than those who have greater resources to choose to end their pregnancies, the situation for black women is especially dire. Although our families often want to help, as mine certainly did, that frequently proves to be a practical impossibility. A 2014 report found that for every dollar of wealth owned by the typical white family, the median black family owns just five cents. Even if I wanted to give birth to my rapist's baby - which I did not - I, like so many others, could not turn to my family for help.
During my second year in law school, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Rust v Sullivan, that many worried might overturn the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v Wade. I recall some male law students arguing that abortion bans wouldn't be so bad, so long as there were exceptions made in cases of rape.
I wondered how a "rape exception" to an abortion ban could possibly help women, like me, who did not want to report a rape to the police and who could not possibly prove that a rape occurred if the man denied it.
Criminal cases take months, even years, to be resolved. Would abortions be allowed based on mere allegations of rape without any proof? If not, what would a woman have to prove in a matter of days, or weeks, to get an abortion in the first trimester? How could she overcome the inevitable denial? What man would admit to rape knowing that he'd face a likely prison sentence?
My own situation proved to be highly unusual in one respect. The man who raped me admitted what he had done and apologised. I doubt if he would've done the same if I'd been legally required to report the rape to obtain an abortion. I know many women who've been raped; not one has called the cops.
My rapist called the day after he violated me and left an awkward message on my answering machine saying he was sorry about "what happened". He did not use the word "rape". He asked me to call him back. I did not. More messages were left in the days that followed; each time he sounded more distraught, more apologetic, more despondent.
On the day I learned I was pregnant, I finally decided to call. I wanted to punish him with the news. Look what you've done to me. I wanted him to know that his actions had consequences and this was something we'd both have to live with for the rest of our lives, no matter what I decided.
When he answered the phone, he sounded relieved that I had finally called. I interrupted his efforts to apologise yet again to deliver my news.
After a long silence, he asked, quietly, "Are you sure it's mine?" I nearly threw the phone against the wall, but instead steadied myself and told him coldly that, yes, you did this.
"Oh, no," he sighed. A long pause. "Are you going to keep it? It's your choice, totally up to you."
"I know it's my choice," I replied.
An even longer pause followed. The silence stretched between us and I refused to be the one to break it. Then he said slowly: "I know you don't believe me, but I am sorry. I didn't give you a choice. I will never forgive myself for what I did."
I know many women yearn for an apology like that. Eve Ensler, the renowned feminist playwright, just published a powerful book, The Apology, that lays out in wrenching detail what she wished her father had said to her after years of brutal violence and sexual abuse.
What I experienced in my dorm room was far less horrific, but I still couldn't accept his apology. I didn't even think I wanted one. I told myself that I wanted nothing from him. I refused his offer to pay for the abortion. I refused to allow him to drive me to the clinic, or to care for me upon my release. I refused to allow him to believe that there was anything he could do to make up for what he had done.
And yet, years later, I realised that I was free. I no longer felt fear, anger, or resentment towards the man who raped me. Without even realising it, I had forgiven him. It's difficult to imagine that I would feel the same if he had shown me no care, or concern, or if I had been forced to endure a fresh wave of trauma in our court system, or if I had been forced to give birth to a child that I did not choose.
My daughter listened to my story with wide, frightened eyes. She did not want to hear that something like this had happened to me or that it could happen to her. Eventually she asked whether I thought my rapist's apology was truly sincere. Her scepticism was well-founded. After all, many abusive partners apologise over and over again for the harm they've done, even as they continue to do it.
I would never tell my daughter, or any woman, to accept an apology, or to forgive a man who abuses her. Nor would I tell any woman whether she should or should not terminate a pregnancy. Those are not my choices to make.
What I did say to my daughter, as she sat perched on our kitchen stool, is that I am filled with gratitude for the women who came before us - women who fought for the right to choose, who dared to imagine that we had the right to control our bodies and who said loudly and proudly that we should not be forced to bear children against our will.
Roe v Wade is rooted in a basic understanding that women's lives matter and that we have rights, needs and interests that don't vanish when we become pregnant.
Pregnancy and childbirth can be extremely difficult - emotionally and physically painful - and bringing a child into the world is an enormous responsibility. Deciding whether or not to give birth may be the most important decision a woman will ever make, potentially changing the course of her life forever - or ending it. Black women, in particular, have high mortality rates during pregnancy.
In some areas of Mississippi, black and Latina women are more likely than women in some of the poorest countries in the world to experience a pregnancy-related death. Forcing any woman to see a pregnancy to term may be risking her life as well as her physical and emotional health.
I said to my daughter, as a young woman, you will be faced with many difficult choices in your life and I cannot protect you from all that may come your way. You will have to decide for yourself what you think about abortion and everything else. I will always respect the careful decisions you make.
But, since you asked me, I will tell you: if we want to continue to have the rights and freedoms that were won in the generations that came before us, if we want gender and racial equality, and if we want the right to control our own bodies and destinies, we are going to have to stand up, speak out and fight for our right to choose.