My Body, My Humanity, My Choice
Written by Julianna Reidell (Arcadia University) as part of our Students for Shapiro series.
As the child of two historians, I grew up hearing a lot about my heritage. My maternal great-great grandmother was the first of my mother’s family to immigrate to the United States — she left Hungary while still a teenager, with no knowledge of English and no family waiting for her on the other side of the ocean. Her courage is incredible.
After working as a servant in the midwest, she made her way to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she raised her family, and would eventually pass away at the age of 82. With eight children, little money, and a husband who would eventually be injured in his factory job at the Bethlehem Steel, life wasn’t easy. I imagine that it became even harder when her oldest daughter, Margaret, died at the age of 23, following a back-alley abortion — though saying back-alley is somewhat pointless because of course all abortion was illegal in 1931.
Margaret Kovacs is, in my mind, my family’s great what-if. I learned from family that she was an actress, that she was ambitious, that she was the one who convinced her immigrant parents to move from Bethlehem’s South Side, at the time a more impoverished area, across the Lehigh River and into a more prosperous community. Whether her decision to get an abortion was her own — stemming from her experience helping to raise her all of her younger siblings and subsequent desire not to have any children of her own — or whether she was pressured into it by her husband is unknown. It doesn’t really matter though. What is known is that, due to the unsafe medical conditions under which the procedure was performed, she never got to see her 24th birthday. And because of the stigma associated with abortion, the cause of her death was never discussed — even her niece, my grandmother, would be told that Margaret had died of pneumonia. The shame sunk so deep that my grandmother would only learn the truth after she had children of her own.
But what could she have done — what could she have been — if she had lived?
I’m relating the story of Margaret Kovacs because she reminds me of myself. And, increasingly, I worry that, if Doug Mastriano is elected Pennsylvania’s next governor, I could be her — I, and so many other people like me, could share her fate.
I have always had moderate views when it came to abortion. I feel that there is power in the potential for life, for personhood, of an embryo and a fetus. I don’t think that the choice to terminate a pregnancy should be made lightly. But I also want that option to exist. And I am not arrogant enough to imagine that my comfortable existence is the same as everyone else’s — that there aren’t women and other people out there, across urban, rural, and suburban Pennsylvania, whose life circumstances might force them to make a hard choice that I, thankfully, haven’t had to face. It isn’t my place to dictate for every other person who can get pregnant how much power they can have over their bodies. Even if I can’t know that I’d ever seek out an abortion, I want to know that I could, should the need arise — that I have the right to agency, to control my body and my future. Every Pennsylvanian — every American — deserves that right.
What I have increasingly learned about rights, though, is that though the Declaration of Independence calls them unalienable, they can be taken away with startling ease. I’d never felt so vulnerable than when I learned that the Supreme Court had overturned the longstanding legal precedent established in Roe V. Wade. Hearing gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s stance on abortion — no exceptions for rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life — was even more heartbreaking. Never have I been handed so clear a message. You, your physical and mental health, your economic circumstances, your ability to choose your own future — even your life — are worth less than that of the man who might rape you, than that of a hypothetical person you don’t want in your womb. You are lesser. If you need to die to save that hypothetical, so be it. You are lesser; you do not get to control your own body — and thus, your own life.
To be clear: people who are desperate enough will still get abortions, even if they are entierly banned. Margaret Kovacs, did, in 1931. The only difference is that Margaret Kovacs also died.
History should not be made to repeat itself. Human beings — all created equal — deserve the right to make their own decisions about their bodies. They deserve a governor who will fight for that right, who has a record of fighting for that right — who will ensure that they continue to have the ability to obtain a safe abortion. I want a Pennsylvania governor who acknowledges and validates my humanity, who does not force his viewpoints on my body: who helps to guarantee I never have to face a choice — and an end — like my ancestor.
That’s why, this Election Day, I’m voting for Josh Shapiro — and choice.