Denise Emanuel Clemen’s new memoir, Birth Mother, chronicles her secret pregnancy as a teenager living in a small Catholic community in the 1970’s. Clemen asks us to imagine the shameful and powerless reality which, given America’s current political debate, might be closer to us than we realize.
Imagine a world where there is no such thing as birth control. No abortion either. Imagine a place where single mothers are shamed and baited. Imagine that the term single mother is replaced with the word slut. Imagine that you are the slut. You are pregnant. You are too dirty, too worthless, too much of an embarrassment to raise your baby. So you give him away.
Now imagine that this world is a real place. Because it was.
When I was a pregnant teenager in a small Catholic town in 1970, men were most decidedly in charge of women’s reproductive rights. The same issues are making headlines today. The Birth Control Panel. The Personhood Movement. The Hobby Lobby decision. In the past few months legislatures in three dozen states have introduced over 300 measures that restrict women’s reproductive rights. The desperation and damnation I experienced while struggling to keep my pregnancy secret in order to preserve my family’s good name rise up with a fresh dread. Decision by decision, state by state, young women are experiencing some of the same humiliations that I experienced.
1970. Seven months pregnant, age 17, at my senior prom.
The world was teeming with change when I became pregnant at the age of 16 in October of 1969. Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the moon just a few months earlier. Lounging in a folding chair in a campground in Kentucky, I squinted at a black and white portable TV that someone had wired to an electrical outlet at an RV hook-up. Neil bounded through the lunar dust as the evening buzzed with insects and conversation at the wonder of it all. Two years before that, the 1967 “Summer of Love” had taken place in San Francisco, but in my world, a man walking on the moon seemed less remarkable than young people in San Francisco experiencing their own release from gravity.
In 1965, two years before the Summer of Love, Griswold v. Connecticut had made information about birth control, and birth control itself, legal for married women. Millions of American women, living in more open-minded places, were already using the birth control pill by the time I started high school in 1966, but in my Catholic town of 3,000 people even the word “rubber” was still spoken in hushed tones, and there was no place that a high school girl or boy would have dared to purchase one. For Catholics, Pope Paul the VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed all types of birth control other than the rhythm method. The 1973 abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade was still only a glimmer in some non-Catholic’s eye by the time I graduated from high school and left my small town forever the summer of 1970.
The fall weekend during my senior year of high school that permanently changed my life and my son’s did not present many options. There was no way to prevent my pregnancy short of abstinence, which was something I didn’t quite manage on one particular Saturday night. Nine months later as I delivered my son without the support of family or friends, I took no consolation from the fact that I’d gotten pregnant during my very first sexual encounter.
Imagine it. Imagine you. Imagine me. Imagine then and imagine the future—because it’s happening right now.
Read Denise Emanuel Clemen’s new memoir, Birth Mother, only at Shebooks.