On this week’s episode of The Cut, co-host Jazmín Aguilera talks with journalist Kathleen Walsh and her mom about abortion. Kathleen just published a story on the Cut called “Talking About Abortion With My Mom.” While the two speak with Jazmín, she asks the hard questions, like if Kathleen has ever gotten an abortion and how hard it must have been for Nicole, her mom, to become pregnant at 21. While the two may never see eye to eye, there is definitely some room for more understanding.
To hear more about Kathleen and her mom’s experiences, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
JAZMIN: Do you think that this is a topic that you are able to be swayed on in either direction?
JAZMIN: No. And then what about you, Kathleen?
KATHLEEN: Am I amenable to being swayed? Uh, no.
JAZMIN: [laughter] Okay, spicy.
NICOLE: Can I ever say anything without you going, “Mom, mom, mom,” and interrupting me?
KATHLEEN: You haven’t let me finish my sentence!
NICOLE: You haven’t let me finish mine.
KATHLEEN: My relationship with my mom is overall really good. When I go home, we usually drink a bottle or two of wine and we watch, like, Vampire Diaries and we hang out and we sit on her back porch. Over the past four years, I’ve been on this little project to move her over from the dark side. I’ve been relatively successful. She voted for Joe Biden and she lives in Michigan. That was like a major win for me, but on this one thing, we always get to this sticking point.
NICOLE: You put that baby inside of you, you are responsible.
KATHLEEN: No, fuck that, because …
KATHLEEN: Yes, yes.
NICOLE: I was not responsible for you?
KATHLEEN: Listen to me.
NICOLE: Are you kidding me?
NICOLE: Okay, well, we’re just going to never agree on this, baby doll.
KATHLEEN: My mom has always been super Reaganite conservative my whole life and that’s how she raised me. She had happened to call right after the Texas abortion ban went into effect. I was pretty fired up. She was like, What’s going on? And I said, this horrific law just went into effect in Texas and I’m really upset. And she said something like, Well, you know, Kate, I just think that sometimes you, I know where you stand, I’m just saying, well blah blah blah. I just couldn’t handle this argument again that day.
The last time we had this argument before I got mad and hung up on you, you mentioned a couple of things that I have serious issues with.
NICOLE: Okay …
KATHLEEN: One, the term “late-term abortion.” What does that mean?
NICOLE: For me, that would be 24 weeks …
KATHLEEN: She always says the same stuff. She always says, Well, what about late-term abortion? Or what about that 80 percent of women who got abortions regret them? I don’t know where she’s coming up with these.
JAZMIN: Do you remember the first time you guys had a conversation about abortion?
KATHLEEN: I have no idea. Growing up, we were a pro-life household. I don’t remember my mom sitting me down and saying “abortion is wrong” or whatever, but it’s always been a part of my origin story. I kind of remember abortion coming into the conversation in tandem with talking about my conception. It was always a story of my mom getting pregnant and then immediately felt like, That’s a baby. And that was the message that I always got. It never felt like it came from a religious perspective, but it always felt like abortion is bad because if I had gotten an abortion, we wouldn’t have you.
NICOLE: I was in college. My sister was working on Mackinac Island in 1988. And she said, “This is so much fun. You got to come here.”
I felt like I was madly in love, and we decided that no matter what happened at the end of the summer, we would make it work. There are no doctors on the island, you can’t get the pill. I couldn’t … you know. So I was buying the Today Sponge, which it turns out didn’t work, but it was very expensive.
KATHLEEN: No daughter should know this much about the specifics of their own conception.
NICOLE: Well … So I got off the island. I was carsick all the way home on the bus. I didn’t know what was wrong. I went out to dinner with my cousin. I kept having to go to the bathroom and she goes, “Could you be pregnant?” I’m like, “No, I’m never late.” That’s a stupid reason to think you’re not pregnant. So we get two pregnancy tests on the way back to her apartment and they’re both positive. I didn’t sleep all night, obviously. I was really freaked out because I did not know what was going to happen.
The next day we went to Planned Parenthood and they did a blood test, which was positive. I called Katie’s dad Dex at the time. At first, he was like, “It’s okay, we’ll work it out. We’ll get married, blah, blah, blah.” Then a few days later he was like, “I am not ready to be a father. I can’t get married.” I’m like, Oh my God. So then we went to the doctor and she promised me, “You will have the best doctors, this is your choice, I just want you to be completely informed and know where the fetus is and where the development is.” So she had this book and she showed me what my fetus looked like now that I was six weeks along. I was like, Well, that looks an awful lot like a baby: arms, legs, feet, hands, eyes … like, oh God. That was it for me. I went to the doctor and said, “I’m not having an abortion.” Then he said, “Well, we have to meet with someone about adoption.”
They definitely looked at me and knew I was not a candidate. She said, “You’re not emotionally going to be able to give up the child. I know, I’ve done this enough times.” So I failed the adoption interview.
JAZMIN: So someone could tell, even before you had made the decision yourself that you wouldn’t be able to do it?
NICOLE: Yeah. I had just finished my third year of college. I went back to Grandma’s, called my mother, which was a mistake because my mother was crazy and she got all mad that I had ruined her life somehow, and she was like, “You have to have an abortion, you have to have an abortion.” And then she proceeded to tell everyone I was pregnant. I’m like, “If you really wanted me to have an abortion, why did you tell everyone I was pregnant?” I needed support.
JAZMIN: So, everybody knew you were pregnant.
JAZMIN: Oh my God. You must’ve felt so alone.
NICOLE: I did. Yeah.
JAZMIN: How do you think your life would have been different if you had made that decision to have an abortion?
NICOLE: I don’t know. All I know is after she came out, I didn’t know how the world existed before. I felt that if I didn’t have another child, I had this one. I was satisfied. I loved her. I could never give up a child. This is what I wanted my whole life. Maybe it wasn’t when I wanted it, but it happened when it happened.
JAZMIN: What sacrifices did you make to stay pregnant?
NICOLE: [laughs] Everything. I gave up my home. I gave up college. I gave up all of my friends. I humiliated myself by going to sign up for welfare WIC. It was horrible, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I cried when I moved into our first university village apartment because it was so depressing. I was lonely. I did not have any friends. I had to work and work the whole time I was pregnant.
JAZMIN: Whoa, really?
NICOLE: Yes, full-time.
JAZMIN: Damn. So you’re nine months about to pop, and you’re still on your feet. Wow.
NICOLE: Yep. We had cardboard boxes for tables. We didn’t have a TV. We didn’t have a vacuum cleaner, when we finally got a vacuum cleaner, that was a big deal. And then my grandmother made curtains for the living room and for the baby’s room. It was all about making the life for this kid the best. So even though it was this little dinky apartment, I had them change the carpet out ’cause I was like, “This carpet isn’t clean enough and my baby is crawling around on it,” and I complained and they replaced it.
I was old enough. I know everybody isn’t cut out to be a parent. Everybody doesn’t feel the way I did, but at what point do you decide this is a human being, how important this life is. Katie’s always like, “But the mom’s life is always more important.” For me, it wasn’t. Her life was more important the whole time.
JAZMIN: Does the idea of abortion make you think about this moment for you and this decision for you and Katie?
NICOLE: No, at least not on the surface. When people talk about abortion, I just think, well, I don’t know. I have to think about that. Am I thinking about myself, maybe I am, without really realizing it? Maybe it is the subconscious thread.
JAZMIN: So Kathleen, why does it feel so important to you that you convince your mom to feel the same way as you do? Or is it so important to you?
KATHLEEN: It’s not necessarily that I convince her to see things the same way that I do so much as that I feel like it’s important to me that my mom recognizes how important a right this is for everybody. It just feels like I’m the reason she’s so pro-life, and I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to be a pro-life mascot. It’s hard to have this argument because it always comes down to like, “Well, I just love you so much. I would choose you. I love you and blah blah blah,” but like, it’s not about me. It’s not about your love for me. And so the conversations get sticky.
NICOLE: It’s not just my personal experience. Until you are pregnant, you don’t know how you will feel about that fetus inside you, you don’t know that.
KATHLEEN: I don’t know how I will feel, but I also don’t know how anybody else would feel. There’s a whole world of other experiences, of other lives. Whatever maternal bond or instinct, or a magical spiritual moment that you experienced, that’s not universal.
NICOLE: It’s also not uncommon and it’s not something you know about.
KATHLEEN: Mom, I’m not saying that your bond was not real or that it doesn’t exist for you or that it doesn’t inform how you feel. Obviously, it does. What I’m saying is that you’re talking about your feelings as if they were divine.
NICOLE: No, I’m not. I’m saying it colors the situation. It’s a piece of information you don’t have. And I don’t think we will have a complete agreement, or not, about this until you do have that information.
KATHLEEN: That feels incredibly unfair.
NICOLE: Talk to a few mothers. They all pretty much feel the same.
KATHLEEN: Applying universal significance to a sample size of one, like all mothers feel this way. You act like you’re the only person who has ever …
NICOLE: Not all mothers, not all mothers, but I would say the majority of them, yeah. She doesn’t think that me being a mother matters in this discussion. I feel like that experience, in her mind, shouldn’t matter as far as this discussion, and it does matter. And it matters to a lot of people. That does color the situation; it colors how you feel about unborn people. There’s no way for it not to. And I really do believe that most mothers do feel a connection to their child before it’s born. And, and a lot of us, we’ll put that child first. You hear about it all the time, mothers skipping cancer treatment so their unborn child can live. This is not a new idea. This is not just a me thought. It is something that she doesn’t have experience with.
KATHLEEN: Would it surprise you, Mom, to learn about the statistics of the number of people who have abortions, who already have children?
NICOLE: I don’t know, probably. I don’t have the exact statistics, but it’s either the majority or half or something like that.
JAZMIN: I looked it up. It’s definitely the majority — like more than 60 percent of the majority.
NICOLE: Yeah, I guess that does surprise me, but I don’t know. I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know what their background is. I don’t know how old they were. I don’t know how many children they have. I don’t know the circumstances.
KATHLEEN: Well, that’s kind of the idea. You don’t know the circumstances. There’s a whole world of other experiences, of other lives, of other maternal bonds or instincts that you experienced. That’s not universal.
NICOLE: I do have a strong opinion. I don’t feel like I have the right to dictate them to other people, although I don’t really agree with abortion as a good choice if you can avoid it. I would never do it, but I’m not about to say a baby is not a baby, inside of me, that is moving. That’s not about to change and it’s not about the change that I think when a baby has a heartbeat and hands and feet and all that … that opinion is not changing.
Whether someone should have an abortion or is able to have an abortion. That’s a different topic. It’s so … difficult. I will vote against late-term abortion.
KATHLEEN: Mom, don’t get mad. I feel like the things that you object to are not always rooted in real-world circumstances. If you talk about a fetus that’s past a certain amount of weeks or past a point where you can feel it or whatever, like the worst that happened in those times are vanishingly rare. The reason it’s important for abortions to be legal is that the abortions that happen at those times are abortions that people need for other reasons, it’s not like they just don’t want to be pregnant. There’s health or there’s a medical emergency for the pregnant person. The fetus is brain-dead or some …
NICOLE: I don’t deny those. Those are special circumstances. I don’t deny that.
KATHLEEN: Those are the only …
NICOLE: I’m talking about viable human beings
KATHLEEN: Okay, listen! So my point is I want you to vote on it. I want you to vote for abortion to be legal, because if abortion isn’t legal in those circumstances, then those people are faced with even more trauma.
JAZMIN: Yeah … Do you think you could ever be comfortable knowing that you and your mom will always disagree about this?
KATHLEEN: I mean, I’ll probably never stop hassling her.
NICOLE: That’s okay, I would expect nothing less.
JAZMIN: Do you ever see yourself finding a middle ground? Either one of you?
NICOLE: Yes, I do.
JAZMIN: What about you, Kathleen?
KATHLEEN: No, it’s funny because I think both of us secretly believe that the other one will come around. Like I think she thinks that I’ll get pregnant and all of a sudden see the light. And I’m just like, at one point I will come up with exactly the right metaphor and she’ll be like, ah-ha. Is that accurate, Mom?
JAZMIN: Kathleen, you don’t have to answer this, but have you ever had an abortion?
KATHLEEN: … I have never had an abortion.
NICOLE: Holy God!
KATHLEEN: Did you not know?
NICOLE: That was the worst five seconds of my life.
NICOLE: ’Cause, I don’t know.
KATHLEEN: What if I had said yes?
NICOLE: I don’t know. I wouldn’t disown you or hate you or anything. It just would’ve been a shock.
JAZMIN: Wow. Okay. So, Kathleen, if you were thinking about having an abortion, would you tell your mom?
NICOLE: Don’t tell me.
KATHLEEN: I think she knows that, which is why I’m surprised, but I would totally tell you if, for nothing else to be like, “I’m getting an abortion, now what?” Because I am myself. Mom, I haven’t hidden things from you in a long time, you know I would tell you.
NICOLE: I know, I know.
JAZMIN: Did you say that you didn’t want her to tell you?
NICOLE: Yes. I don’t want her to tell me. I don’t want to know that.
JAZMIN: Would it make you feel differently about … like think differently about …
NICOLE: Not about her, but it would hurt.
JAZMIN: How do you feel in that moment where she hesitated to tell you that she had not gotten an abortion? Why did that give you such a shock?
NICOLE: I thought, Oh my God, maybe she did. And then I would be okay with it. Just like anything. You accept your child, you love your child, no matter what. They’re going to make decisions you don’t agree with. I would come around to it. It would definitely hurt, though, because I would want to know why. What were the circumstances?
JAZMIN: What is the one thing you wish you could get across to your mom, the one thing?
KATHLEEN: Just that this maternal feeling that she felt isn’t for everybody.
JAZMIN: What about you, Nicole?
NICOLE: It’s probably the reverse, that’s our sticking point. Not that it’s for everybody, but that I would love for her to acknowledge that that is something she doesn’t know. I want you to acknowledge that it is a piece of information that you don’t have, that’s it. And that it might possibly, I don’t know, make you at least understand how I feel. Maybe not.
KATHLEEN: I would probably understand the strength of that feeling better if I had been pregnant, had a similar experience, I can acknowledge that, but I’m not gonna say that I don’t think that the experience gives anyone any greater authority in this debate.
JAZMIN: How does it feel to have these conversations together?
NICOLE: I can take it so long and then I’m like, Okay, I’m tired of this. I’d rather get to, “What did you have for lunch?”
KATHLEEN: I mean, I’m a debater. I like to debate. Yes, it can be frustrating, but I do get a little thrill every time we have some sort of breakthrough or something is communicated that we haven’t before. I don’t know. There’s something that keeps me wanting to have this conversation. ’Cause I feel that there is a place where we can meet and that we just have to get there. So yes, it’s frustrating and difficult and it can be emotional, but I feel sort of hopeful like we can get there. I’m sorry, Mom.
NICOLE: It’s okay. No, I love you.