2004: Vasectomy #2

In a creative writing workshop in college, I wrote an essay about being groomed by one of my high school teachers. (Maybe you did, too. It is a terribly banal coming-of-age experience.1) The essay recounted all the years leading up to an evening of chocolate martinis when my teacher nudged me into his bedroom. Replaying the scene in my head years later, the piece I get stuck on is what he mentioned over dinner: his vasectomy. At the time, it seemed bizarre and random. Later, I realized it was grotesquely calculated. And it was connected, too, to something else he said, in response to each of my ambivalently expressed protests (not interested, I'm seeing someone, that's not why I came over, I have my period): "Give me a better reason than that."

I called that essay "A Better Reason."

This is not that essay.

2023: On Telling the Abortion Story

But it might have been.

Because for over a decade afterward, I thought the story of my "relationship" with my teacher was a story of significance, one I ought to figure out the best way to tell. That was the true breach: not the meaningless five-minute sex, but the imposition of that stupid story on so many of my other stories, how for years it threatened to cannibalize the other essays I might write.

The grooming story is like the racist microaggressions story that threatens to drown out academic accomplishment.2 It is also like the sleazy date story that dominates multiple news cycles.3 It is a relative, too, of the sexual assault story that erases identity.4 The gun death story, the telling of which becomes a vocation.5 And the abortion story.6

These stories vary in form, kind, and impact, and I do not dispute their discursive power. They are the kinds of stories, to riff off Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we "cannot not want" to tell.7 By that same token, to borrow from Toni Morrison, one "very serious function" of these stories is "distraction."8 The violation resides in their overdetermining force.

These stories are impositions. They must be told, even though their telling by definition cannot undo what they tell. These stories repair no wrongs, past or future. They promise redemption in the present, but earn their tellers no lasting catharsis nor vindication. In the name of building community, they expose. In the name of disseminating knowledge, they exploit. Say her name. Know my name. Shout this story. Testify.

The story repeats with a difference: "ditto ditto in the archives."9 Every repetition is a failure, ironically internalized by future storytellers as a challenge to fail anew.

Because the alternative silence, erasure, forgetting, never knowing is worse.

2019: Pregnancy #5 / Abortion #2

State-funded medical schools in Arizona are prohibited from teaching medical students, including those specializing in gynecology and obstetrics, how to perform abortions. But to perform an abortion in Arizona, even just to dispense the pills in the brown bag, you have to be a licensed physician.

As a result, 80% percent of Arizona counties have no abortion providers, and there is only one health care center in southern Arizona that performs abortions. But you are lucky; you can get to one in ten minutes. In the car on the way over, saliva swells around your tongue until it's enough to wash a window. You lean out the driver's seat and spit onto the tar.

All the appointments online are two weeks away, so you just show up at the clinic and thrust your ID under the protective glass and ask to be seen as soon as possible. This is step one. There's still the transvaginal ultrasound, the mandatory 24-hour waiting period, the "do-you-want-to-see-the-ultrasound-image" and "I-have-to-describe-it-for-you" and "I-am-required-by-law-to-ask-you-again-do-you-want-to-see-it."

No. Nope. No. Oh, I'm sure. No thanks. I already read it. Already signed it. Yes, I'm ready. Yes, let's go.

"This abortion is elective." That's what you say when asked. The reason is not fetal health, not maternal health, not sexual assault, not incest, and no, you don't "decline to answer."

You check the box with an unwavering pen. Elective. Just like the sex. You joke with the doctor about contraceptive failure: you know, failure to use contraception. Good timing gone bad, just shit luck. This pregnancy was a stealthy mugger waiting to get you gagging on a leather purse-strap in the purgatory of an elevator-size vestibule. Where were you trying to go, huh? Where do you think you're going?

2023: Between Failure and Fantasy

In the wake of Dobbs, abortion stories, especially stories of denied abortions, are daily being documented and reported.10 They are horrifying, maddening, dispiriting, and increasingly familiar. The hope is that these stories will move readers, change minds, and sway voters even if, in an increasingly undemocratic United States, our votes mean less and less.

The contemporary abortion story therefore unfolds in a space between failure and fantasy: inevitable failure to transform the public discourse or halt the attacks on reproductive rights; tantalizing fantasy that if we can just tell the right story, identify the right teller, and narrate it just the right way, the abortion story might deliver the justice we seek.

The abortion story fails because it says too much. (Nobody wants to read the word transvaginal!) The abortion story fails because it says too little. (Make it more visceral, more bloody, more real.) The abortion story fails because you can never say why you made that choice. The abortion story fails at the level of plot. (What kind of motivation is that?) The abortion story fails at the level of character. (Playing victim; not sympathetic; first person or third?) The abortion story fails in the way of every subaltern speaker's story, because of its receiver's structurally-conditioned "incapacity to hear [in it] what we do not already know to know."11

If only we had a better story. A better teller. A better reason.

2015: Pregnancy #2 / Abortion #1

We had been married four years and already had a toddler when I had my first abortion. It was a total relief, but actually the pregnancy was planned.

I picked the day and bullied my husband, and I knew right away. I felt the embedding. I also knew that I had made it happen for all the wrong reasons. A desire for a child after a summer of friends with newborns. A desire to do it before I had to, because I had become too old. A desire to make something happen in my life when it felt, as I started the seventh year of an excruciating PhD, that nothing much was happening and whatever was happening was swallowing me up.

For a month I knew but did nothing. I thought of how I'd felt the first time I'd gotten pregnant on purpose. How I'd instinctively received the news as a blessing and a charge. I felt none of that this time. I felt only the contingency and randomness of individual human inclination. I felt like the butt of my own joke.

At the end of the month, I called my insurance company, then my local hospital and Planned Parenthood. My insurance would cover the hospital visit, but I'd have to wait two weeks, which was two weeks longer than I wanted to wait. Planned Parenthood gave me an appointment for the next morning at 8:15. I took it. I could pay the $400.12

2023: Defining Abortion

I know: that's the worst possible story. If you were trying to write the least sympathetic abortion story ever, that's what you would write.

Every abortion story has a who somewhere on the Madonna-whore spectrum. A why: virtuous "rape or incest" exception at one end; impulsive misstep at the other. A how: pills or clinical procedure; legal or criminalized.

Then there's the what. This part is trickiest. What is an "abortion," anyway?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an abortion is "the expulsion or removal from the womb of a developing embryo or fetus in the period before it is capable of independent survival, occurring as a result either of natural causes or of a deliberate act."

But also: an abortion is the "arrested or imperfect development of a structure."

And figuratively: the "failure or abandonment of a scheme or process."

Former usage: "a monstrosity"; "a person or thing not fully or properly formed."

Like my second pregnancy: "an ill-conceived or badly executed action or undertaking."

Early or premature. Spontaneous or deliberate. Literal or figurative. Chosen or undergone. Arrested or ill-fated. Failed or abandoned. Imperfect. Ill-conceived.

This tangled mess of significations has for years been exploited by anti-abortion policymakers and lawmakers, who operate from the sly, bad faith premise that there is no consensus on what an "abortion" is or when it should be legally permissible, but they declare with confidence we all agree it's a monstrous thing, you see, this bad, sad word that the President of the United States cannot even bring himself to say.13

My 2015 abortion was a five-minute procedure with local anesthetic. Afterward, I stopped to buy wine and ice-cream, which my toddler and I ate with gusto.

Long before Dobbs and the overturning of Roe, there was the steady creep of "targeted restrictions on abortion providers," known as TRAP laws. But instead of making a strong and affirmative case for universal, unconditional abortion access (no matter who, no matter why), too many "pro-choice" people equivocated with self-defeating promises of "safe, legal, and rare" abortions and patronizing language regarding "women and their doctors."

Now, those same doctors under legal threat are denying abortions to people with ectopic pregnancies and molar pregnancies. Denying abortions to people carrying embryos or fetuses with abnormalities that are not compatible with life. Denying selective reduction abortions to pregnant people who risk losing multiple potential fetuses. Denying abortions to victims of sexual assault, incest, and rape. Denying abortions to people, including children, who risk dying themselves if they remain pregnant any longer.

Which means it's clearer than ever what an abortion does: preserve and ensure life by rejecting unwanted or dangerous labor. It's clearer than ever what denying an abortion is: monstrous.

2013: Pregnancy #1

I got pregnant the first time for the same reason I went to graduate school: undirected impulse, and to please my mother. I had been told that a BA was not an adequate terminal degree. I envisioned achieving the PhD that had eluded my parents, my father ABD.

I recognize now my limited imagination. But I wanted to be a writer. And I was too conventionally middle-class to pursue an MFA, or an unpaid internship, or join the Peace Corps, or wait tables and write.

To graduate school I went. It was a disappointment, and it was the making of me. Some faculty kept their office doors closed all semester, and others left town on the first day of break. I turned in seminar papers that came back with sparse feedback, the pages still looking freshly printed, sticking back to front in the same configurations.

Somehow, I found an advisor who read me and challenged me, and I read enough books to complete my PhD. Along the way, I had a baby, a dissertation baby, the baby I had while writing my dissertation, though the truth is, I had her in order to avoid writing it.

2016: Pregnancy #3

I did write it though, and I got a job. And when I did, I took my daughter and moved, leaving my partner (also an academic) to complete his postdoc in another state across the country. Between teaching and his own job interviews, he flew back and forth to see us. He visited so often that our beefy, alpha-male landlord who once remarked approvingly that I was barefoot in the kitchen never noticed he wasn't there.

That was the first time I took a home pregnancy test. With our first child, four years earlier, I'd gone to the student health center for a blood draw and filled out a form saying I would be "happy with any result." When the nurse called with congratulations and I asked about the margin of error, her voice wavered. I thought, she said, this was what you wanted?

It was nearly Thanksgiving. Our two-body problem was about to be a four-body problem. I didn't drink for the rest of the year, but I didn't feel anything either, and by the first week of January, on my way to the annual convention of the MLA, I found out I was traveling alone. As pregnancy losses go, it was a mild rejection that was well-timed. Maybe, I mused, it was the completion of the previous pregnancy I'd only let progress six weeks. It was a bow tied on that gift of time. It was inevitable. It was a comeuppance. It was good and right. It was sad. It was a relief. It was nothing. It was a bathroom break. It was a purge. What would have become a baby was the smallest of bubbles. A few days later, I sipped wine at dinner with colleagues and was glad.

2022: The Vasectomy Story

"Abortion" is not one. Not one procedure, not one experience, not one definition. But there is only one entry for "vasectomy" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Vasectomy (n.): "excision of the vas deferens or a portion of this; ligation of one or (more commonly) both vasa deferentia, usually performed to render the subject infertile."

In the wake of Dobbs, "the vasectomy story" emerged in mainstream media as part of the response to the curtailment of abortion rights.14 "Men rush to get vasectomies after Roe ruling."15 "How Dobbs triggered a 'Vasectomy Revolution.'"16 "The US men embracing permanent birth control."17

The vasectomy story is the abortion story's ironic but revealing narrative other. It produces a complementary form of knowledge and reflects a related form of embodied experience, while offering a different point of entry into the ongoing fight for the fundamental right not to be pregnant.

The reception of abortions stories is heavily compromised by the ideological filtration and assessment of pregnant people's identities and motives. In contrast, journalists writing vasectomy stories ask the same questions (who and why?) with comparative detachment: this guy was influenced by Dobbs; that one just has too many kids. Abortion stories are mired in definitional and procedural mess: the what and how of the pregnant body undergoing a dramatic process to return it to its prior and desired future state. Vasectomy stories take for granted that at stake is a simple, unambiguously safe procedure, and that the person undergoing it is acting autonomously on the best information available.

The theme of the abortion story is trauma. Its subject, ideally, is traumatized. The theme of the vasectomy story is responsibility. Its subject is a hero.

How, then, are we to read vasectomy stories? On the one hand, they deflect attention from and offer yet another nefarious alibi for attacks on abortion rights (Just give the kid up for an adoption! Just tell your partner to get a vasectomy!). On the other hand, they invite a new character into the story, one whose actions lay bare "the brute truth of our relationality,"18 and refract the question of reproductive autonomy through the dominant figure of American citizen-subjectivity: the cis-hetero male.

Are vasectomy stories a new genre of abortion stories, to which the world will be more receptive? And would it be a success or failure for the cause of reproductive justice if this were the case? 

1960: Vasectomy #1

I hear this story fifty years after it happens.

A woman in her 20s is at her parents' home in Bangalore, India, recovering from a very real body trauma. She has just given birth to her third son. Someone enters with a letter from her husband, who is working hours away in the state where they live. His presence is not required here, where the woman is being attended by her sisters and mother. As is the custom, intergenerational reproductive labor goes on without the interference or involvement of fathers and husbands. Their two little boys run free in the family compound with a band of cousins, all watched over by female domestics.

The letter is short. Along with the expected inquiries about his children, the man informs the woman that he has had a vasectomy. His choice, a done deal. The woman, who is one of ten siblings herself, had hoped to have another child, a daughter. But she will never tell her husband this. Decades later, when she tells me, she will laugh. Ruefully, I wonder, or with relief? 

2018: Pregnancy #4

Some people love being pregnant. You hate it. It's not just the morning sickness (you vomit daily for seventeen weeks), or the excess saliva (the technical term is ptyalism), or the weight gain (they call you "torpedo belly"). It's the loss of bodily autonomy that you hate, the hypervisibility, the depression, and the confusing temporality of gestation, which is interminable and slow until, all at once, you and your life are irrevocably transformed.

Since you are carrying a fetus you conceived intentionally, and since you want to have another child, you accept these things, so long as your health is not in jeopardy. You can feel grumpy about being pregnant, even though you know there are others who want to be pregnant and aren't. You can chafe against this experience and still be grateful for each sign that your pregnancy is only hideous in a normal way. You will be relieved when it's over. You will bring into the world the child your labors have made and resolve never to be pregnant again.

Being pregnant is not like writing a book or running a marathon or climbing a mountain or starting a business. The possibility of life is not life, nor is it what the philosopher calls, in a piece of mathematical gymnastics, "half a person."19 Being a partner to a pregnant person is not the same as being pregnant, however much you believe in the power of radical empathy. The potential-maybe-could-be life doesn't rival the embodied experience of fashioning life, of thickening cervical mucus and rearranged ribs and the splitting of the abdominal wall and the devastation and remaking of the body that follows.

You have been inside a body when, bidden and unbidden, it begins to recalibrate progesterone, cholesterol, plasminogen, immunosuppressants, hCG. You know that an unwanted pregnancy is a sickness of body and mind. A thickening of the tongue that makes water smell, a heaviness in the gut, fatigue that rises like vomit in the gorge. A reflexive lowness, hogtied autonomy.

You do not wish it on anyone who doesn't wish it.

2020: Vasectomy #3

A few weeks before the declaration of the global health emergency, my husband "took up residence on V Street." It was his idea; he researched and scheduled it. I drove him to the clinic and back. He paid a $40 insurance co-pay. He put his feet up for a day.

For a long time afterward, I bragged about his decision to my friends and made sure to mention it to all my male cousins. Normalize the vasectomy! Tell the vasectomy story! I really was proud. But lately, I wonder: does he ever talk about my abortions, my miscarriage, that time I took Plan B because of him? Does he think about them as his abortions, his miscarriage, his mistake? Does he remember I drove myself each time both to and from the clinic?

2019: Pregnancy #5 / Abortion #2

The woman next to you in line is nervous. She keeps glancing at you, then, quietly, she speaks: Embarazada, y no quieres? You tell her: no tengas miedo. Es mi segunda vez. Es una buena organizacion. Seguro. You don't know how to say anything else in your grade-school Spanish, and this doesn't seem to reassure her.

Let's call her G. Later she's curled up in a chair across the waiting room when a tearful college-age woman walks out with the brown bag and falls undone into the arms of her waiting friends. It's like someone has died. This won't help G.

At six weeks and one day, your pregnancy is almost nothing: a gestational sac smaller than a fingernail, electrical activity in name only, no embryo, no heart.20 But it's enough of something that you've been vomiting each morning and your body has begun the loosening of ligaments that somehow burns your heart. Five hundred dollars will flush away the blood clots holding you hostage. Three times you thank the doctor and shake his hand like you're conferring a medal.

When you get your own brown bag, you walk out the door buoyant, elated, confident. You have the pills. You're going to get your body back. Your head back. You head back. You've got your own back. Tomorrow your life begins again. It's a matter of hours now. Every minute is one more than you can bear. Willing her to hear your story, trying as best you can to write your reasons on your face, you smile encouragingly at G.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan (@raginits) lives, writes, and teaches in Houston, Texas. She has written an academic monograph on identity and the pedagogy of Indian English literature, and she is co-writing an experimental memoir.


  1. Josh Levin, Susan Mathews, and Molly Olmstead, "Mr. Bailey's Class," Slate (April 29, 2021), https://slate.com/culture/2021/04/blake-bailey-lusher-journals-teacher.html.[]
  2. See, for example, Lorgia García Peña, Community as Rebellion: Women of Color, Academia, and the Fight for Ethnic Studies (Haymarket Books, 2022); Victoria Reyes, Academic Outsider: Stories of Exclusion and Hope (Stanford University Press, 2022).[]
  3. "The Fine Line Between A Bad Date and Sexual Assault: 2 Views on Aziz Ansari," NPR (January 16, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/01/16/578422491/the-fine-line-between-a-bad-date-and-sexual-assault-two-views-on-aziz-ansari. []
  4. Chanel Miller, Know My Name: A Memoir (Viking Press, 2019).[]
  5. Skip Hollandsworth, "Amor Eterno," Texas Monthly (June 2023), https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/uvalde-shooting-mother-grief-one-year-anniversary-gun-control/. []
  6. Rebecca Traister, "The Abortion Stories We Didn't Tell," New York Magazine: The Cut (July 4, 2022), https://www.thecut.com/article/rebecca-traister-post-roe-v-wade-untold-abortion-stories.html.[]
  7. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Robert J.C. Young, "Neocolonialism and the Secret Agent of Knowledge," Oxford Literary Review 13.1, no. 2 (1991), 248. []
  8. Toni Morrison, "Black Studies Center public dialogue, Pt. 2," at Portland State (May 30, 1975), https://soundcloud.com/portland-state-library/portland-state-black-studies-1?fbclid=IwAR1eh1xHKqm3zvG9Y4NMAMvWkFTle4-4uFhY4dahEFJQUrA2wCwjLVtwBNc.[]
  9. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), 56.[]
  10. Bryce Covert, "What it's like to have an abortion denied by Dobbs," In These Times (May 22, 2023), https://inthesetimes.com/article/what-its-like-to-have-an-abortion-denied; See also Jessica Valenti, Abortion, Every Day (Substack), https://jessica.substack.com.[]
  11. Eva Cherniavsky, "The Canny Subaltern," Theory after 'Theory,' edited by Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge, 149-162 (Routledge, 2011), 159. Cherniavsky is commenting on the signal move that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak makes at the close of "Can the Subaltern Speak?" when she turns the question of subaltern speech into the question of who is or is not listening.[]
  12. "Could you come up with $400 if disaster struck?" NPR (April 23, 2016), https://www.npr.org/2016/04/24/475432149/could-you-come-up-with-400-if-disaster-struck.[]
  13. "Did Biden Say Abortion Yet?", available from https://didbidensayabortionyet.org.[]
  14. Sarah McCammon, "Fewer abortions, more vasectomies: Why the procedure may be getting more popular," NPR (December 20, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/12/20/1143639556/vasectomies-dobbs-roe-abortion-contraception. []
  15. Meena Venkataraman, "Men rush to get vasectomies after Roe ruling," The Washington Post (June 29, 2022), https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/06/29/abortion-vasectomies-roe-birth-control/. []
  16. Jesus A. Rodriguez, "How Dobbs Triggered a Vasectomy Revolution," Politico (December 2, 2022), https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/12/02/how-dobbs-triggered-a-vasectomy-revolution-00070461. []
  17. Kate Morgan, "Vasectomy: The US Men Embracing Permanent Birth Control," BBC (October 26, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20221024-vasectomy-the-us-men-embracing-permanent-birth-control. []
  18. Chi Rainer Bornfree, email correspondence with the author, May 23, 2023.[]
  19. Agnes Callard, "Half a Person," The Point (September 5, 2019), https://thepointmag.com/examined-life/half-a-person/. []
  20. "The Issue of Tissue," MYANetwork, available from https://myanetwork.org/the-issue-of-tissue/.[]