Padma Lakshmi: When I Was 14, I Helped My Mom Get an Abortion. It Changed Me Forever.

padma lakshmi giving a speech
Padma Lakshmi on Why She Fights For Repro Rights BFA

I can’t believe that it’s 2023 and we’re still fighting for the same damn issue that my mother’s generation fought for: bodily autonomy. But it was a pivotal experience I had as a teenager, supporting my mother as she exercised her own right to choose, that has always reminded me why we have to keep fighting.

My mother has been a registered nurse for over 50 years, dedicating her whole life to caring for others. But when she was the one who needed help, an abortion provider—Planned Parenthood—was there for her. For us.

When I was 14 years old, my mom discovered she was pregnant. It was one test result in a folder full of test results: she was in the hospital, battered, recovering from a severe car accident—the same one that gave me the scar on my arm. Driving home from the Hindu temple in Malibu, our car was thrown off the road, falling 40 feet down an embankment. It took nearly 2 hours of sawing through trees and metal to rescue us.

My mom, step-dad, and I all suffered from life-altering injuries, but my mom was the worst off: half her rib cage, her arm, and her hand were broken, her sternum was severed, and her heart was under massive strain from a cardiac contusion. Both my parents were looking at months-long recovery periods where they’d have to stay home from work without pay to regain mobility, on top of a mountain of medical bills.

This was the state she was in when she learned of her pregnancy.

I remember hearing my parents talk late into the night, reviewing all of the bills and all that the doctors had told them. After everything her body had been through, the doctors warned that she could not safely sustain a pregnancy. Not by a long shot. So, she made the difficult choice to seek an abortion. It was a choice she didn’t want to make but one that demanded making. She asked me to go with her to Planned Parenthood for support.

When we arrived at the clinic, we were met with a swarm of anti-abortion extremists. They took a fraught moment we would never forget as it was and amplified every negative emotion by a thousand. From the jeering crowd, someone yelled: “If you really loved your daughter, you wouldn’t take her in there!” I’m embarrassed to say, in that moment, I broke. I turned, yelling over my shoulder: “It’s not me. It’s her!”

2016 los angeles times festival of books
Padma Lakshmi with her mother, Vijaya Lakshmi David Livingston - Getty Images

The truth is that she was there precisely because of her love for me. Regardless, it was none of their business.

I’ve always deeply regretted that comment, but I was just a girl. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: I felt slut-shamed. I didn’t want them to think that I was promiscuous. It was a white-hot flash of internalized misogyny that anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl knows all too well.

I wince when I think of everything my mother endured that day. At 14, I was hardly equipped to support her as I would’ve liked. I didn’t have the language or worldview then to say what I wish I could have: “Mom, you are doing what is right for your family. Thank you for caring about me in this way. Thank you for all the sacrifices you’ve made for me. I love you so much.”

Unfortunately for those protestors, the memory of that day formed a well deep enough to fuel my activism for the last 30 years.

To ban abortion is to pretend we live in a world where hard choices don’t exist. The choice between a mother’s life and an unviable pregnancy. The choice between failing your future for your present. Or, like my mother, the choice between preserving your health and protecting your family or completely upending it, financially and otherwise.

These kinds of hard choices are forced upon people everywhere, of all races, classes, and genders. They exist even if we don’t want them to, even if we try and wish them away, and even if our laws disregard them entirely. And when people do face hard choices, Planned Parenthood is there to help. Not to judge, interrogate, or shame. It’s an unmovable force of good, providing care to the most vulnerable members of our society when they need it most. I’m so grateful for them as they continue to lead the charge in fighting for our freedom of choice and beyond.

As I write this, eighteen states have banned or severely restricted abortion in all forms. Abortion isn’t the only right in danger: just last week, Tennessee issued a statewide ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors, disregarding every recommendation from the medical community. There are currently 399 anti-LGBTQ bills in front of state legislatures with similar goals and worse. Even here in New York, we still have crisis pregnancy centers, fake clinics that offer no medical care and only exist to shame people seeking abortions. These are all attempts to cut down or subvert access to medically-safe, often life-saving care that allows us—cis women, trans people, gay people—to live freer lives.

Planned Parenthood has been the target of so many attacks. Yet, they continue to offer many services above and beyond abortion: gender-affirming care, birth control, cancer screenings, STI testing, vaccines, gynecological care, health insurance registration—the list goes on. They even offer vasectomies! If men had to walk through a crowd of angry Evangelicals every time they wanted to get a vasectomy, protesting outside clinics would be illegal within the month.

The fight of our generation is for more than reproductive rights: it’s for bodily autonomy. Because it’s never been just about abortion. It’s about subjugation.

One group exerts power over another, forcing them to fit into the narrow-minded constraints of their religion or prejudices by any means necessary, even if that means causing needless suffering or death. And make no mistake: they can, and they do. If we want a just society, one where we have the freedom to shape our own destinies, these attacks against our bodily autonomy must stop.

It’s clear that we cannot rely on politicians or the courts to preserve our rights. We must rely on each other. For ourselves, for the next generation, and for all the generations still to come. We must learn from people like Gloria Steinem, Cecile Richards and the many brave women, men, and doctors who have shown us through example what civic responsibility and courage looks like. We must fight for what we’ve lost and all we stand to lose.

Our bodies, our choice. Forever, for everyone. It’s that simple.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was adapted from a speech given at the Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s spring gala, where Padma Lakshmi was honored for her life-long advocacy of reproductive rights.

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