A mother-daughter moment: Gail Pellerin and daughter Emily lament the surreal post-Roe world they share

Emily Chaffin and Gail Pellerin are trying to comprehend this complex moment together.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Gail Pellerin — who is running for California State Assembly District 28 — had an abortion when she was 26. She told her daughter, Emily, her story just before Emily left for college. It was hard for the then-Santa Cruz County Clerk to make herself that vulnerable. But her openness changed their relationship and made Emily more willing to talk to Gail about her sexual assault a few years later. In a Community Voices opinion piece, they talk about their mother-daughter bond, their fury over the end of Roe and the fight that lies ahead to secure abortion rights for women.

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Gail Pellerin: I felt like I was punched in the gut the morning of June 24, when I heard the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. I feel so fortunate to have lived through my reproductive years with Roe v. Wade being the law of the land. I am so sorry you don’t have that freedom, Emily.

As your mother, I am frightened about this new world we live in where rights are being taken away. I’m concerned about how it is going to impact you and others who are in their reproductive years. I want to protect you from the hatred and patriarchy in this world, and it breaks my heart that I can’t.

You remember my abortion story.

I shared it with you when you went off to college at UC Davis because I wanted to remove the stigma, put a face of someone you loved behind the debate, and be an example of the options you have. We’ve had a lot of tough discussions over the years.

I wasn’t the stay-at-home mom you may have wanted, but I did my best. Sharing this story was different. I didn’t often talk about life “before” your dad, when I was a single woman working and living a single woman’s life.

I worried what you would think of me. But I also didn’t want any secrets between us, so I told you. When I was 26 — just two years older than you are now — I got pregnant when my birth control failed. I made the difficult decision to have an abortion. As it turned out, I began to miscarry the day before the scheduled appointment, but still went in for the procedure.

If I had been forced to have an unplanned pregnancy at 26, I would not be the woman I am today. I could not have handled the responsibility then. I am angry and outraged that women, including you, will not have that choice in more than half our states.

Emily Chaffin: I woke up June 24 in hopes of celebrating your 60th birthday. I planned on spending the entire day with you: watching the sunrise by the wharf, a walk on Its Beach with your dog, Darwin, and a barbecue at home with friends. I organized your favorite foods: marinated chicken from Shopper’s Corner, grilled veggies from our Homeless Garden share, a big salad, bread from Tartine, and your favorite Have’A chips and guacamole.

You are running for office. It’s going to be a hectic time until November, and I wanted chill time to just be with you. I wanted the day to be one of celebration, but instead I was angry, hurt, confused, betrayed by my government. This is not the America I know and trust.

Of course I remember that conversation. I was 18. It was hard to hear about your life before Dad, but I’m glad you were open and honest with me. It helped me know that I could also be vulnerable with you. You have had so much success, it’s hard to imagine that you also struggled. I felt proud that you trusted me with your story and that you opened your life to me in that way. I felt like you had begun to see me as an adult.

Emily Chaffin and Gail Pellerin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Gail: Yes. That was a special time. We were evolving from a parent-child relationship to a relationship between adults. I was still — and still am — your mother, but our dynamic had shifted a bit. When you become a parent to an adult, you can begin to share your vulnerabilities like you can’t with a child.

Now we are sharing a dark time in our nation’s history. We now live in two Americas. One that respects a woman’s right to abortion health care. The other America where a womb is now a crime scene. Like so many mothers, I wish I could promise it will be OK, that it will get better. I hope so. But I just don’t know right now. This might mean you will be more limited in where you choose to live than I was.

Emily: I feel lucky that I live in California. But I’m scared to think of what will happen to those who live in one of the states that will ban abortion. The luck of where you live may determine whether you live or die. People who live in states that are banning abortion will do whatever it takes to end an unwanted pregnancy. People my age and younger. Students in college. History shows that women will do what they can to end unwanted pregnancies, and the results are horrifying. Women can die or suffer lasting physical and mental health effects. I honestly believed this would never happen again. We are well-educated and a leader among nations, yet instead of learning from the mistakes of our past, we are repeating them.

Gail: There are so many unknowns right now and so many disturbing scenarios. California is doing everything in its power to create a safe, sanctuary state for women who want to come here for abortion services. There will be a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to guarantee access to abortions for generations to come. People are signing up to give people who need abortions rides from the airport, escort them to their appointments, and provide them a place to recover. But what will happen to these women when they return home? What are the legal ramifications of those who helped them get abortion services?

Gail Pellerin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I’m infuriated when I think about all the women who will be forced to give birth against their will. What will happen to those kids? Will our social systems be overwhelmed? Women who have kids they can’t afford often drop below the poverty line. Some stay in domestic violence situations because they can’t afford to leave. Some abandon their kids and then those kids turn to drugs, prostitution, etc. and end up incarcerated.

Emily: I can’t imagine how scary our post-Roe world will be. Who can women trust? It’s terrifying and traumatic to be sexually assaulted. I know. It happened to me. It’s still hard to talk about. It’s so degrading.

I was scared and embarrassed to tell anyone my truth. I was barely able to admit it to myself. But after many months in therapy and hours of deep emotional work, I did. You came to visit me in Davis and I finally got the courage to tell you about the man who assaulted me during what was supposed to be a fun weekend getaway with my college friends.

I was fortunate. I escaped before he fully forced himself on me. But I was so ashamed and terrified, I didn’t want to tell anyone.

I am not sure I would have found the courage to tell you if you had not also shared your story with me. I knew you would understand. And you did.

I didn’t want to press charges. I just wanted it to go away. I never spoke his name; I still never have. I try not to think about him, but unfortunately, this trauma still impacts me. I can only imagine the horror of having to carry and give birth to a child of someone you despise.

I despise the person who did that to me. It sickens me to think about those who will be forced to carry the child of their rapist — or to have any child that is unwanted. There’s got to be a way for us to get the Plan C abortion pill to women who can’t go to a clinic.

Gail Pellerin and Emily Chaffin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Gail: I was so proud you talked to me about what happened to you. It was another turning point in our relationship as adults.

I’m sure some people will try to find a way to restrict or criminalize sending the at-home abortion pill to people in states with abortion bans. After all, the courts have said they want to look at restricting contraception, too. And there is talk of the justices overturning same-sex marriages.

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Emily: It all seems unbelievable. I’m devastated to be living in a country where five people with life appointments on a court have the power to strip away the rights of half the population. They know this will severely impact the BIPOC community, the poor, and the LGBTQIA community. We have got to fight back. We have got to find a way to reverse this decision and make sure they don’t take other rights away.

Gail: It truly is unprecedented for the courts to take away a right. The best way for us to fight back is to vote. If our country could elect to our U.S. Senate and Congress a majority of pro-abortion rights leaders, then in time we can change the composition of the Supreme Court and reinstate abortion rights.

Emily: I’m feeling so betrayed. The three justices who were appointed under the Trump administration swore under oath that Roe was settled law. And, now we are all thrown into a chaotic situation where we are looking at ways to codify Roe in federal law, or set up clinics on tribal land, or find ways to smuggle Plan B and C pills into states that are banning abortion. This is 2022, and it feels like we have been thrust back into the 1950s.

Gail: I know this is hard to accept. Like I have told you before, every day, we need to find something we are grateful for and something that brings us hope. Hope shined last week when Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first Black woman to serve on our highest court in the nation.

Emily: In my sea of despair, I will look for hope. It will be hard as we hear about young women forced to have children they don’t want and governments that don’t provide for their prenatal health care, let alone the infrastructure families need after having children: a good-paying job, child care, health care, an affordable place to live.

Gail: That’s why we keep fighting. We rally. We speak out. We vote. We don’t give up. And we talk to each other. We hold each other up. We share our vulnerabilities.

We’ve entered a new era in women’s rights. We’re lucky to have each other. We’re in this fight together.

Gail Pellerin is running for California State Assembly District 28. She served as Santa Cruz County Clerk from 1994 until her retirement in 2020. She was elected four times. Before that, she served as Santa Cruz County elections manager and as a government-relations consultant She married Tom Chaffin in 1992 and has two children, who are now 24 and 27. She is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and worked as a news reporter and as a State Assembly legislative staffer and assistant director of the Speaker’s Office of Majority Services. She has lived in the Santa Cruz area for 30 years.

Emily Chaffin graduated from UC Davis in June 2020. She is currently a staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla of California. She was born and raised in Santa Cruz.

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