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How abortion access and Roe v. Wade gave sexual assault survivor Debbie Millman another way out

The high court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)
The high court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following story deals with suicide. If you have suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889).

For suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.

This story also includes descriptions of rape and sexual assault. 

Most people know Debbie Millman as the voice behind Design Matters, the long-running podcast about design and creative culture.

But many don’t know she’s also a survivor of childhood sexual assault — a story she shared in thePhiladelphia Inquirer and with Here & Now.

When she was in elementary school, Millman’s stepfather began abusing her — first with inappropriate touching in the shower then eventually escalating to repeated rapes.

At 11 years old, she was alone and terrified.

“I think what made it particularly confusing for me at the time was that I’d never heard of anything like this,” Millman says. “I didn’t think it was possible that anybody else could be going through what I was going through.”

Millman’s stepfather said if she told anyone about the abuse they wouldn’t believe her. He also threatened to kill her mother and little brother.

“I really believed him,” she remembers.

Millman did whatever she could to prevent the abuse.

“I tried to stay in school as long as I possibly could,” she says. “I would put on several pairs of pajamas, one on top of the other, to try to make it be longer until he could get to me in the hopes that somebody might interrupt.”

None of it worked. And when Millman began menstruating, she worried she would get pregnant.

“I was irregular, as most young girls are, without realizing that that’s normal. I began to worry that I might have conceived and that terrified me because then I was between telling someone and risking the lives of my mother and my little brother or becoming pregnant in seventh grade,” she says. “I lived in terror with that knowledge for quite some time before I could figure out what to do.”

In desperation, Millman contemplated suicide.

“I thought about ending my own life. In an effort to protect my mother and my brother and avoid the humiliation and the trauma of anybody finding out,” she says. “I was afraid people would blame me because… These things weren’t discussed and I had no idea what I had done to deserve something like this.”

But it never came to that, because when Millman found out the Supreme Court had passed Roe v. Wade which guaranteed the national right to an abortion, everything changed.

“I was such an avid reader of the paper that when Roe v. Wade was passed, I read about it and thought that would be my way out,” she says. “I could somehow save myself with this new right that I had been given. And it saved me from killing myself.”

Millman says without Roe v. Wade she likely wouldn’t be here today. She was devastated when she learned that the landmark ruling was overturned.

“I was catatonic. I was just beside myself,” she says. “I started to cry thinking about all of the young women and all women, period, that might be in a situation either similar to mine or analogous and thought, ‘How were these women going to be saved?’”

Millman worries about the future of those in vulnerable situations like hers.

“What will that mean to the rest of their lives?,” she asks. “To give birth to a child that is conceived through rape or sexual assault. What kind of life will the mother have and what kind of life will the child have?

“It would be vile to do that,” Millman adds. “The genetic trauma that gets passed from generation to generation, which we now know exists, will seem to be infinite.”

Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Saxena also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.