What is this ban on abortion—it is a survival of the veiled face, of the barred window and the locked door, burning, branding, mutilation, stoning, of all the grip of ownership and superstition come down on woman, thousands of years ago.
Steve is six years old the first time he sits on the stairs outside his tenement flat and keeps a lookout for his ma . He doesn’t understand what he’s doing then, not really, and won’t for many years to come. Afterwards, his ma gives him a penny to go get a lollipop from the shop on the corner. She looks tired, the way she always does when women come to visit, so he reaches up and gives her a kiss on the cheek.
She strokes his hair, “My sunshine boy.”
Steve beams. He skips down the stairs, penny burning a hole in his pocket. It’s summer and the air is so thick you could stand a stick up in it. Steve’s ma says it’s like walking through soup — it’s like trying to breathe soup too, but it’s better than the winter, when his lungs wheeze and crunch no matter what he does.
The streets stink of garbage and ring with shouted voices — in languages familiar and foreign — but Steve doesn’t mind. It’s the familiar backdrop of Brooklyn and Steve hasn’t ever known anything else.
Mr. Goldberg, at the grocer, is a friendly man with a thick accent and a deeply furrowed brow. Ma helped his wife last year, when she got pneumonia and they couldn’t afford a doctor. Since then, he always gives them bread that gets moldy on one edge. It’s still good to eat, but he can’t sell it.
Steve waves at him as he ducks between the rickety shelves, headed for the back corner where Mr. Goldberg keeps the penny candies. Today there’s another boy back there, which makes Steve pause in the aisles. He knows most of the boys in the neighborhood and has learned to keep his distance. This boy he doesn’t recognize, though.
He’s tall and dark haired and he’s got a little bag of candies in hand. He’s deciding between a Black Cow and a BB Bat, so Steve pipes up. “The BB’s are better.”
The boy jumps and whirls around, sending little packaged candies flying.
“Sorry!” Steve apologizes hastily, crouching down to hastily scoop up the scattered candy.
“It’s okay. I didn’t realize you were there! You sure are sneaky.”
Steve kind of shrugs at that, cause he’s used to needing to be quiet and still. Most people don’t want to be reminded he’s there, and getting noticed by the wrong sorts always ends in trouble.
“You gettin’ all that candy?” Steve asks.
The other boy wrinkles his nose. “S’for my sisters, mostly.” But then the other boy brightens a little, “But my dad gave me a bit for helpin’ at the office, so m’gonna get something for me too. Hey!” The other boy says suddenly, and it’s Steve’s turn. “D’ya wanna share a dixie cup with me?”
Steve stares at him, bemused, and then turns his gaze away. “I only got a penny.”
“S’okay. It’s so gosh darn hot if I try’n eat it all on my own it’ll melt before I can.” The other boy grins, showing off a dimple in his chin and two missing front teeth.
“Okay,” Steve says after a moment of consideration. He can’t afford an ice cream all on his own, but it’s so hot.
“I’m Bucky, by the way,” the other boy introduces, putting out a grubby hand like he’s a real grown up. “I just moved to a new apartment near here causa my baby sister and all.”
Bucky grins again, blinding.
Steve’s been laid up with scarlet fever the last few weeks and even though he’s finally better, there’s an icy rain over Brooklyn and his ma won’t let him out. He’s supposed to be at school, but ma always says his health is most important.
Usually when his ma helps women, she sends him out of the apartment. She says it’s women’s business and that they need their privacy . Sometimes, she asks him to sit guard outside.
Steve’s eleven now and he’s old enough to know what his ma does with those women. He’s heard people talking. He knows she makes babies go away.
Some people say that’s murder.
Steve’s not sure what he thinks, yet.
But Steve knows his ma is the best person he’s ever met, gooder than he can ever hope to be. Down at the very core of her, Steve’s ma is kind. She wouldn’t ever hurt anybody.
Today, Steve’s ma doesn’t send him out of the house when Mrs. Brice comes to visit. Steve hears the door open and close, but it’s hard to hear their voices for a while, tucked up in the bedroom like he is.
And then he can hear. Mrs. Brice is sobbing like her heart is breaking, like she can’t breathe, like there won’t ever be another good thing in the world. It makes Steve’s throat go tight. Bucky cried that way, last year when his bubbe died. Steve wraps his skinny arms around himself and burrows into the blankets, suddenly not so sure he wants to hear what’s about to happen.
“I can’t have another,” Mrs. Brice wails. “I just can’t afford another.”
“I know,” Steve’s ma soothes. “I know, Evelyn. You have to think about the ones you have now, I understand.”
Mrs. Brice’s voice is tight when she replies, like she’s trying to shove her tears back down her throat. Steve’s eyes burn and he swallows compulsively. “It’s not that I don’t want him. I wish - “
There’s a long pause, before Steve’s ma, “Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a babe is not bring it into this world.”
That brings on a new wave of crying from Mrs. Brice and it makes Steve shudder, deep down inside. How can the kindest thing be to not let something have life? He shakes his head, confused and troubled. The words are like daggers, ripping up everything he knows.
“There’s so many hungry mouths to feed,” Steve’s ma says softly and Steve can imagine her petting Mrs. Brice’s hair, the way she does Steve’s when he’s ill. “Not any work to be found. I understand.”
On Sundays, Steve and his ma go down to the soup kitchen on Lorraine St. They ladle thin soup into small bowls and hand them out, one at a time. Mostly, it’s men. But sometimes women and children come there too.
Things are bad now, Steve knows. Something happened with the banks and all in October and everybody got real serious and real poor — well, poorer than before, anyway — all of a sudden. A lot of people had to move. Steve and his ma had to move out of the heights and down to Red Hook, and now Steve’s gotta take two trolleys to see Bucky. And down in the empty park by Columbia, people have started setting up little houses.
People are hungry and dirty and scared.
Steve and his ma don’t have a lot, either. They go to bed hungry lots of nights and it seems like Steve’s ma is always rushing off to work. Steve wonders what it would be like, if there were more kids, if he had brothers and sisters. Probably less food, maybe not a place to live, even the tiny little place with a leaky roof and a faulty gas stove like they’ve got now.
“We’d all be out on the street,” Mrs. Brice is saying now. “We’re barely scrapin’ by now with me working at the factory and Jack’s had to quit school.”
“Better times will come,” Steve’s ma murmurs, just loud enough for Steve to make out. “There will be food on the table again, and then you and Henry can have as many as you want.”
There’s a long quiet moment. Steve can hear his heart pounding in his chest.
Furniture scrapes across the floor. There’s the clink of metal hitting wood, and Steve can picture the little roll of tools his ma keeps wrapped in a napkin. She boiled them this morning, in preparation.
Steve presses his good ear to the wall, skin tingling. For a while he can’t hear anything, and there’s his ma’s voice, “Little cold now, Evelyn. And pressure.”
Another pause. Steve’s breath starts to come quick in his throat.
There’s a knock on the door.
Before Steve knows what he’s doing, he’s up and out of bed and scrambling out the door of the bedroom. His ma is white as a sheet. Mrs. Brice, laid out on their kitchen table with her skirts up around her thighs looks like she might be sick.
Steve doesn’t spare them a second glance.
Mr. Fitzgerald, their landlord, is at their door. Mr. Fitzgerald is not a kind man or a good man. He spits at negroes and leaves bruises on his wife’s arms. Steve carefully closes the door behind him, using his size to his advantage so that Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t get a look in.
“Is your ma home, boy?”
“No, sir,” Steve says quickly, shaking his head and trying to look earnest. Bucky always says Steve’s a terrible liar, but a lie has never been so important as this one. Steve doesn’t know exactly what would happen if Mr. Fitzgerald found out what was happening inside.
He thinks it might be a lot worse than going to live in the little houses in the park, where it’s cold and wet and Steve would probably get sick and die.
Mr. Fitzgerald glares down at him.
“Thought I heard coupla skirts in there.”
“My ma went out with a friend,” Steve invents. “Maybe you heard them leaving.” Steve tries his hardest to look honest and like his heart isn’t pounding fast as anything, like his breath isn’t coming too quick in his throat.
“Hmph,” Mr. Fitzgerald grunts, but he’s already hunting for a cigarette in his pockets and Steve knows they’re in the clear. “You tell her to come see me when she gets home, boy.”
And Mr. Fitzgerald walks away.
Steve slumps back against the door, sweat trickling down his neck, legs shaking. He feels like he’s just run up the stairs to Bucky’s fourth floor apartment and then back down again. He waits to regain his breath before he opens the door, slipping it open a jar and squirming in so no one can see in.
Without a word, he returns to his room.
This is women’s business and they need privacy.
“I’m going to go grab the new Amazing Stories, ” Bucky announces. He’s sixteen — tall, lanky and handsome, while Steve’s the same as he’s always been, too short and skinny enough that you can count his ribs.
In the quiet that follows Bucky’s exit, Steve hears the crying. Eyebrows drawing together, carving deep furrows in his brow, Steve gets up. His back sends shooting pain along his right side, but he ignores it with the ease of long practice. On quiet feet, Steve pads out into the hallway and follows the sound down to the tiny little bathroom at the end. The door’s open a jar and Steve presses it open.
Becca’s there, curled up into a ball on the floor. She’s got her hands pressed over her face, but her shaking shoulders give her away. Concerned, Steve crouches down next to her. She startles, clearly not having heard him come in and pulls he hands away from her face. Immediately, she starts wiping her tears, a flush traveling across the delicate arc of her cheeks.
“Oh, I’m sorry Steve, I shouldn’t be — did you need the toilet? I’ll just —” Steve shakes his head and puts a gentle hand on Becca’s shoulder, pressing her back down.
“Are you okay?”
Becca tries to give an affirmative answer, but then her chin starts to quiver and she sucks her bottom lip into her mouth, just the way Bucky does when he’s worried and doesn’t want anyone to know. A fresh wave of tears slips down her cheeks.
Steve’s never seen her like this. She’s always so put together — she’s smart as a whip and has a job in Manhattan doing bookkeeping. The Barnes’ couldn’t be more proud. Becca is Steve’s favorite of Bucky’s three sisters — she always has his back and she never talks down to him, the way so many people do.
“What’s wrong, Becca?” Steve asks, plopping down next to her. He presses their sides together in quiet comfort. She kind of huffs a laugh, shaking her head.
“You’re a good egg, Steve.”
Steve shrugs, abashed and Becca manages a watery grin in his direction. Becca’s expression falls again after a moment, frown carving deep lines in her face.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” Steve urges. “Please, Becca. I’ll help however I can.”
“There’s no help to be had. I just — I messed up, Steve. I messed up real bad and this is going to ruin my life and I can’t believe I was so stupid, just a stupid girl like everyone says, letting a boy talk me into —. I’m supposed to go to college next year, I can’t — ”
A stone settles in Steve’s stomach. Because hasn’t he heard those words over and over again, a terrible, cyclical refrain from girls who came to his mother? Hadn’t he seen their tears and boiled water for tea and helped his ma clean up after?
And hadn’t he seen what happened to the women who did not come to his ma? The whispers in the street. The girls with red handprints on their faces and clothes stuffed hastily into a bag. The big eyed, hollow-cheeked look of the truly hungry on children’s faces. The deep grief of a nun as she welcomes another child into the home.
Steve wraps his skinny arms around Becca’s slim shoulders, pulls her into him, and hums a song he’s forgotten the words to long ago.
“There are options,” Steve says carefully. You never know how someone will react and Becca might be vehemently opposed to the idea. He has to be cautious of what he says. “If you don’t — there are ways to make a baby go away.”
Becca shudders in his arms. “I know,” she whispers. “But I don’t have the money — I asked around. People say if you don’t do it right you — but it costs more than I’ve got. I give it all to my ma and dad.”
Steve nods, licking his lips. “I — uh, I know someone. She’d do it for free. She’d take real good care of you.”
Becca looks up, blue eyes watery. There’s a glimmer of hope in them, Steve thinks. He’s familiar with that kind of hope.
“Really? You mean it?”
Steve wraps his arms around her again, nodding his bony chin into her shoulder. “Come to my apartment tomorrow, after five, okay?”
He starts to pull back — he needs to get back before Bucky suspects anything. Becca grabs his shoulders and looks at him with such sincere gratitude that Steve overflows with it.
“Thank you, Steve. Thank you.”
Steve says what his ma says. “I’m just letting you choose.”
A knock come on the open door of Steve’s quarters. They’ve got makeshift barracks for once, with four walls and doors and running water, even if the showers are frigid and too short. It’s a small luxury they haven’t had in a while.
Bucky and Steve have been taking advantage of the ability to close the door, leaving Steve in a relaxed and pleasant mood. He misses Bucky when they’re out in the field, or more accurately he misses the ability to pull Bucky’s body up against his. Bucky’s out with the Howlies now, getting drunk on cheap wine somewhere. Steve’s not really supposed to know about it and he wouldn’t want to waste the booze anyway.
Looking up from the latest Hydra map he’s been examining, Steve smiles to see Peggy standing in the doorway. She looks gorgeous, as always, if a little tired. She works too hard, like they all do.
“Hi,” he says, aware that a rather stupid looking grin is spreading across his face. If Bucky were there he’d laugh at him and suggest to Peggy that she could do a lot better. Steve would roll his eyes while they both laughed.
She grins back, but it’s a tight little thing, closer to a grimace than a smile. “Can I come in?”
“Of course,” he assures, shuffling his papers to the side and getting up. She closes the door softly behind her and Steve’s heart leaps a little. He has even less time with her than he does with Bucky and he misses her. He steps forward, leaning down for a kiss, which she obliges.
Peggy pulls back too quickly and perches on his abandoned chair, tucking a curl behind her ear. “Sit down?” she requests and he does so because there’s very little he’d refuse to do if she was the one asking.
“Steve,” she starts, voice oddly hesitant. She bites her perfectly red lip and Steve starts to worry. He’s never seen her nervous like this. A little on edge, sometimes, when they’re headed into a mission or in the beginning stages of their relationship, when the three of them were still figuring out how it would all work. But this felt different than either of those moods.
“Steve,” she says again. “I’m pregnant.”
The air freezes. Steve goes very still and for a second all he can hear is the rushing of blood in his head. “Oh,” he says. He knows it’s his. Bucky’d been with dames before, for appearances sake, but he preferred men and he’d never fucked Peggy. And he knows she’s not seeing anyone else. It can only be his.
For a minute, he has no idea what to say or do. But a lifetime of training kicks in.
“What do you want to do?” he asks her, keeping his voice neutral. It’s not his place to decide, despite it being his child. It’s not his body, it’s not his life. Peggy’s the one who would have to give up everything she’s worked for, to take a back seat in the war, to go home and let other people fight.
It’s not his decision.
Steve never thought he would have kids anyway. Before, he was too sick to risk it. And then there was Bucky. And, well. Erskine had thought that it might be impossible after the serum anyway.
“I’m going to take care of it,” she says firmly. “I know a woman.”
“Okay,” Steve makes himself say. “If that’s what you want.”
“It is.” She nods. There’s not a curl out of place. Her chin trembles.
Steve stands and takes her into his arms. And he says what his mother always said. “It’s alright. It’s your decision.”
“I wish,” she whispers into his chest and Steve’s arms tighten around her. He feels his shirt getting wet, but he doesn’t say anything.
“I know,” he says instead. “I do too.”
He holds her for a long time.
D.C. is better than New York in a lot of ways. It doesn’t echo with ghosts and the difference between today and yesterday seems a little clearer.
And Steve likes to explore the city he knows so little about, wander through neighborhoods that are so different and yet exactly the same as the ones he grew up in.
Still, his thoughts whirl unpleasantly. He finds himself at loose ends all too often, and when he’s not, he’s being pointed like a gun in missions he’s not sure he approves of and sitting with reporters who seem to think he stands for conservative America.
He’s not sure how to correct either thing and he’s just so tired. It’s hard to remember what it feels like to stand up and say this is who I am and this is what I believe in and stand by those statements so firmly that you’re rooted to the center of the earth and no one can move you.
He thinks his ma would be really disappointed in him. The thought crushes him, twisting into him like a cruel blade, like the coat hangers and forks that women used when there were no more options.
It’s this thought that drives him to a computer — not the one SHIELD gave him, because he doesn’t trust them as far as he could have thrown them when he was tiny — but one at a local library, tucked behind shelves, private enough for what he needs to find out.
He reads for hours.
When he reaches Roe vs. Wade he has to sit back and cry. He hopes his ma knows, he hopes she’s seen. The work she did, day after day, took a toll on her. The rallies they went to were often broken up by police. She could have been jailed. They could have lost everything.
And yet every time a woman came to the door, Steve’s ma opened it. She never hesitated, she never asked why . It doesn’t matter why , she’d told Steve one day, while they were boiling the tools his ma kept in such careful order. It’s not any of our business why. A woman decides for herself. It’s nobody else’s business at all.
Steve reads about the ways men are still trying to control women’s bodies. He reads about corporations denying women birth control. He reads about doctors who lost their jobs because they performed abortions. He reads about the federal ban in 2003.
He looks at pictures of protests — both for and against abortion. He sees the ugly, twisted arguments of people who call themselves “pro-life.”
Steve has never met a woman who believed in the sanctity of life more than his ma. She saved spiders and mice. She gave away her last piece of bread to a starving child. She worked herself to the bone so that others could live — so that Steve could live.
A steely resolve fills Steve. If he can do nothing else, he will be the man his ma believed him to be.
Maybe the world hears him, because the very next day, while he’s on his run, he stumbles across a Planned Parenthood. He must have run by it everyday, Steve thinks, and never noticed. But today there’s a crowd, hefting signs and shouting, and Steve comes to a sudden halt.
A woman is trying to push through the crowd. Men and women alike scream at her, words that make Steve want to gag. Chants that twist words of strength into barbed weapons fling through the air.
Steve turns into the crowd, slides through it with the ease of a New Yorker, until he’s by the woman’s side. She’s come to a halt. There are tears in her eyes, Steve can see now. Her hands shake where she clutches her bag.
People are noticing Steve now. Somebody shouts Captain America won’t let her murder her child! and a cheer goes up.
Tucking dark curls behind an ear, the woman glares at him.
“Let me help you inside,” Steve pleads softly. She blinks, surprised. “Please.”
She nods hesitantly and Steve stands tall, tucking his shoulders back and putting on his sternest expression. “Step back!” he orders and people do. Another cheer goes up, people backing away.
And Steve leads the way into the clinic. He hears the confusion, the tumult and anger, and he shields her from it as best he can. Opening the door, Steve guards the entrance as she enters.
She turns and places a dark hand on his arm and looks up at him for a long time.
Steve shakes his head. He requires no thanks for this.
A sort of certainty flows into his blood, afterwards. For the first time since waking up in this century, he knows what his mission is.
It starts with the clinic. He volunteers as an escort as often as he can. He drives hours, sometimes, to get the clinics, the women, who really need him. He stands between them and the hate spat their way. He thinks of his mother, he thinks of it’s women’s business and they need their privacy, and if he wonders if anything has really improved, after all.
It starts to make the news. Videos start to get played on national television — of him taking a punch to the face, a crying woman behind him; of him pushing through a crowd, arm wrapped around the woman he was there to protect.
Everyone has something to say about it, of course. Steve tries not to pay attention, mostly. It doesn’t do him any good to get mad about what they’re saying about him. He just has to keep showing up.
From there, it grows. He volunteers to hit the streets to fundraise, when he learns that his presence quadruples the take, he starts to do it more and more often, until one way or another, he’s doing this work almost everyday.
He thinks about his ma a lot. He thinks about Peggy, and Becca, and Evelyn Brice. He thinks about women having to make the hardest decision of their lives surrounded by hate and anger, about not having a safe hand to hold, or someone to tell them that it’s alright, it’s their decision.
“Why do you spend so much time volunteering with Planned Parenthood?” a TV reporter asks at the end of a long gruelling mission. It’s been days of hard work and no sleep, all of them desperately trying to keep the world safe. Steve looks to one side and sees Natasha, her right hand clenched the way it always is when pregnancy is brought up. He looks to the other side and sees Pepper, expression stony and unreadable.
He wonders if Peggy is watching. He wonders if she still remembers the way she trembled in his arms, the world dark and cold around them. He wonders if the woman she saw was kind to her and made her hot tea afterwards.
“When I was six years old,” Steve starts, turning back to the reporter. His expression has gone confused. “I sat outside my tenement, waiting on the steps. My ma was inside with Lucille, who lived three streets over. Lucille’s boyfriend had left her. If her parents found out about the baby, they’d kick her out.”
Steve licks his lips, clenches his fist, looks out over the crowd. He wonders how many of them have ever had to face that sort of decision.
“My ma never took money,” he continues. A ripple goes through the masses of people as they start to understand what he’s saying. The reporter jerks and leans forward, suddenly intent in a way he hadn’t been before. Steve even sees Natasha’s eyes go briefly wide. “Sometimes women would bring us food or clothing, but my ma never took a dime. She always said that women needed to be able to choose, no matter how much money they had.”
The crowd erupts — exclamations and protests and shouted questions fill the air.
“For a long time,” Steve says, voice calm and even, “All I did was sit outside the apartment and make sure nobody interrupted. Later, I brewed tea and prepared the instruments. But I always stepped out when the women came. It wasn’t any of my business. It wasn’t for me to see or hear or judge. It was women’s business.”
He hesitates, because it shouldn’t need saying, it shouldn’t need explaining. But it did, and he knew it did. “My ma was a religious woman. She believed in the sanctity of life. But she knew that sometimes women have to choose between a rock and a hard place. She knew that sometimes bringing a baby into the world didn’t mean joy, it meant hardship and pain.”
Steve meets the reporter’s eyes. He can’t tell if the man approves or not, but he’s clearly pleased that he’s just uncovered this little family secret. Steve knows it will be in the news for weeks, months even. He knows that people will renounce him, that they may shout at them in the streets.
It doesn’t matter, it never matters. Steve will always choose this path, because he knows it to be right.
“She taught me that women decide what happens to their own bodies, that no one else gets to judge that. It’s not our place. So why do I spend so much time volunteering with Planned Parenthood? Because they protect women’s right to choose safely. They are doing the work that my mother did in secret all her life. And I will always stand up for that.”
From there, the path is clear. He hires a lawyer, someone outside S.H.I.E.L.D, who doesn’t care about his “image.”
Steve calls the foundation the Sarah Rogers Institute for Choice and he puts every last dime into it. In the very first clinic, he hangs a portrait he drew of his ma in her nurse’s uniform.
At first, it’s only the clinics, which provide birth control, STD screenings, and abortions for free or reduced charges, in places where Planned Parenthood does not or cannot reach, or in places where those clinics are overburdened. But it grows, because there is so much need beyond what clinics can do.
Next, it’s a sexual health education initiative implemented in the New York public schools. Then it’s a stipend for doctors and nurses who provide women’s health services in underserved communities. Then it’s an international program for women’s health education.
Every day that Steve does not lift the shield, he goes to one of these clinics. Whether it is the one at home in Brooklyn, two streets down from where Steve and his ma lived during the worst years of the Depression, or whether it’s a rudimentary clinic in the mountains of Bolivia, Steve finds his way to the work that matters most.
Some days, he escorts people in. Some days, he answers the phone. Some days, he fundraises. Some days, he makes tea and holds hands. And some days, he stands outside and makes sure they aren’t interrupted.
At night, he dreams of his mother. She smiles at him and strokes his cheek and says, “My sunshine boy.”