The Right To Live

Irene Vilar has survived personal trauma, family tragedies, and a shocking number of abortions to become a sought-after writer and scholar. But will her scandalous choices ever allow this devoted mother of two—or the rest of the world—to make peace with her past?

January 2011

This article was a finalist for the 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the personality profile category. 

Story hour is set to begin in the sunny children’s corner of the Boulder Public Library. About 15 kids, rosy-cheeked from the early March chill and bundled in miniature Crocs and North Face fleeces, cluster around a bright yellow rocking chair. Doting moms and dads sit cross-legged on the floor and stay within arm’s reach of their offspring to keep the squirminess at bay. As this morning’s reader settles into the rocker, a librarian invites them to give her a warm welcome. Irene Vilar, she says, is the accomplished author of a memoir entitled Impossible Motherhood. It sounds like just another parenting tome, and there’s little response. They might have reacted differently if the librarian had shown them the book’s cover, which features a simple outline of a woman’s hourglass figure and 15 tally marks, in red ink, over her womb. Or perhaps, if the librarian hadn’t omitted the book’s subtitle: Testimony of an Abortion Addict.

•• Instead, polite applause fuels Vilar’s radiant smile. Clad in jeans and a flowing, black gypsy top with contrasting embroidery, the 40-year-old Puerto Rican–American embodies a gentle yet contradictory grace. Her sweeping brown hair frames features that are simultaneously delicate and sharp, and her dark, limpid eyes harbor both penetrating strength and fragile wistfulness. “We’re going to read from a book that will help us count to 10,” she says, holding up a picture book plastered with illustrations of waddling ducks. A boy reaches up to the page, which shows a duck that makes a sound when properly pressed. The toddler can’t quite figure it out, so Vilar gently takes his tiny fingers in her own and presses the page until the duck quacks, sending him into a peal of giggles as her eyes crinkle into an equally delighted smile. Echoed by a staggered chorus of singsongy voices, she switches between English and her native Spanish as she turns the pages. “Numero uno, dos, tres,” she continues with a patience honed by the motherhood she once thought might be impossible.

And yet, sprawled out on the carpet in front of her, Vilar’s two little girls bask in their mother’s soothing lilt. Loretta, five, and Lolita, three, are exquisite replications of Vilar, both with flowing dark hair and cocoa eyes that spark with curiosity, intelligence, and life. The girls are fluent in both languages, and though they’ve likely heard this story before, perhaps many times, they’re still enthralled by this woman who has very deliberately made them the center of her universe.

The 15 sets of tiny eyes and ears stay fixed on Vilar, and as her gaze flits between the pages and those innocent faces—with their freckled cheeks, tousled hair, and fidgeting vitality—a faint sadness for each of them lingers in her eyes. Perhaps it’s because 15 is the number of her own would-be children who never got the chance to have a story read to them. Perhaps it’s because 15 is the number of times, in about as many years, that Irene Vilar entered a clinic and asked a doctor to remove the baby growing inside her.