Fifteen Women (and a Few Men) on Aborting

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Photo: Dale May

What’s it like to have an abortion? What's it like when your significant other has one? For many women, having an abortion feels solitary, but as almost three in ten American women will have an abortion before the age of 45, we can also consider the experience shared. Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling, fifteen women (and a few men) on aborting:

1. "This Place Is the Best!"
Awaking in the recovery room after her abortion, Claire, then 26, shouted, “Lorne Doone cookies! This place is the best!” She says, “I was laughing hysterically from the drugs, unable to modulate my feelings. No one cracked a smile. Then I realized how horrifying I was being.”

“Claire and I had enough medical training to know exactly what cells were being scraped from Claire’s cervix,” her husband, Vince, a doctor, says. They planned to start a family after Vince finished medical school, and they lived near their parents. Claire, a nurse, adds, “I didn’t have real emotions about it. There was no question in my mind. I was just nervous for the procedure.” They didn’t tell their parents. Claire told friends, but Vince avoided the topic. “To one friend, I might’ve made very inappropriate jokes about killing babies,” he concedes.

Within a year, Claire became pregnant again. “After our daughter was born, for a split second I was sad that there was a person I never got to meet," she says. “But a friend pointed out that then I wouldn’t have had my daughter, so that thought disappeared right away.” 

2. "It Was Like Triage"
In 1996, at age 37, Catherine was divorcing her abusive husband of fifteen years and the father of her four children. In their custody battle, she “felt a tremendous pressure to maintain a certain image.” She believed her husband, a lawyer, would use anything to “paint me as promiscuous, crazy, irresponsible.” When she got pregnant with the man she would eventually marry, she feared “showing up in court pregnant would have a very direct impact on custody.”

“It was like triage — I had to save the children I already had ... It was the right thing to do for everyone involved ... I did it for my daughters.” Catherine usually “keeps things close to the vest,” and in this case, she didn’t tell even close friends about the abortion in case anything got back to her husband, whom she describes as “prominent in the community and Republican Party.” She says, “As a survivor of domestic violence, I’m good at enduring. You just put one foot in front of the other ... The goal was so clear.” In recent years, she’s told friends, but because she feels “absolutely no guilt or regret,” discussions can be tricky. “I don’t want people who do feel guilt to think I’m judging them,” she says. 

3. "God Is Forgiving"
When girls Charlene knew had abortions, she thought, "I would never." When she became pregnant at 19, she was shocked — they’d used condoms — and disappointed in herself. She knew her mother would consider the pregnancy “God’s will,” so Charlene didn’t tell her. She says, “I did the thing I thought I’d never do.”  

Her second abortion, when she was 24 and “into [her] career,” “hit [her] more emotionally.” She thought, "I really do want this baby, because I want a family unit," but she couldn’t imagine doing so with her boyfriend. She says, “Sometimes I still play out the ‘what ifs?’ but it was ultimately the right decision.”

After her first abortion, Charlene “looked at people differently.” She says, “It helped me to not be judgmental. You can be the nicest person on the block and anything can happen to you ... You never know someone’s whole situation.” At 34, she knows some members of her church congregation oppose abortion, but she says, “Abortion does not condemn me ... I make mistakes all day, but God is forgiving.” 

4. "It's Not a Big Deal"
The second time Meredith got pregnant, she “felt like a fuck-up.” She says, “I judged myself, but I had no moral issues" with either abortion. She didn’t want to have a child with either boyfriend. "I never think about it. Part of what bothers me is that liberal support can feel condescending ... I understand that people feel differently, but for me, the truth is that it’s not a big deal. I’m pretty sure I just don’t want kids.”

“Sometimes I feel like women’s reactions are performances, even to themselves,” Meredith, now 35, says. Because women are generally taught to be emotional, “it’s hard to tell what’s real or fake.” When Meredith tells people she’s had abortions, they “make a panic face.” She says, “I appreciate the instinct, but I don’t know where it’s coming from ... Does the sensitivity beget sensitivity?”

“If you need to be coddled, okay, awesome. If not, you’re not broken." 

5. "I Felt in Love With the Child"
Last spring, during her junior year of college, Renata’s boyfriend left the house yelling, calling her a slut. She’d conceived with another guy during a temporary breakup.

She wanted to finish college. “I felt so sad and angry," she says. "I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. I tried to think of a way to afford [having a baby] like, Can I work and get Medicaid and food vouchers? But I thought, No, I’m struggling to feed myself now … I was mad that there wasn’t some kind of support system that would allow me to raise the child not in total poverty.”

To pay for the abortion, Renata needed to wait a few weeks for her college’s financial aid office to clear the red tape blocking a preexisting loan; she then waited three more weeks for the clinic to have an opening. In the clinic waiting room, wearing gowns, not talking, women watched a romantic comedy starring Will Smith.

In subsequent months, she’d “see a mother and kid on the bus and just start bawling right there.” She says, “It’s a complicated emotion to explain … I’ll probably always be sad about it … I was surprised by the extent to which I felt in love with the child.”

6. "A Thousand Dollars on My Credit Card"
No one told Patty, then 21, that her abortion clinic didn’t accept her insurance for elective procedures until she “literally was in the stirrups.” She says, “At that point, I just wanted it done. No one was clear about what was going on. I put about a thousand dollars on my credit card … I wish there was more transparency about the consumer aspect. I got screwed over.” Women seeking abortions “are the dream customer, so disenfranchised, so ashamed,” and so in need of the service provided. Patty skipped the $500 follow-up appointment.  

Max, her boyfriend at the time, says to Patty, “You didn’t want me to go with you. You wanted to minimize it.” Patty replies, “If you’d been there as my advocate, I would’ve felt that was very patronizing and annoying.” Max says, “It was basically a very difficult logistical problem ... There’s not much for the guy to do except be nice.” Patty says, “I was very cavalier about it, Gchatting with my girlfriends. I guess I refuse to sentimentalize it for vaguely political reasons … I feel lucky that mine are basically consumer gripes.”

7. Her Fetus Would Not Live
Emily’s thirteen-week-old fetus would not live. Water surrounded its brain; a D&C surgery was scheduled. “When your body is preparing to have a child and then it doesn’t … it’s definitely sad in a very physical, hormonal way," she explains. But her “grief felt different,” not “as profound” as that of women whose messages she read on online support networks. “They’d named their babies,” she notes.

Soon thereafter, a pregnant friend “was very into planning a Berkeley-style homebirth,” until her doctor told her she needed to deliver in a hospital immediately. Emily burst into tears hearing the story, even though she knew her friend had given birth to “a wonderful baby.” Emily says, “I related so much to her not being in control and not getting what she wanted. I wasn’t even aware of the strength of those feelings.” She’s “not enthusiastic” about trying to have a baby soon: “It was a big deal … The whole experience gave me even more respect for women. So many women have similar experiences and hardly talk about it and just go on. This all happens, and it’s taken for granted.”

8. "You're Going to Be a Wonderful Mother"
Lolita, 23, sees Twitter posts like, “Bitches always getting pregnant.” She gets angry. “Hello, people, it takes an egg and sperm! She can’t get herself pregnant!” she says. When during college she told her boyfriend, Isaac, she was pregnant, he accused her of cheating. Even after taking her to the clinic, he’d say, “I probably paid for another guy’s abortion.”

Initially, she didn’t tell anyone but Isaac, who marveled with her over “the itty bitty bean” on the ultrasound image. Lolita opted for a medical abortion induced by pills. She took the first pill at the clinic and the second at home by herself. She says, “No one was really there for me but me. The real me is very playful, but I was an introvert when it happened.” She sat on the toilet, cramping. She says, “I’ll never forget it just slipping out of me and being gone. I just flushed the toilet. I didn’t even look in. I just got back in bed. It was numbing.” 

The next year, Isaac wished her a happy Mother’s Day. She was taken aback until he said, “You’re going to be a wonderful mother one day. 

9. Her Mother's Abortion, Her Sons' Lessons
In 1963, when Amy was about 6 years old, her mother was granted a rare legal abortion after a psychiatrist wrote a letter saying she’d kill herself if she had another child. Amy grew up knowing as much and likewise told her sons “so inappropriately early” that she’d had an abortion while dating their father. “If you get someone pregnant, that person will decide what to do,” she told them.  

Amy had a first abortion before dating her eventual husband. Some years later, in her late twenties, she went for her second at a center where the counselor “was one of those women who makes you feel small, saying  ‘Oh, you’ve been through this before.’” A few weeks later, she felt excruciating pain while at school, but couldn’t leave the room mid-class. For days, she “passed hunks of blue flesh” that the doctor told her was probably a twin.

Amy says, “It seems like every woman I know of my generation has had an abortion. Pre-AIDS, people wouldn’t use condoms. There wasn’t shame around it.” Her sons “are the greatest things in the world,” but she says, “Being pregnant is like having a parasite literally sucking the life out of you. You should be totally onboard.” She has “more than two kids' worth of parenting in [her],” but she and her husband “consciously decided” to limit the size of their family in part because every American consumes “a giant slice of the Earth’s resources.”

10. "I Can't Be Pregnant! I Get Good Grades!"
At 14, Naomi thought, "I can’t be pregnant! I get good grades!" She attended a private school and had “four parents totally invested” in her success. She hid herself in baggy sweatpants and spent almost five months working up the courage to tell her mother: “It was almost too late. It was bad.” She had a two-day procedure. Naomi’s mother put her own name on the clinic forms, in case Naomi wanted to run for president one day. Afterward, Naomi “was just so relieved.” Now 41, she says, “Hell no, I don’t regret! I would do it again. I wasn’t traumatized.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” she says, “I think abortion is wrong, and I’m pro-choice.” She thinks both that life starts at conception and that Medicaid should pay for abortions. When she got pregnant at 18, she had her son because she thought, “God is angry at me and isn’t going to keep giving me passes.” She says, “Remember, that was the teenaged me thinking. I wasn’t logical.” She later had another son. In all three pregnancies, “deciding was the most traumatic part.” She believes she will account for her decisions after she dies. “I hope my other good works will absolve me,” she says. 

11. "I Wish I'd Had That Baby"
Benita “was just out of high school, with a good union job, very much in love” and “excited to be pregnant” with someone “well mannered, smart, going to college.” When her “first love” didn’t want their baby, she was disappointed but thought, "I’m not going to force him to have a child."

Benita says, “I was raised without a dad, and I longed for my father. I didn’t want my child to be like me.”

As they left the clinic, her boyfriend told her he regretted the decision. Furious, she stopped seeing and talking to him. She married and had a child. When the child was young, Benita became pregnant again and her husband “demanded very adamantly” that she have an abortion. She complied. She regrets “folding under the pressure of men’s wishes” by ending two pregnancies. Though she waited to have a family within marriage, she still became a single mother to three children when her husband died young. 

Now 51, she contacted her “first love” on Classmates.com a few years ago. He wrote that the abortion haunted him. After 30 years, they still have “the strongest chemistry,” so “I really do wish I’d had that baby.”

12. He Suggested an Illegal Abortion
Working in Mexico last April, Athena, 29, got pregnant within a week of dating Freddy. When she called, he was at Mass with his mother and grandmother. He suggested that his cousin give her an illegal abortion. Her response: “Fuck, no, buddy.” She “trudged through, exhausted,” until a visit to California one month later. 

Athena didn’t know anyone who’d had an abortion. She told friends in California but not in Mexico. “I didn’t know who I could tell. I felt like ‘that girl.’” She took the pills that induced the abortion after she returned to Mexico because she wanted to be with Freddy and in her own home. Freddy rubbed her back, as she “became a mess, with the chills, a fever, flulike symptoms.” 

A couple months later, Freddy cheated on her. Athena says his behavior confirmed that she’d had “made a sound decision,” but her sister didn’t understand why she “was reacting so strongly,” so Athena told her. “I come from a big Catholic family, seven kids,” she says, “I didn’t think I could tell anyone in my family, but my brother was so cool, and my sister just wanted to protect me.” 

13. "I Was Living in a Car"
In 2003 Red, then 20, took a pregnancy test “peeing over the kind of bucket you mix concrete in” in a dilapidated, vacant house. Her “very controlling” boyfriend had convinced her that birth control “poisoned [her] body.” They usually slept in their car. Nonetheless, she decided, “I can’t abort a baby based on stupid decisions I made.” Motherhood wasn’t easy: “They tell you that you love the baby automatically, but it’s not true.”

In 2007, Steve, her boyfriend of six months and co-worker at Target, impregnated her. Steve wanted to marry and have the baby. “I was working a menial job, barely supporting the son I had, still living with my parents," says Red." I didn’t want to be tied to Steve forever.” She and her mother went to Planned Parenthood: “It was pouring rain, the picketers met us at the car with disgusting pictures.” A clinic employee questioned her frame of mind. “I was quite emotional, but I was so scared that if I showed any emotions they wouldn’t let me do it … I told them I already had a baby.” The doctor “acted like it was assembly-line work.”

Red told Steve she’d miscarried, and they dated for another year. “The secret was devastating.” She adds, “People might be more understanding if I’d had an abortion when I was living in a car in an abusive relationship … This time I was on birth control, with a full-time job, a boyfriend … People might think I should’ve kept it, but I couldn’t.”

14. On the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Ashley, then 17, had an abortion on January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. She discovered the date’s significance a year later, as a college freshman on a Missouri campus where protesters set up “crazy, gruesome conservative displays” and passed out pins with replicas of “dangling fetus feet” that gave her “a punch in the gut.” Ten years later, she and her high-school boyfriend still call each other every year on the anniversary. “As I get older, it’s not like it preoccupies my day,” Ashley says, but she appreciates her friendship with her ex. Even at 17, he was “remarkably sensitive.” 

15. "My Mind Was Blown"
Lizzie’s mother wanted her 20-year-old daughter to make a deliberate choice, not “default to abortion,” so she presented Lizzie with “concrete realities” about what her life would be like with a child. “I was angry with her for challenging me," Lizzie, now 23, says. "We’ve been conditioned to think of choice as a boon, a convenience, and on some level that’s true, but if you really choose, it’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s hard.” 

Lizzie says, “My mind was kind of blown. That there are people who don’t exist yet but could is just an insane idea … I would think of my fetus as having a soul capacity, an energy ... and that gave me a hint of how strong and powerful motherhood must be.”

“There’s a moment every month when I’m just so glad I had an abortion,” she says. Whenever abortion, “a grave issue,” comes up in conversation, she cries. She says that reaction could be “construed as evidence abortion is wrong,” but on the contrary, she thinks that the fact “abortion has emotional repercussions for women is another reason their decisions shouldn’t be legislated away.”