The murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has exposed frightening corners of humanity — 30-week fetuses, jars of baby feet, venereal disease, snipped spinal cords, a refugee drugged to death, and unfortunately, more. Whatever the verdict, we may never understand Gosnell’s motivation. But what of the women who streamed into his allegedly filthy clinic for years? Who were they? Why would some of them have been seeking such late-term abortions? Why would they put their own lives at risk? As it happens, I think I have a pretty good idea.
I was 21, and for nine months in the mid-1990s, I worked as a hotline counselor on the toll-free line at the National Abortion Federation, a voluntary membership group of several hundred providers nationwide. Overtly, the job went like this: Women called to ask for a clinic near them, and I provided the address and phone number. Each clinic had been vetted by a NAF inspector. The clinics I could mention were not the only clinics out there. They met certain standards and agreed to pay a membership fee for the referral service.
But the job involved much more than that. Women had questions. I had answers. Some, anyway.
My guidelines and fact sheets were contained in a thick black-covered binder, which I scanned early on. Basically, I was to remind callers I wasn’t a doctor, and refer them to expert counseling services if needed. I wasn’t working for one of those church-based pregnancy counseling centers. I didn’t try to sway anyone, nor did I discuss the matter of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” Rather, I was like a crossing guard for abortion. The women knew where they wanted to go. I just helped them get there.
The phone rang every few minutes, all day long. Answering it was at once intimate, anonymous and terrifying.
I was often the first person to whom these women had spoken about their unwanted pregnancies. The questions came.
Will it hurt?
Will I be able to have children later?
What if there are complications?
What is the procedure like?
Will I be psychologically scarred?
And there were whispers.
I can’t pay for this.
I’m in a shelter with my four kids. He was beating me. I can’t have another one.
It was my uncle. I can’t tell anyone.
The clinic is too far. Hours away. How am I going to get there?
I’m already 16 weeks. Is it too late?
Does it matter if you’ve had more than one?
Even though I could not see the callers, I could tell certain things about them by the way they spoke, their accents, the circumstances they described. They were often poor, or disadvantaged, or minority young women with huge obstacles to success in their lives. There was no redemption in their stories, at least not when I spoke to them. Some were frank and open, spilling details about how they got pregnant. Others were businesslike and clipped in their speech. Some cried. Most did not.
Their unifying factor was a lack of control over what had happened to them sexually. Sometimes it was teenage stupidity. Sometimes it was more sinister, like violence, or molestation. Sometimes it was just bad luck.
I answered their questions as best as I could. Pain would be similar to strong menstrual cramps. Complications were rare. Counseling was available. If they were worried about money, we talked about their options. Did they have any savings? Could they borrow from a friend or family member? Could they save money from their jobs? Sadly, this was what forced many women into later-term abortions than they wanted: denial, fear and lack of money. The longer it took to save money, the more expensive the procedure became. From $300 for a 12-week abortion, the costs would skyrocket to the $2,000 range and beyond by 20 weeks. I could now understand why late-term abortion was needed by so many women.
A few conversations stand out in my memory. One was a woman who called me repeatedly from a shelter where she and her four children had sought refuge from her violent partner. She told me her name was Jamie, and she needed help to pay for the procedure. I did my best to get a private group of funders interested in her story. I never learned the outcome.
I also remember staring at a large U.S. map peppered with clinic location markers on the wall next to me, looking at the vast empty expanse around North and South Dakota, and telling teenage callers from that region that their nearest clinic was hundreds of miles away. Yet another common conversation was hashing out the details of parental notification laws and mandatory waiting periods with girls who were figuring out how to work around them.
I worked at NAF in an era when clinics were being bombed and picketers assembled by the dozens outside abortion facilities. I felt burdened by the pain my callers were going through, and I took their struggles home with me every night. Even though my workspace was an open cubicle in the office where there were probably a dozen other women, I was the sole person working on the hot line, and I felt alone in my work. I’d exchange brief pleasantries with the young woman who came on duty either before or after me, but nothing more. Outside, I didn’t tell many people what I did for work. To do so could be either a conversation-stopper or an argument-starter. You never knew who was going to be supportive or hostile. The NAF office was then near 14th and U Street in a nondescript office building set back from the street. The neighborhood was a far cry from the trendy bistro and nightclub spot it is today. In my memory, the days were always cloudy as I arrived at work.
There was harassment on the hotline, too. One boy called me repeatedly over the course of many weeks, asking me to describe the abortion procedure in detail and asking if his girlfriend had experienced any pain, and how much, and for how long, and what had it been like? Eventually I told him I recognized his voice and I knew he had called me before. He’d hang up, only to call again in several days for another confrontation.
Once, a band member for whom I was booking gigs part-time called me on the hot line. (There was no caller ID back then, so every call was potentially a woman in need.) I picked up the phone and heard a snickering, deep voice. “Hey. I got a big bag of fetuses here. What do I do with ‘em?”
I slammed down the phone and bolted from my chair, shaking. The phone kept ringing. When I picked it up, it was him again, apologetic this time. He’d been joking, just joking.
There were drawbacks, and the burnout rate was high. But I entered the job as a fervently pro-choice young feminist, and hearing the women’s calls only reinforced my view that abortion needs to be safe and legal and available to those who need it. I answered the calls for as long as I could, and eventually I had to move on.
My work on the hot line was almost half my lifetime ago. Thinking about it reminds me of a time when I bore witness to the terrible truths of womanhood in America. An unwanted pregnancy can hurtle a woman onto a perilous landscape where the laws of man don’t protect her. You don’t hear about this dark side of life very often in the daylight. But look around you. One in three women have been there.