Women fight stigma and a culture of silence by sharing their abortion stories

One in three women has had an abortion before the age of 45. New York magazine shared 26 of their stories

By Katie McDonough

Published November 11, 2013 2:21PM (EST)

                                     (ProgressOhio via Flickr Creative Commons)
(ProgressOhio via Flickr Creative Commons)

In just the last two years, 26 states have passed 111 restrictions on abortion care. From Texas' sweeping omnibus bill to North Dakota's draconian six-week ban, laws to criminalize the procedure outright or regulate it into nonexistence have not just created barriers to women's access to medical care, they have also heightened the cultural stigma around the procedure.

As one reproductive rights advocate doing clinic support in Texas told me last week, "Not only has it become difficult in terms of access -- distance, regulations and other barriers -- but there is also this despair and hopelessness that women feel when they hear about the new law. They feel that abortion is not something that is welcome in Texas."

This week, New York magazine published stories from 26 women who have had abortions, all at difference stages in their lives and at different times, all for different reasons and under unique personal, financial, familial and cultural circumstances. They aren't all easy or happy stories. Some women experienced tremendous relief after the procedure, others felt regret or uncertainty, but the range of emotions and responses the women express shows just how different the experience is for every woman.

As Meaghan Winter writes:

As their stories show, the experience of abortion in the United States in 2013 is vastly uneven. It varies not just by state but also by culture, race, income, age, family; by whether a boyfriend offered a ride to the clinic or begged her not to go; by the compassion or callousness of the medical staff; by whether she took the pill alone at home or navigated protesters outside a clinic. Some feel so shamed that they will never tell their friends or family; others feel stronger for having gotten through the experience. The same woman can wake up one morning with regret, the next with relief—most have feelings too knotty for a picket sign. “There’s no room,” one woman told us, “to talk about being unsure."

Which is precisely why telling these stories is so important.

A few excerpts:

Red, 30
Pennsylvania, 2008
When I got pregnant with my son, my very controlling boyfriend had convinced me that birth control poisoned my body. We usually slept in the car. I took a pregnancy test peeing over the kind of bucket you mix concrete in outside a dilapidated, vacant house. I decided I couldn’t abort a baby based on a stupid decision I made. They tell you that you love the baby automatically, but it’s not true. Then, in 2008, I was pregnant by my boyfriend Steve. We worked together at Target. He wanted to get married and have the baby. I was barely supporting the son I had, still living with my parents. I didn’t want to be tied to Steve forever. My mom and I went to Planned Parenthood. It was pouring rain. The picketers met us at the car with disgusting pictures. 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. I told Steve I miscarried. We dated another year. The secret was devastating. 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.

Cherisse, 39
Illinois, 2004, 2005, and 2007
I looked in the Chicago Yellow Pages and made an appointment at what I thought was an abortion clinic. They sent a black woman in to talk to me. She told me that she and her husband hadn’t wanted their child at first and tried to convince me to keep mine. Then they showed me a video of a D&E (dilation and evacuation). They assumed I was on food stamps. At that time, I didn’t know how to articulate why that was offensive. I was a 28-year-old paralegal—not the stereotype. They sent me home with a rattle and onesie. This was in 2002, not some bygone era. They sent me to another place to get a free ultrasound. The technician said, “If you have an abortion now, you’ll rupture your uterus and won’t be able to have children in the future.” I had no idea what was true. I didn’t want to regret not being able to have children. I went ahead and had my son. Those people weren’t there after I lost my job and couldn’t afford my COBRA, utilities, rent, food. Since then, I’ve had three abortions. I didn’t understand my body. I had no information. After the third time, I ran into a reproductive-justice advocate who finally taught me how to understand my fertility.

Lindsay, 35
Minnesota, 2012
This guy forced himself on me. When the woman at the clinic went over my options, I bawled. Society is so focused on women being mothers. I felt selfish for not wanting to be a mom.

Michelle, 62
New York, 1968
It was November. I’d just graduated high school and was working, going to college at night, living with my mother in Queens. I didn’t believe I could tell my mother without her killing me. At work, a wonderful older guy, a father figure, told me about a doctor on the Upper East Side. I had to go late at night and pay $800, a fortune at the time. My father died when I was 5, and from a wrongful-death suit I’d inherited $1,000. That money was very special to me, one of the only things I had from my father, and it made me feel like a criminal that I had to spend that money that way. I was four months pregnant. The doctor inserted a metal tube and said I’d be uncomfortable. The attending nurse said, “You’ll never have children after this.” I was to return the next night, with clear instructions not to call the office. On the subway ride home, I could feel the blood seeping through my jeans. I was so relieved to be wearing a coat so I didn’t leave blood on the seat. When I took off my jeans, blood covered my thighs. I couldn’t let the sheets get bloody, so I wrapped towels around me and stayed in bed, with incredibly painful cramping. I realize now that I was in labor. I thought I might die there in my apartment. In retrospect, I should’ve gone to the hospital, but I thought I would be arrested. It’s such a horrific thought that anyone should feel that alone again.

Read the rest here.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Abortion Abortion Care Abortion Rights Reproductive Rights Women Women's Rights