This story titled Abortion Without Shame was published at Medium’s Be Yourself.
The first time I suspected that I might be pregnant was at an Edie Brickell & New Bohemians concert. My period was late, and suddenly in the dark, loud club I was very nauseous. The next day, a home test revealed that I was, indeed, pregnant. I knew immediately that I would get an abortion. I was only 22, and I did not want to be pregnant or a mother.
My state didn’t have a mandatory waiting period, so I wasn’t required to receive counseling and return 24 hours later. I was able to have an abortion as soon as I decided for myself that I was ready.
At the clinic, as I laid there on the table counting the ceiling tiles, I didn’t feel guilty or have second thoughts. But I experienced an odd sadness at betraying my biology. My reproductive system wanted me to be pregnant, or so it appeared, but my mind did not.
Humans overrule their bodies all the time in countless ways, so this sense of betrayal and the accompanying sadness did not overwhelm me. They made me feel human.
I am just one of the almost one-quarter of women in the United States who will have an abortion by the time she reaches 45 years old. Even though the procedure is common, talking about my personal experience with abortion is intimidating.
Casting off the cloak of shame demands being straightforward about abortion. So, I have decided to push aside my unease and tell my story. To be clear: I don’t think I should have to justify having recreational sex, using birth control, or getting an abortion. I am not sharing my story because I feel the need to explain myself. I’m doing so because I believe “I want an abortion,” is a complete statement.
I have been pregnant a total of six times. Two of my pregnancies ended in early miscarriage and four ended in abortion. Sometimes I lie on medical forms, cutting that second number in half. Four abortions might sound excessive, I speculate, even to health care professionals. And it’s none of their business anyhow.
I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of choosing to terminate four pregnancies. Abortion was the right decision for me each time. I’m more embarrassed that I was not better at using birth control.
When I hear people say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” I think the word “rare” is a sly innuendo. “Rare” whispers that abortion is troubling and should only be allowed under certain circumstances. “Rare” makes me wonder if any or all of my abortions were the wrong kind — the kind I should have tried harder to avoid.
Back when I regularly attended reproductive justice demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court, a man (almost always a man) would yell, “What if your mother decided to have an abortion?” Whoa, you got me there, buddy!
As a matter of fact, my mom wasn’t married when she became pregnant with me. The man who was my biological father had no interest in playing a part in our lives. My religious grandparents sent my mom for an extended visit with friends in England during her more visibly pregnant months. They pressured her to give up the baby for adoption at birth.
Mom made the brave decision to keep me. The life of a single mother was not easy for my mom. She experienced self-doubt, isolation, and long-term economic hardship. I would not blame my mom if she had chosen adoption or even abortion. It was her decision.
I considered fudging the truth in this piece, like on those medical forms. But then it wouldn’t really be my story. And I would be bending to the societal judgment that weighs so heavily on women. The very judgment that I want to help eliminate, the same judgment I would love to see all women defy.
I’ve heard people refer scornfully to those women who “use abortion as a form of birth control” — as if there is a number of abortions at which a woman crosses a line into reckless reliance on the procedure. Did I cross the line? I refuse to be thrust onto either side of such an arbitrary line. I will not disavow any of my abortions to protect my so-called reputation.
My first and second abortions were about a year apart and the result of sex with the same man — my first serious boyfriend after college. I was young and not very good at using birth control. I didn’t like the way I stopped menstruating when I was on the pill, so I quit taking it after about a year. I tried a diaphragm, but I was never confident it was inserted right. The contraceptive sponge was better, but then they stopped making it. Eventually condoms became the obvious choice both for birth control and protection from sexually transmitted infections.
In my experience, men prefer to have sex without using a condom once a relationship is established. At that point, I felt it became my responsibility to remind my partner to use a condom. Which I often did. But not always. There was usually a calendar in the back of my mind, even if I was trying to be spontaneous or if I’d had a few drinks. What’s today’s date again? When was my last period? Am I in the safe zone? This is not a fool-proof method, as centuries of women can attest.
My third abortion took place right before I married my first husband. I was a little older and probably should have figured out the whole birth control thing by then, but obviously I hadn’t.
After my first marriage ended, I dated a troubled man. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t want him involved at all. A friend went with me to the clinic for my abortion. Again, there was no doubt that I did not want to be pregnant.
Do I sound irresponsible or unfeeling? Perhaps I was careless, but I don’t think I was hard-hearted — just realistic. One might say I was selfish, which I would argue is entirely appropriate when it comes to deciding whether or not to get pregnant, stay pregnant, or raise a child.
The dreams I had for my life did not feature a child. I never wanted to hold anyone’s baby, and I couldn’t imagine having a tiny human completely dependent on me. Then I met my second husband and his three-year-old son. The confluence of being in my late 30s, madly in love, and in the presence of a small child made my biological clock start ticking at high volume.
Early in the relationship, I went on a trip. When I returned, my future husband and his son picked me up at the airport. In the baggage claim area, my stepson-to-be caught sight of me and ran into my arms. Every cell in my body exploded with love and longing.
When I got pregnant not long after, it was intentional. I was excited and frightened and a bit unsure I was doing the right thing, but mostly I was happy.
The miscarriage came at the very end of my first trimester. I had been nauseous non-stop throughout those three months. Sometimes waiting for the metro to go to work, I would get so tired that I had to lie down on one of the benches on the platform and wait for the next train.
Not long after I had started telling people that I was pregnant, my obstetrician was unable to hear the heartbeat. She told me this was not unusual at my stage, but she sent me to get an ultrasound.
The exam revealed that the fetus had stopped growing. I would have to get a D&C. Through my tears, I asked the doctor if my previous abortions could have anything to do with the situation. I didn’t hedge — I said the words “four abortions.” The doctor assured me that those procedures did not contribute to my miscarriage. He did not sound like he was placating me. I believed him. I cried a lot, but I did not condemn myself.
A year later I was still not ready to think about getting pregnant again. So, when I woke up one morning and realized that the previous night had not been a good night to skip the condom, I went to Planned Parenthood and purchased emergency contraception. I took it within the recommended time frame, but it did not work.
I decided to embrace the pregnancy, as it could be my last chance to have a baby. We started to get hopeful, but we didn’t tell many people. As I approached the end of the first trimester, I found it difficult to keep my secret. I let it slip to a few friends, and then a few days later I noticed spots in my underwear.
My doctor sent me for another ultrasound, which confirmed that I was having a miscarriage. This time, I had to wait it out since I had already started bleeding. It was long and painful, and I was miserable. Just when I thought my uterus was done bleeding, it was not. My boss called to inquire when I was coming back to work.
Could my body be punishing me? I wanted to know what was going on. My gynecologist tested me for the most obvious culprits and came up with nothing. My husband and I saw a preconception expert who informed me that I was at an “advanced maternal age” and showed me a chart of how the risks involved with pregnancy escalate as women age.
They handed me orders for blood work to run more tests. As we drove away from the doctor’s office that day, I decided I didn’t want a child badly enough to go through a battery of assessments and possible treatments. And I sure as hell didn’t want to risk having a third miscarriage. My pregnancy days were officially over. At the age of 39, I finally became a scrupulous birth control user.
A few years later, I went through a phase of referring to myself jokingly as mama, as in, “mama needs a new pair of shoes!” One day, when my stepson was about seven years old, I did this in front of him. “But you’re not a mom,” he said. He didn’t mean to hurt me, of course, yet my chest tightened, my eyes welled up, and suddenly I wanted to be anywhere else but right there in front of my husband and stepson.
I was still raw from the miscarriages, and I felt exposed. I wanted to want to have a child. Why didn’t I want it more? Even today, I wonder how my life would be different if I was more like everyone else. I would be part of the sisterhood of women who have given birth and nursed and lived through all those sleepless nights. But I didn’t really want those experiences, I just wanted to be “normal” — and I knew it wasn’t fair to expect a baby to do that for me.
Deciding whether or not to have a child is as personal as it gets. Though I did not hesitate, I didn’t have any of my abortions on a whim. It is a choice that impacted me both immediately and for the rest of my life. I wish the same personal autonomy for every woman faced with such a decision.
I am grateful that I was able to choose abortion four times, that I was able to own my reproductive story. The choice was mine. Every time.