My recent abortion taught me how difficult terminating a pregnancy can be. But Planned Parenthood made a process that could have been ghastly and life threatening into something simple and safe. By Emily Bahr-de Stefano.
On a Sunday in March, a week late on my period, I bought a pregnancy test. It came up with a very faint plus sign. In a panic, I bought another. Or rather, I forced my “boyfriend” of less than two months to buy another, because I was too busy hyperventilating outside of Duane Reade. The results were the same. The remainder of the day centered on metaphorical mental games
“If I don’t step on any cracks in the sidewalk, I’m not pregnant,” is an actual thought that I had that day. Not surprisingly, this illogical non-sequitur failed me. So, the next morning, I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood, and less than a week after taking those dinky store brand pregnancy tests, I found myself in the waiting room at the Long Island City Planned Parenthood, with the father of my potential “child.” I knew I had to get an abortion if I was in fact pregnant. But I didn’t know what having an abortion would do to me.
When I was a teenager, a rash of films came out about young women becoming accidentally pregnant, and carrying their baby to term—Juno, Knocked Up, Saved! All these movies functioned as divergent coming-of-age narratives for my generation— pregnancy is rebellion, rebellion is self-actualization— but I couldn’t think of a single Hollywood representation of abortion. As I waited for the sonogram specialist and the woman who collected my urine to tell me whether or not I was pregnant, I kept thinking of Juno, specifically the scene where she is at the dingy abortion clinic and suddenly decides to keep her child, I think because she sees the baby’s fingernails? I shook the memory from my mind. This does not apply to me. I waited, alone. My boyfriend wasn’t allowed in with me at any point, and I found myself wishing I had a hand to hold on to, as my empty stomach, filled with only a blip of humanity, did aerobics inside me.
Finally, a counselor took me into her office and confirmed to me in her female-Bob-Ross-gentle-ocean-waves-Xanax voice that, yes, I was about six weeks pregnant. Did you want to see a sonogram? asked the counselor. I conceded. When I saw the paper with the little black and white copy of what looked like static, I began to cry, tracing my fingers along the edge of what looked like a little white blip, as if it were already absent, like a shadow or a ghost. Of course, thinking logistically, could I provide for a child at age 25? Probably not. Did I want my boyfriend of two months, a person I was just getting to know, to father my child? Also, probably not. Most importantly though, I felt the looming shadow of an outside verdict; as though I had been condemned by a silent jury as “unfit” to be a mother. Before I was pregnant, I don’t think I ever stopped to think about whether a child is something I might want at the time.
But I didn’t change my mind. The counselor asked if I wanted a contraceptive implant installed in me during my visit as well. Might as well get it all out of the way, I thought. Apparently, I can’t have an IUD because my uterus is “heart-shaped,” so instead they offered me implanon, a limp plastic tube that goes into your arm and releases progestin, a hormone that prevents the release of eggs and thickens the mucus in the cervix, making it even more difficult for sperm to travel inside you. It also has caused me to essentially be on my period for the past 6 months. Sidenote: Ladies! Do your research before you let someone put something in you! In every sense.
I waited to go into the operation room. When they finally began the proceedings, they offered me partial anesthesia or moderate sedation; I chose the latter. Yet I felt everything. The doula holding my hand kept telling me to look at the odd art installation in the ceiling, a blue sky with a sprinkling of cumulus clouds, telling me sometimes when a patient is sedated, they become so delirious that they believe the clouds are moving. I kept waiting for a hallucination of a breeze moving through the glass sky to distract me from the pain at hand, but it never came. I felt a tool inside me scraping, and I felt the blood seeping out. It was over. They led me to a little cubicle where I changed out of my surgical robe, placed a heavy pad into my underwear and sat for about 20 minutes while waiting for the side effects of the sedative to fully wear off. Diapered up and semi-delirious from the physical trauma, I walked out, holding my boyfriend’s hand, a bit melancholy but feeling relieved. Parked out front of the PP was a car with a bumper sticker with the flashy slogan: HONK IF YOU DON’T EXIST. “That’s kinda funny isn’t it?” I asked my boyfriend, as I took a photo. I seemed to be functional again. The bumper sticker was a sort of emotional litmus test: if you can find humor in your abortion that was performed less than 30 minutes ago, you’re totally fine.
But even weeks later, I woke up almost every morning crying. Of course, my body was undergoing a major hormonal adjustment; transitioning from being pregnant to not pregnant, as well as adapting to this new flaccid rod in my arm made me feel more emotionally unstable than ever. But I began to feel as though I had lost a part of me, cut off a possibility in my life that I feared wouldn’t be given to me again. I felt lost.
After my abortion, many of my family and friends assured me that I had done “the right thing.” But hearing people make a moral judgment on my choice to get an abortion was not as comforting as they may have hoped. If I could do it again, and I hope I never have to, I would have told them that it was not the “right” choice, because for me, it was not a decision between right and wrong. It was never an ethical issue, it was a personal issue. It had always seemed to me “a woman’s body, a woman’s choice.” And once I was pregnant, that statement became so much more significant, so much more real: now it was my body, my choice.
It probably seems weird to use the word “lucky” in relation to your abortion, but consider this: The process of my abortion was efficient. Basically, I terminated my pregnancy as soon as I humanly could, without using a clothes hanger—this possibility, I understand, is a privilege. For many women, accessing an easy and safe abortion is not an option. Planned Parenthood offers incredible care and continued counseling for those who require it. I had been able to do all this at a reasonable price.
Although I had very mixed feelings after my abortion, I don’t regret the fact I terminated an accidental pregnancy, and I do not regret the experience. “Be glad you got safe and legal treatment while it’s still available,” my father told me on a park bench, “and I hope you never have to have an abortion again.” If I had really wanted to have a child, I felt that I could have. Over time, I began to understand my initial instinct had been correct because I didn’t want the child, not yet, no matter what could have been. When I do have a baby, I want to give it the best life I can, which is something I can’t even do for myself at this point. (I mean, realistically I still have difficulty choosing an outfit that properly suits the weather every day.)
This is what makes the linguistic differentiation between pro-life and pro-choice so important to me: because I am not “pro-life,” this indicates that I am somehow “anti-life.” Pro-lifers would also attempt to argue that I was an active participant in a murder— or “America’s Holocaust,” as I once read on a sign passing a an anti-abortion rally. Dude, I have an abortion to remember forever as a part of my life, don’t get it twisted and call it “murder.” Do I feel like I killed something in that room, after I signed the papers and took the sedative? Not at all. Do I think having an abortion makes me an expert on all abortions? Abso-fucking-lutely not. Everyone who has to make a choice whether to have an abortion comes from their own experience. Who am I to say that my life defines all others? I am an adult baby, not a megalomaniac.
If I hadn’t had my abortion, I would still be pregnant now. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to become pregnant during a time when abortion was illegal in this country. I’m terrified because it seems that this horrific past could quickly become a reality again for women. WE HAVE TO FIGHT IT. The impending threat of Trump reversing Roe v. Wade is looming over us. I needed my abortion. I needed safe care. Planned Parenthood made a process that could have been ghastly and life threatening into something simple and safe. Without PP, and a political climate where abortions are legal, choosing to end my pregnancy could have meant risking my life.
Safe medical care is a human right. This is why I find it simple to remain pro-choice while also never wanting to have an abortion again. Every woman should have the right to assert agency over her own body. Not every woman has to make the choice of whether to have an abortion. To those women who do, I wish you a clear head, a painless procedure or pregnancy, and a life with as few regrets as possible.