What it actually feels like to have an abortion, and how it changes you
I walked through a sea of protestors to a clinic where nurses stood behind bulletproof glass
I knew I was pregnant before I took the test.
I’d been sick for a week. I was having weird dreams. My breasts hurt. My head felt hot and foggy. Later, I would find out that I was developing a large cyst on my left ovary and that carrying the pregnancy to term with the cyst would have put my life at risk. At the time, all I knew was that I wasn’t ready for a child.
My partner and I had discussed contraceptives and what we would do in the event of an accidental pregnancy, and he stood by me and my decision to have an abortion.
In 2015, I was living in Wyoming, one of the five states that only has one clinic remaining. The choice was either to drive eight hours across the state, or two hours across the border to Colorado, so I chose to go out of state. I called Planned Parenthood the morning after I took the test and scheduled an appointment two weeks out. Although there was no mandated waiting period, the two week wait was excruciating.
There was not a minute in those two weeks that I did not think about my decision, and it is one that weighed on me heavily.
When the day came, we were greeted across state lines by protesters. They didn’t care what my reasons were, and they couldn’t have possibly known. Most were yelling hateful epithets, but one older woman stood in front of them, blasting music, holding a sign stating that abortion is a constitutional right. We held hands walking into the clinic, where the nurses sat behind bulletproof glass to buzz us into the waiting room.
I spoke with one nurse about adoption alternatives and childcare assistance, and after assuring her that I was sure in my decision to have an abortion, she sent me back to the waiting room. After another hour of waiting, I had my transvaginal ultrasound.
Contrary to popular rhetoric pushed by politicians and anti-abortion activists, transvaginal ultrasounds are not necessary to verify a pregnancy. The wands are large and uncomfortable, and can be quite painful depending on what the operator is looking for. I opted not to look.
Immediately after, I spoke with another nurse about birth control options. I scheduled an appointment to make an upgrade from my NuvaRing to a Nexplanon implant, and I was given a prescription for generic pills and a bag of condoms to tide me over in the weeks until the insertion was scheduled. They sent me back to the waiting room a final time, letting me know that it was the last opportunity I would have to change my mind.
When I finally got called down for the procedure, I talked with two separate doctors to make sure that I wasn’t being pressured into having an abortion. I didn’t know what to say, so I told the doctor that performed the procedure my reasons, and that I was sure. Doctors had been telling me for years that I wouldn’t be able to carry a pregnancy to term, if I could even get pregnant in the first place, so we probably weren’t as careful as we should have been.
When I told her, she told me that a large percentage of the women she has seen over the years had told her the same, and that it wasn’t my fault. Mistakes and accidents happen, and if I decided in the future to have children, I would be able to when I was ready. I tearfully thanked her, and a nurse held my hand throughout the procedure.
According to the Guttmacher Institute’s 2008 statistics on Induced Abortion in America, 30.1 per cent of women, or roughly one in three, will have an abortion in their lifetime. Although this percentage is down from 43 per cent in 1992 due to increased access to birth control and decreased access to abortion, and it is expected to go down in future analsyses, the fact remains the same: you know and love someone who has had an abortion.
So why don’t we talk about it?
I spoke to two women who have had abortions that agreed to let me tell their stories if they could be shared anonymously. The first, Sarah*, told me that she had an easier time talking about being raped and abused by her ex than she did talking about terminating a pregnancy to escape the relationship.
The second, Megan*, told me that I was now one of five people on the planet that knew that she had had an abortion. They both wished that they were able to talk openly about their procedures, but stigma and fear of retribution has prevented them from doing so.
Sarah was 22 at the time of her abortion. She had entered into a relationship with a man who she thought that she was in love with, but within six months the relationship had turned sour. He was emotionally, physically, and sexually abusing her, and she was beginning to feel isolated. When Sarah found out she was pregnant, she nervously reached out to her highly religious mother for assistance.
Thankfully, Sarah’s mother understood the gravity of the situation, and they traveled an hour and a half to the nearest clinic for the exam before the mandated 24 hour waiting period required by the state of Louisiana. The clinic has since been shut down due to the state’s ever changing abortion restrictions. “I remember going through the motions as if I was in a dream; as if I were seeing it through someone else’s eyes. The cold hardness of the table, the crinkle of the paper under my weight, the probe to verify that I was indeed pregnant. I was. Seven weeks. After this invasion of my body and my privacy came the waiting.”
Sarah and her mother worked to conceal the appointment from Sarah’s boyfriend, as she feared that she would be killed if he found out. The next day, they returned to the clinic for the actual procedure. After watching a video about contraceptive options with two other patients, and she sat in silence with them until it was time for the procedure. Hot tears streamed down her face while the nurse reminded her to keep breathing, and then there was nothing. The dull pain remained, but upon leaving the clinic, the sun seemed brighter than she remembered.
Shortly after the procedure, Sarah left her boyfriend. She has no regrets, but she wishes she could talk about it without the shame and stigma associated with the procedure.
Megan had never had health insurance. She was never on her parents’ plan growing up, and when she moved out at the age of 17, she struggled to be accepted into a Medicaid program. Now, at the age of 24, Megan is on Medicaid, but she struggles to find a reproductive health care provider that will provide annual exams for birth control. While there are many crisis pregnancy centers and baby boutiques across Louisiana, health centers that provide family planning options are few and far between. When Megan found out she was pregnant, her mother was furious, and her employer reprimanded her.
Megan and her boyfriend went to a pregnancy center to verify that her test was positive, and although the staff were nice, they were passing judgment on the young couple. When they traveled across the state to have the procedure done, the judgment stopped. The staff at the clinic were very sweet, and although the other women were nervous and sad, they looked on each other with kindness. While she is sad that she had an abortion, she knows it was the right decision. Megan and her boyfriend would love to have kids someday when they are ready.
For others finding themselves in the same situation, she recommends not listening to anyone’s advice if they aren’t actually going to help. “My mother was only wanting me to have it so she could have a grandchild. The other people that called me a murderer would have never given me a dime or any real support to raise a child and I knew that, so I knew that it wouldn’t actually be okay. A child needs a lot of attention, costs a ton, and needs to be around parents that aren’t stressed. So don’t have a baby if you are not mentally and financially ready because there is help out there and it’ll be OK.”
In all, the abortion itself was not as bad as I had been led to believe. It took about the same amount of time and caused the same amount of pain as an IUD insertion. For me, it hurt. For friends, it didn’t. For others, it was somewhere in between. I was told that it would be fundamentally life changing. I suppose that in some ways, it was.
While I had always considered myself pro-choice, my pregnancy cemented in my mind that women need to be able to plan their parenthood. After my procedure, I sat in the recovery room with other women, and shared the most intimate moments of silence I have ever experienced.
Nobody asked us what our reasons were, and nobody cared. We all understood.