‘Without Planned Parenthood, I Would’ve Had No Option’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

With a new nomination to the Supreme Court announced last night, partisans on both sides of the abortion divide are trying to divine whether Judge Neil Gorsuch would vote to overturn abortion rights, should he get confirmed by the Senate.

Down at the personal level, last week we received yet another compelling story for our reader series on abortion that launched a year ago. This reader, like two others before her, was among the roughly 9,000 women per year who get an abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy—close to the legal limit and the point of viability. Her fraught story is punctuated by an absentee father, a callous mother, a drug-addled boyfriend, and a kind stranger at an abortion clinic:

I am 26 years old and completing my last year of doctoral studies in the Midwest with several honorable distinctions. Yet the other part of my life narrative includes a frightening time, when I went through the very uncertain process of choosing to have an abortion. I was just shy of 17 years old and nearly 22 weeks pregnant. No one in my family knew. And I haven’t really talked about this with anyone since I was a teen.

The week I learned I was pregnant, I remember feeling depressed. I became worried because I couldn’t remember my last period. This happened on occasion due to feeling depressed and not eating.

I wasn’t feeling well, so I asked my mom if it was okay if I took myself out of school to see the doctor. She said yes. I got to school and panicked after realizing that I had forgotten to get a letter to excuse myself. Thinking optimistically, I frantically wrote one and forged a signature on behalf of my mom. Of course, a teacher suspected the letter and contacted her immediately. I was kicked out of my home for forging the letter and embarrassing my mom at work.

While staying at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I expressed my concern and got a pregnancy test promptly. It came back positive.

I cried because I told my boyfriend that I was not comfortable with sex on a several occasions previously. But he reassured me. He reassured me everything was okay, and everything was going to be okay.

But in that very moment I knew everything was not okay. Only a few weeks before, I confronted him on some changes I saw in his behavior. I learned that he was doing drugs behind my back. Hard drugs.

I wanted to escape. I was very much pregnant but I could not even afford a cellphone. I traveled to many clinics before one would see me, since several had turned me away. This prolonged the pregnancy several weeks. A number of providers painfully apologized to me. They said I was “too far along.” They said they required parental consent. Parental consent was an immense burden for me.

My father had left home when I was 8 years old, leaving behind three kids. I never saw him again until my sister’s wedding recently. He struggled with substance use and lived on and off the streets my whole life. I learned he was living across the country in California, in an office space with no kitchen. He told me at my sister’s wedding that he cooked his food in the bathroom on a hotplate. This was the most stable housing he has ever had since before he left us.

I knew it at 16 and I know it now: You can’t ask a man like that to step up and be a parent when he never was.

Since I was a young child, my mother worked two jobs to help my family while my father struggled with unemployment and child support. She worked as a teaching assistant at an elementary school for children with autism spectrum disorders. She had a second job in an after-school daycare program. My mom never saw an income over $40K in her adult life, despite working 12 hours a day.

The implicit rule in our household was “no trouble”—especially at school, since my mom worked in the same district that my siblings and I attended. So when I forged the letter that day to go to the doctor, I caused “trouble.”

School was the only escape I had. It allowed me to continue to conceal some of the immense turmoil inside. I had finals, SAT prep, AP exams, papers, and research reports. These were my escapes. The classroom was the only place in my life where I felt like I was a good kid and loved. My teachers at the time had no idea, but they allowed me to forget the painful reminder that I was five months pregnant and nobody—not my family, not my friends, had a clue.

Finally, after the weeks turned into months, I found a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan and they gave me information about a clinic that recommended a two-day procedure. I went there and paid $800 out of pocket with the help of my boyfriend’s family.

After I paid the person at the window, I waited. I waited feeling hopeful that this place was right for me. After waiting 30 minutes, I was told that I needed to provide a urine test and get an ultrasound. I was expecting the ultrasound to be like the other ones. But this one was not.

The technician was confrontational, “How did you not know you were this pregnant?” The emphasis in her voice was a punch in the gut. I couldn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say. Should I tell her that I am 16 years old? That we didn’t cover the signs of pregnancy in my health class? That the only birth control method I was formally taught in school was abstinence? Should I tell her that I have no adult in my life who looks after me other than my teachers, so I’ve learned to habitually ignore my body, my emotions, my wishes—all of me. I had to do things my peers never had to: buy my groceries, work 12 hour+ days on the weekend, walk miles and miles to my job.

No. She was wrong. I knew I was this pregnant but I got turned away from other clinics due to barriers in the system. It prolonged my process tremendously and made the whole experience incredibly more difficult. Without Planned Parenthood, I would have had no option.

She asked if I wanted to see the ultrasound, and I said no. Firmly. I excused myself.

The next minute I felt a flash of heat. I didn’t even make five steps. The dead weight of my unconscious pregnant body would have hit the floor if not for a security guard. He caught me when I passed out walking out of the examination room. I remember waking up seeing a man who resembled my grandfather’s angel. I remember his name still: Jacques. He held me up, to get me in a wheelchair. His smile relieved my immeasurable fear.

The last memory I have of that day was when I was waiting just before my procedure. I was still feeling scared, waiting in the operating room. The doctor sense my fear and put his hand on my forehead. I felt safe.

My choice mattered even at 16, and the barriers set up to try and reduce my choice set me back and compromised my well-being—physically and emotionally. One of the things I most want to emphasize to you is that not every individual’s family is a source of strength and support in their life. Nobody should be persecuted or shamed for making one of the most selfless decisions in their life after looking at their harsh reality. Places like Planned Parenthood exist to provide people support and strength to make a decision when life presents tremendous obstacles.

After finding the love of my life and making a joint decision on family planning, I am firm that I do not want children. I devote myself to taking care of people in communities that need to be better served. This includes people who have no one to care for them: children in foster care who age out into adult systems, adults with severe mental illness, people with developmental disabilities. They are my family.