Reporter's Notebook

Personal Stories of Abortion Made Public
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Prompted by Emma Green’s note on the Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, for which a group of lawyers filed a document openly describing their abortions, readers share their own stories in an ongoing series edited by Chris Bodenner. We are posting a wide range of perspectives—from pro-choice and pro-life readers, women and men alike—so if you have an experience not represented thus far, please send us a note:

Show 14 Newer Notes

'Both Choices Were My Choices, Without Shame'

In a victory for the pro-choice movement, the Supreme Court just minutes ago decided on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In a 5-3 ruling, the Justices struck down abortion restrictions in Texas that had caused more than half of the state’s abortion clinics to close.

We still have many unaired personal stories from readers recounting the choices they made during an unplanned pregnancy—or a planned one that went terribly wrong. This next reader, Elizabeth Bercaw, is one of the rare ones in our series to insist that her real name be used. She begins by recalling another abortion ruling by the Supreme Court, almost 30 years ago, that upheld a Missouri law imposing restrictions on the use of state funds, facilities, and employees when it came to abortion—a win for the pro-life movement. Here’s Elizabeth:

In 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Webster decision, I harkened the call to become active in the pro-choice movement.  I helped co-found a pro-choice group on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, then later helped in pro-choice groups on the campuses of Clemson University and Emory University. Throughout those years, I volunteered with Planned Parenthood and NARAL in defending clinics against attacks by anti-choice groups. I was firmly committed to making sure every woman had the right to a safe, legal abortion.

In 1998, the pro-choice issue became personal for me, as I found myself pregnant for the first time at the age of 34.

In her post on abortion waiting periods, Emma begins with a statistic:

Approximately 9,090 women in the United States had abortions after their 21st week of pregnancy in 2012. That’s 1.3 percent of all abortions, and roughly 0.14 percent of all pregnancies, based on the 2010 U.S. pregnancy rate.

Yet states keep creating legislation on this issue, proposing abortion bans at 24 or 22 weeks. Many—like South Carolina, where one such bill was signed into law last week—provide exceptions for medical emergencies or fetal anomalies. In fact, many of the women who seek abortions at this stage in their pregnancies do so for health reasons, so these bans affect only a subset of those 9,090 women.

Among the dozens of unaired notes we still have in our inbox from women responding to our abortion series, I just found one from a reader who appears to be among that 9,090 subset:

My husband and I made the heartbreaking decision to end our planned and wanted pregnancy at 22 weeks due to severe, but not fatal, birth defects. In making the decision we had to ask ourselves a whole host of questions. What would her life be like? What were the chances of her living a relatively normal life despite her disabilities? Would we be stable financially, since one of us would need to quit our job to care for her? Would our families help us? Could we do it without their help? Would we be able to be active and involved parents to future children or would her care take priority?

Ultimately we decided that the most loving thing we could do for her was to let her go. She was our first child. Our only girl. Ten years later I still mourn her loss. I mourn what she was and what she could have been. But as I watch my son grow up and experience life in a way she never would, I’m thankful we were able to choose and I know we made the right decision.

This reader has more regrets:

I have an abortion story.

A reader shifts our debate over sex-selective abortion into this broader series on personal abortion stories:

Regarding your discussion about abortion based on disability, the conversation needs to move beyond Down’s syndrome. While Down’s is relatable to many people, parents are getting the awful news (usually at 18-20 weeks, when they've already announced and are eagerly anticipating their much-wanted child) that their child has half a heart, no brain, organs missing, organs outside the body, extra chromosomes, not enough chromosomes … on and on and on. There are SO MANY things that can go wrong, and so many family circumstances that factor into the decision. Removing the ability for the doctor and patient to converse freely is simply punitive to families already in a difficult situation.  

I don’t blame people for not understanding; I had no idea until my doctor came into my ultrasound (at 22 weeks), put her hand on my knee, and said, “Something doesn’t look quite right, and I’m going to send you to a specialist.”

This next reader gets into much more detail about the severe complications of her pregnancy:

At the outset, I ask that you please withhold my name because only a few friends and family members know this story. I have never had to consider having an abortion because of my baby having a Down Syndrome diagnosis, but my husband and I did face this decision a couple of years ago during our 20-week ultrasound when our baby was diagnosed with something called hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

Nine years ago today, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which bans the procedure know as intact dilation and extraction (D&X). A 2006 piece from NPR’s Julie Rovner does a good job of explaining the complexities of D&X, which, despite its general illegality, is “performed in cases where the woman’s health is at risk, or when the fetus shows signs of serious abnormalities, some of which don’t become apparent until late in pregnancy.” On that grim note, here’s the latest reader email prompted by our long and ongoing series on abortion:

Thank you for asking for stories. I have waited a long time to tell mine. If you choose to use it, please do not use my name.

I was 31, happily married, and pregnant with a child that was both wanted and planned. We had gone in for a routine ultrasound at 18.5 weeks. The tech was pretty quiet during the whole thing and told us to wait in the room when she was done.

The normally upbeat, high-energy doctor was somber when he entered the room and began to tell us about the baby whose crib we had just brought home. I was thinking it would still be OK, and we would love and raise a special-needs child. He must have seen this in my face, and decided he needed to be clearer about our child’s condition: “This is not a baby that is going to go home with you.”

A reader writes:

I was 26 years old and had a beautiful, thriving four-year-old daughter by my husband from whom I’d separated a year prior. I was in college struggling to finish my BA while working full time at a very active job. I had insurance through the state and lived in a progressive area and had made use of Planned Parenthood for basic contraception and medical before with much gratitude. I was in a monogamous relationship with an under-employed man. My nearest relative was 800 miles away.

I got knocked up. Finances were tight and Toyota was gearing up to repossess my car. I was tired. I agonized … for about one minute total.

That’s how a reader felt about hers:

I grew up in a very religious and strict household, but I’ve been pro-choice for as long as I could remember. I got pregnant for the first time at 19 by a man 12 years my senior. I wanted an abortion, but my parents found out and made me have (and keep) my son to teach me a lesson about being sexually active outside of marriage. They also said that African Americans didn’t get abortions or gave their children away.

An anonymous reader sends a confessional through the mail. Here’s the digitized version:

When I was 21, I was dating a great gal and single mother, who was 18. I was blown away by how much my mom took to her two-year-old son (yes, that made her 16 when she had him). My mom loved to watch him when we went on dates and I admired what a good mom she was. My parents were older, my mom in her mid-60s and my dad in his late 70s.

I started pressuring her to have a child with me. I even asked her to marry me. I kept coming up with excuses on when would finally be a good time to get married, but I did break her down on getting pregnant. I could give my parents a “real” grandchild.

When it finally happened, when it was real and we had a pregnancy test to confirm everything, I freaked out.

The latest in our series of abortion stories comes from a reader who went through a rollercoaster of life experiences:

First, a little background. I was the only child my mother didn’t abort (there were several pregnancies that I know of). My father was a heroin addict, and she left him before I could get to know him at all—probably a good choice.

However, my mother was also a drug addict, alcoholic, party fan, and incredibly promiscuous (in front of me). I often felt it would have been better if I had been aborted along with all my siblings; I still wonder sometimes. I have always been pro-choice, believing in every human’s right to bodily autonomy. For myself, however, I knew at a young age that I wanted children because I had been so raised so horribly. I knew I could do a better job.

I was fortunate enough to make it through university and got my degree in Developmental Psychology. I was surprised when I found myself married before getting pregnant, and we were ecstatic.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear an abortion case for the first time in years, Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and it’s shaping up to be hugely consequential. Garret Epps has an overview of the case and what’s at stake. If the Texas law in question is upheld, 34 of the 40 clinics providing abortions in the state will likely close because they won’t be able to meet two new major regulations.

About a month ago, in the wave of email from readers responding to our callout for personal stories of confronting abortion, we heard from a woman living in Texas who was already struggling with abortion regulations in that state. She is also one of the few readers in this series willing to use her real name:

My name is Dr. Valerie Peterson.  I live in Austin, Texas, and I’m a single mom of two kids. I had my first daughter when I was 17, and then my second child at 19. I worked full-time while attending school full time, all the way through earning a doctorate.

I had several gynecological complications after my second child and was told that I couldn’t get pregnant again. I was shocked when my doctor told me I was pregnant in July of 2015. Even though this was unexpected, it was a wanted pregnancy, and I started prenatal care.

Because of high blood pressure, I was considered a high-risk pregnancy and had to have ultrasound scans every two weeks. At my 12-week scan, I was told that there was a possible abnormality in my son’s brain, but more testing was needed. For the next several weeks, I went back and forth to my doctors for additional tests. At my 16-week appointment, the sonogram my son’s brain hadn’t developed into two halves, and there was also an open neural tube. My doctor confirmed the diagnosis: alobar holoprosencephaly, or HPE.

HPE is a condition that is 100 percent incompatible with life. I had two options.

That’s how our reader frames her very different experiences in two countries:

I was born and raised in Indonesia, where premarital sex is condemned. You are expected to stay a virgin until your wedding night. The only sex education I’ve ever received in school was a chapter on reproductive organs in biology class. Parents don’t talk to their kids about sex. When I got my first period in 6th grade, my mother warned me to be cautious, since I could get pregnant now. She did not elaborate further.

When I was 15, my first boyfriend pressured me to sleep with him to prove my love. I balked at the last minute but he pushed on. I’d never heard the term “date rape.”

To prevent pregnancy I used the calendar method, pulling out, and condoms. I wasn’t well informed of other birth-control methods, plus I would be too embarrassed to obtain one from a clinic due to prejudice, since I was not a married woman.

I got pregnant in 1999. I was 19 and a freshman in college. Abortion is illegal in Indonesia and highly taboo.

Four readers recall their experiences facing an unwanted pregnancy at a very early age. Our first reader was younger and in more desperate circumstances than most:

At 15 years old, I was living on the streets of Northern California. I got pregnant by my 39-year-old boyfriend. He said he was sterile, so he didn’t believe it was his, and he berated me. I was in no way capable of raising a child. I was living on the streets, had no income, was taking drugs, and was not at all responsible.

I went to Planned Parenthood, where they told me of my options—adoption, keeping the baby, or abortion. I could not keep the child and would not abandon the child to be brought up by someone else.

The procedure was over quickly. I sat outside at the bus stop in the cold, feeling sick, and cried. I felt so horrible and guilty that I had allowed myself to get pregnant. I respect all life, even that of an insect, so it was a very hard thing for me to do.

I am in my 50s now and do not regret it a bit. It was the right choice and I am so happy that I HAD a choice. I now realize that I had been manipulated by a pedophile, but thankfully I was not forced to have his child.

This reader also had a really tough upbringing:

I stumbled across your compelling series—vast in how readers view abortion and why—and it brought up some long-since buried emotions. My story is similar but not so similar at the same time.  

When I was 14 years old, my mother became addicted to drugs and would leave my two siblings and me home alone for days to weeks. I don’t think too many people in our family were aware of how frequently the three of us were left alone and we never reached out to any of them to let them know, probably because of a combination of shame and embarrassment.

Those are the words of the second reader below. But first, this one writes:

While I agree that having an abortion should be a woman’s decision, it’s not just a woman’s decision. I am a woman myself, and my significant other and I had a scare not too long ago. I asked him what he wanted to do if I were pregnant, and he said “I don’t care. It’s your body and your choice. I’ll stand behind whatever decision you make.”

Although I am grateful for his support at that time, IT WASN’T JUST MY DECISION. Men: Take a note. If you impregnated a woman, it’s your choice too. It’s not just her DNA growing in that womb; it’s yours too. You have every right to stand up and say “I want to keep this child and have a life with you” or “I’m not ready yet.” If a woman asks you what YOU want to do, think it over and tell her. Being pregnant when you’re not ready is a scary and confusing thing and it means the most to us when you stand up and let us know what you want.

Eventually, my significant other did tell me what he would have wanted to do after we confirmed I wasn’t pregnant: He would have wanted it. He would have stayed in my life, and our child’s, and would have never regretted it. I’m not saying having an abortion is wrong; I’m saying that if you helped make the pregnancy, you should have just as much say as the other person.

We have already heard several stories and perspectives from men confronting abortion—here, here, and here. The following man’s email is a stark contrast to the earlier one from the woman who “never told the ‘father’” because her pregnancy and abortion were “none of his business”:

I was reading some of the amazing personal abortion stories posted in the Notes section of your website. I feel, especially as a man, that I should share my story about how my wife and I were placed in the same situation as many of your readers: ending a life that we had already grown to love, OR bring a child into the world knowing the suffering it would endure. Being thrust into a situation where you’re having to choose whether your own child lives or dies, no matter the outcome, was no less emotionally, physically, and spiritually painful for me, so I’ll make this brief.