Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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 an experience not represented thus far, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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June 4, 1965

The Zika emergency—thankfully now in the past but still without a vaccine—spread throughout 60 countries and affected thousands of pregnant women in 2015 and 2016. The disease is most dangerous for pregnant women due to the risk of birth defects as severe as microcephaly, when the fetus forms a small head and underdeveloped brain. To prevent that gruesome fate for their baby, pregnant women with Zika often turn to abortion (though the procedure is illegal in many of the countries most affected by the virus).

Before Zika, there was the rubella epidemic of 1964 to 1965, when an estimated 12.5 million Americans acquired the disease (also known as German measles). Similar to Zika, rubella’s symptoms for most adults are mild—a rash and a low-grade fever that lasts two or three days. But for a pregnant woman and her fetus, rubella is “very dangerous,” according the CDC, resulting in birth defects ranging from deafness to heart problems to mental disabilities. Also like Zika, rubella is often asymptomatic, thus many pregnant women don’t realize they’re carrying the virus until it’s too late. In the 1960s, prior to the release of the rubella vaccine in 1969 and the Roe decision in 1973 that made abortion legal nationwide, a small number of doctors illegally performed the procedure for pregnant women with rubella.

One of those women is Bette, an Atlantic reader who had a second-trimester abortion in March 1971. She was a 24-year-old married Christian at the time, and she frames her abortion story as “God’s will for my family”:

My husband and I celebrated my pregnancy with friends on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. Although the pregnancy was a bit of a surprise, we were delighted to welcome a baby into the world.

I was teaching fifth grade at the time, and I’ll never forget the moment when a student walked up to my desk and said he didn’t feel very well. When I saw the rash on his face, I flashed back to a terrible photograph I had seen in a magazine in my obstetrician’s office the week before. It was of a “Rubella baby,” and the caption said “Bobby’s mother recovered from German measles in 3 days. Bobby wasn’t so lucky.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I later found out the way scientists realized what the Rubella virus did to a fetus was when someone connected delivery-room personnel coming down with the three-day measles to a baby with severe birth defects. Although the mother recovers in three days, the baby stays sick throughout the remaining time of gestation and is still contagious at birth.

I had almost forgotten about that student and the magazine picture a couple of weeks later when I got up and saw a very slight rash on my own face.

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.

Sunday was the 44th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and the following day, as one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump reinstated “the Mexico City policy,” a rule that bans U.S. funding to foreign family-planning organizations unless they agree not to promote abortion. In the new GOP-controlled Congress this month, Steve King of Iowa introduced the Heartbeat Protection Act, a bill that would prohibit an abortion if an ultrasound detected a fetal heartbeat.

In The Atlantic today, Moira Weigel traces the origins of ultrasound and how the technology has been increasingly used by pro-life advocates to persuade women not to have abortions. “Of course, ultrasound technology has been a crucial component of prenatal care, too,” Weigel notes. “Imagery obtained through ultrasound can alert doctors to potentially serious problems in a pregnancy—such as placental issues or congenital defects in the fetus.” The following reader can relate—in agonizing detail:

My views on abortion have always been pro-choice. However, when I actually had to live through the experience myself, I was torn.

To be honest, even when I talk about my second pregnancy now, I still refer to what happened as a miscarriage: I lost my baby, rather than terminating my pregnancy.

It was fall of 2011. I was 23 years old, married to my husband for two years, and we had a beautiful one-year-old daughter. We wanted a big family and were excited when I found out I was pregnant again. I was a high-risk pregnancy with my daughter, so it was no surprise that I was sent to a perinatologist.

That first visit with her would forever change my life. It was my husband, my daughter, and me in the room, and we were so excited to have my daughter see her new little sibling. A few minutes into the ultrasound, the nurse practitioner paused and stated she needed to get the doctor’s opinion on something, so she stepped out of the room. I was confused.

A reader opens up about her experience in vivid detail:

Hello, I would like to submit the account of my abortion to your series. I don’t believe it’s represented in the stories posted so far. It’s significantly different in format from the other stories, but I wrote it as I experienced it. It’s the story both of an abortion, and also how that can destroy a relationship and unexpectedly impact a life.

As a professional, high-earning, independent woman, the unexpected difficulty of this experience on both a personal relational level was shocking. I wish I’d had known what I now know going in to the experience; I would have handled it much differently and perhaps in a way that could have mitigated its destructiveness. I hope my story will help others.

Thank you for this series; I found it helpful. Choosing to terminate a pregnancy is choosing between two bad choices. The silence and stigma around it makes something that is difficult much, much harder.

***

I should start with my age: I’m 34. So it may be that this was my baby, my only chance to have a baby.

This reader witnessed up close and personal a pregnancy filled with major drug abuse and instability:

I met Megan when she was 25. She was a seven-year heroin addict, who’d been sober at most three months at a time, and a meth user. What I saw as her extreme fragility at the time I later learned was borderline personality disorder. I set about trying to get her clean.

Three stormy weeks later, she self-tested pregnant. It was 6:30am. I had considered what I’d do, but I went to my kitchen to ponder a final time. She displayed the maturity of a 12 year old. As befits a BPD sufferer, she alternated between tenderness and love and self-pity and jealousy. Her parents were Beverly Hills, evening-time alcoholics. I knew the future biological father to be an inward, violent, socially maladjusted 21 year old from a family of gallons-per-day alcoholics centered around a cult film director patriarch. Megan alternatively called the conception a product of date rape and rough sex.

I knew all this. Of all people, objectively speaking, Megan is among the last you’d want to see as a parent. But given her fragility, saying I wouldn’t support her decision brought with it every risk that she’d miscarry in a Texaco bathroom with a meth pipe in her hand. It was a moral decision, on the spot, in a kitchen at sunrise. I walked back to the bed and said I’d stay with her and co-parent. From that point on, my job was to keep the baby alive.

That’s how this 67-year-old reader begins her story:

I had the first abortion in 1968 when it was illegal, dangerous, and considered shameful and taboo. I was 19 and we were still in college and not ready to be parents. We didn’t have a clue where to turn, but luckily my boyfriend learned about a man, Bill Baird, an early abortion advocate (and my hero) who might be able to help.

It was like a covert criminal mission—from the first meeting with Bill in a rundown strip-mall to get the name of a “doctor,” to driving to an underpass in Queens to borrow $300 (a fortune for two college students), followed by driving from our middle-class life on Long Island to Newark into a neighborhood that looked like the last place we’d find ourselves.

We both walked into the rundown house and were met by a black man who said he was the doctor. He told me to go to the kitchen and get undressed and told my boyfriend to wait for me in the car. Naked and terrified, lying on the kitchen table, he gave me anesthesia. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the table.

A reader in the email below, Lily, might be aghast by the scene above from Girls, where Mimi-Rose casually tells Adam she just aborted his would-be child. Then again, the two have only been dating for seven weeks, so that might mitigate Lily’s concerns here:

If a couple has been in some sort of committed partnership—dating a while, cohabitating, married—I think that the man’s opinions and wants should be taken into consideration when it comes to abortion. Allowed to absolutely trump the woman’s? No. But if you help to create what could potentially become a human being, then you should be part of he decision to end it.

Here are other aspects of the idea that abortion should be the pregnant woman’s—and only the pregnant woman’s—choice:

(1) If the fathers of the fetuses are excluded from participating in an abortion decision that carries the implication that they are irrelevant. And if they are irrelevant then they are excused from any responsibility for the consequences of their actions. That’s not good for society as a whole.

(2) Men and women can’t have complete equality when it comes to pregnancy because women carry children. But if women can make the choice to either be a parent or not (i.e., carry the pregnancy or not), then how is it fair that men don’t have a similar choice? How is it fair to force a man to provide financial child support if the woman he impregnated chooses to keep and rear a child?

All the forgoing said: If anyone—male or female—isn’t yet ready to or doesn’t ever want to be a parent, they should take personal responsibility for buying and using effective birth control. I’m at the point where I think it would be better for society to provide birth control gratis for any adult who wants it. I think that’s the lesser evil than bringing a child into the world who isn’t wanted.

Lily’s comments made me think of this recent email from Tony:

I greatly appreciate you sharing the varied perspectives of those affected by abortion, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. I wanted to share my own experience with abortion, as a man’s perspective is not often heard.  

Several years ago, I met a woman just a few months after I returned to London following a stint in America, my home country, for work. I fell for Jenny (a pseudonym) from the start—her cherubic smile and silky hair warmed my heart. Above all, we shared a love for life and a determination to leave the world a better place than we found it. I felt as though Jenny understood me in a way that few others did.

We spoke on the phone each night after work and spent the weekends together, exploring London and enjoying each other’s company. Like most sexually active couples, we did talk about what might happen if she fell pregnant and we both said we would want to keep the baby. Little did I know how timely that conversation would prove to be.

This reader happens to have the same uncommon name as my grandmother’s:

Please keep my name private. I haven’t seen a grandmother story in your abortion series yet, so here’s mine.

My own devout Christian grandmother warned me if law can force a woman to carry an unwanted baby, law can force the abortion of a wanted baby. She said everyone else should butt out.

My daughter and her fiancé were just out of high school, working for minimum wage, and each living at home with parents. They got pregnant by accident.

My daughter was terrified. Her fiancé made all kinds of promises to help her, but in the end she said she didn’t want to raise kids in poverty. She decided to abort.

We’ve already heard from several women who were coerced or pressured into having an abortion by the men who impregnated them. This next reader’s story centers on a man who tried to get her to adopt her baby—for profit:

Please don’t use my name. Even 30 years later, it would be dangerous for some of the people in my life to know what I did.

I was a junior in college who had been dating a young man who had already graduated. He was an engineer and a military pilot, already making a good life for himself.

New Year’s found him released from base and back on home turf. We attended a party and happily kissed at midnight before retiring back to my apartment. At my last GYN appointment, the doctor had declared me unsuitable for the pill. IUDs were all but gone from the market, and everyone I had known who used the sponge seemed to have been left chewing nails staring at the calendar. So we used condoms.

Everything was fine until suddenly my boyfriend declared the sex didn’t feel good enough, pulled the condom off, plunged in, and immediately shot off. I just knew within minutes I was pregnant.

Here are two very different pro-life stories from readers. The first:

My birth mother was 18 when she gave birth to me and gave me up for adoption. She could have had an abortion—there were plenty of options for her in the area where she was from—but she chose life. Now I am married and have three children and another on the way. My family would not be here today if it wasn’t for her selfless, brave decision to nurture and protect me at my most vulnerable.

Our second reader, in contrast, went through a long series of traumas after choosing to carry out an unintended pregnancy:

Thank you for giving me a way to tell my story (the first time I’ve ever written it all out). I live in Texas and have closely followed the closures of women’s clinics. I’ve been following your abortion series, and although I’ve never had one, I feel there’s another aspect to the abortion issue that is rarely discussed.

Pro-life advocates often speak of women simply continuing unwanted pregnancies, as if it’s a simple matter of carrying to term, giving birth, and moving on. It’s the whole “accept the consequences of your actions” attitude: The woman did the crime (got pregnant), so she should do the time (carry to term and give birth). Anything less is “irresponsible”—or worse.

I’ve changed some details of my story, to stay as private as possible. I’m not ashamed of my reality, or my history, but the idea that any of my children might ever realize what my last unintended pregnancy set in motion ... that would break my heart.

I married too young. I married too quickly. I married someone who wanted “traditional” marriage, where I would be a full-time wife/mother. Having grown up in an abusive household, I clung to the idea of having that “Father Knows Best” kind of family. I was convinced if I worked hard enough and did things perfectly enough, I could stop the cycle of abuse in its tracks.  

From a 19-year-old college student who says she “never told anyone” about her abortion—or the horrible situation that led to it:

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story, but please do not use my name. My demographics are Asian American female coming from a low-income family. I grew up mostly in a suburb in Ohio. My parents are the typical strict, high-expectation parents. They are also strong Baptist Christians, so that always comes with fun implications.

I never had the guts to tell anyone about my abortion because I thought I was not a special case. I was just a 19-year-old student who worked a lot and who made a mistake and decided to have an abortion. But it wasn’t like that. It was hard, and it was even harder for me to admit that I deserve peace within myself and the blessings of others. I didn’t have a life-long partner to share my troubles and thoughts with, and I went through this horrible venture all by myself.

I got pregnant with my ex-boyfriend after he raped me when I tried to end the relationship.

This reader’s story is matter-of-fact and even jocular at one point:

I aborted a baby at 14 weeks after I found out the fetus had Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome). My husband and I had disagreed about what we would do in this hypothetical situation when we discussed it before we married. Back then, he said he would keep the baby, while I said I would terminate. But when faced with the reality of the situation, we both felt certain in our decision to get an abortion.

Because I was in my second trimester, I had trouble scheduling the abortion at the hospital. They limited second-trimester terminations to two days a month. Waiting an extra two weeks was unacceptable to me—I didn’t want the baby to keep growing—so I scheduled the procedure at a local abortion clinic for the following day. My OB-GYN and a physician friend advised against this, since the abortion would be painful at my stage and I wouldn’t get the same anesthesia at the clinic, but I scheduled it anyway.

On the drive to the clinic, my husband and I joked about what we would say to any protesters standing outside the abortion clinic. I would earnestly tell them that I was feeling uncertain about the abortion, and that if they said just the right thing, I would turn around. And then I would continue on my way into the clinic.

There were no protesters.

My husband waited in a private waiting room during the procedure. The nurse, and then the doctor, separately warned that the procedure would be quite painful. It was, but it was over in ten minutes. I’ve never described those minutes to anyone.

Fourteen months later we had a healthy baby. I think about the abortion sometimes with glancing sadness, and then continue with my full and blessed life.

For more personal accounts of readers confronting the choice of aborting a fetus with Down Syndrome or other typically non-fatal disabilities, see this note and this note, from the discussion thread “When Does Abortion Become Eugenics?”