The day after I read Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, I felt myself pulled to the Montana state Capitol to join a rally supporting reproductive rights. I came to listen, to join with others who were also outraged, shocked and afraid. I hoped for some solace, the kind that comes from standing in solidarity with others.
I did not expect to find my voice that day. I did not plan to yell through a bullhorn details from my past that I’d thought I would always keep private.
There was a small brass band at the protest. Some people brought signs. Progressive Montana state legislators led the usual kinds of call and response: “When do we want reproductive freedom? Now!” I saw a woman dressed as a Handmaid, another as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I hung near the back of the semicircle of men, women and kids, listening to the speeches.
Two women talked about needing abortions before Roe. They had each developed complications, and then had to contend with the potential of prosecution. They were made to feel shame and fear. One of them was so afraid to admit she’d had an abortion that the emergency room doctors removed her appendix. A local organizer of our small city’s Pride event urged us to get to work on the upcoming midterm elections now.
Something felt like it was missing from these powerful narratives of trauma and enforced shame, narratives that are now reality in states like Texas — and that could be the future for all American women and people with uteruses.
I don’t remember walking to the front of the crowd.
I found myself standing before a couple hundred people. “My name is Rebecca,” I hollered into the bullhorn. And words poured out of me.
My story about abortion is a not a painful one. It lacks drama. I carry from it no scars, physical or emotional.
I got pregnant when I was 20. I did not plan it. I was in college, involved in a semi-serious relationship with a man I loved, but who I knew deep in my gut would not be my future life partner. We went dancing in the Castro, drank too much, stayed up all night talking about poetry and postmodern philosophy. Neither one of us was ready for a child, or wanted one.
We made a stupid mistake. We were 20 years old, and soaring after dancing to techno and swigging rum and Cokes. We were usually diligent about condoms, but as my high school sex ed teacher repeated every week for a semester, “once is all it takes.”
I didn’t put it together until my period was unusually late. I went to the nearest pharmacy and bought a test. I headed straight to the bathroom in the back and peed on the stick and all over myself. I kept the stick flat and deliberately did not look at it until five minutes had passed. The instructions said to look carefully for even the faintest pink line. There was nothing faint about the obnoxiously pink line shining back at me.
“I was angry at myself for being careless. I didn’t want to deal with this. But not once did it cross my mind to have a baby.”
I was angry at myself for being careless. I didn’t want to deal with this. But not once did it cross my mind to have a baby. When I told my boyfriend that night, he paused, looked down at his hands and said the right thing: “I’m here to support you, whatever you decide.” I told him I was calling the abortion clinic the next day. He held me close that night. We were melancholy to be in this position, but our hearts and minds were clear.
We could barely make rent and eat enough calories. We each had at least a year of school ahead of us, just to get a bachelor’s degree. We were both planning on grad school after that. We loved each other, but we never talked about the future — about what might come after the end of this lease, the end of this semester.
I got an appointment at the local clinic for later that week. I asked my boyfriend to come with me. I wanted to hold his hand beforehand, and I needed a ride home.
We did not have to walk through a gauntlet of anti-choice protesters. In the waiting room, I paid the fee. There were women of all ages perched on worn but comfortable couches and chairs. The women were Black, brown and white. Some had young children with them.
The staff and nurses were kind and efficient. They called me in to explain what would happen. They did not have to deliver a state-mandated speech, warning me I might regret this abortion until I died. I did not to have to listen to lies about increased risks of breast cancer, or future problems conceiving. I was not forced to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound. No one talked about my “baby,” or sought the static staccato of a fetal heartbeat.
The staff asked if I was sure this was what I wanted to do. I was. They went over the procedure: speculum, manual exam, the cannula being inserted. I would hear the rumble of the machine that would empty the contents of my uterus. I would feel pressure and pulling, but hopefully no pain greater than that of menstrual cramps. If it hurt, they said, I should tell them. They told me what could go wrong, ranging from risk of infection to bleeding. I signed the consent form.
I went back alone when I was called. My boyfriend offered to join me, but this felt like mine to own. By the time the middle-aged doctor came in to introduce himself, I was already naked from the waist down, with a drape over me. He seemed kind, and re-explained what would happen. He guided my feet into the stirrups. The abortion began. One nurse held my hand. Another assisted the doctor, and told me what to expect next. “That all went smoothly,” the doctor said. He patted my shoulder. I dressed slowly, and made my way to the “recovery area.”
I joined other women in overstuffed recliners. We got hot water bottles to help with cramping. A different nurse checked my blood pressure a couple of times. I got a sheet listing normal symptoms and symptoms to be concerned about. They gave me a number to call if I needed anything. I had what seemed like a heavy period for a couple of days, with cramps slightly worse than my usual menstrual ones. I popped two ibuprofens.
I was back in class the next day and back to work the day after that. I did not feel transformed. I did not feel sad. In fact, I was thrilled my breasts immediately went back to normal, thrilled to have my own body back. I had no dreams of babies crying. It felt like any other minor medical procedure.
Fourteen years later, my husband and I welcomed our son into the world. (My former boyfriend, for his part, has two beautiful children with his wife.) By the time I was pregnant with my son, I was in a stable relationship. My husband and I could support our child — emotionally, financially, logistically. We were ready ― more than ready. We were overjoyed when he was born.
What would have happened if I’d been denied this routine care? What if doctors were forced to read scripts that filled me with doubts that weren’t my own? What if the process of getting an abortion was traumatic in itself (trans-vaginal ultrasounds for no reason)? What if I’d accidentally wandered into a “crisis pregnancy center” and been told a passel of lies? What if I’d gotten talked out of the abortion? Or if these religious zealots had stirred up enough guilt that I went on to torment myself for years? What if I needed an abortion now — not 30 years ago — in Texas or Mississippi past the six-week cutoff?
“Women and people with uteruses stand to lose the easy experience I had 30 years ago. I made a personal decision with a doctor. I emerged from a routine medical appointment unscathed. I finished college, launched my career and met the love of my life.”
I didn’t go into all these details when I talked to the crowd at the rally. I focused on what felt most important to me. Women and people with uteruses stand to lose the easy experience I had 30 years ago. I made a personal decision with a doctor. I emerged from a routine medical appointment unscathed. I finished college, launched my career and met the love of my life.
One in four American women will have an abortion by the age of 45. They turn to this medical procedure for different reasons. They all deserve what I experienced — safe, routine medical care. They deserve to get on with their lives. This is what women are losing, or have lost already in too many states, even before Alito cavalierly told American women how easy it is to carry a child to term these days. Firehouses are apparently waiting to receive unwanted babies. What more do we need?
We often hear the hard stories about why abortion is necessary. About women who discover late in their pregnancies that their babies are severely disabled and require late-term abortions. About women whose abortions happened before Roe. These are stories we all need to hear.
But it’s equally important for women like me to speak up. We did not agonize; we were not traumatized. We are women who chose for ourselves what was right for us in our lives. Other women might make a different choice.
When I finished talking at the rally, I started shaking in that weird way when your nerves can’t quite keep up with reality. I got hugs and thanks for telling my story.
Abortion is a private decision. It is one that should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor. It is not a shameful decision. I had always assumed I’d keep my abortion to myself. But now, I feel it’s time to be clear about what all American women stand to lose. I refuse to feel shame. I am grateful. And I’m terrified for the future.
Rebecca Stanfel is a freelance writer and patient advocate for the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research. She lives in Helena, Montana.
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