I watch as the Republicans battle to destroy Planned Parenthood, as state legislatures pass law after law blocking safe abortions, and I am outraged; I am aggrieved.
But I did not viscerally comprehend the cruel effects of these political actions, the lived reality women must go through, until, as is too often the case, I witnessed it personally.
Recently, a close friend of mine had an abortion.
Watching her go through the fear, the pain, and the anger generated by the worldwide taboo on women’s bodies and sexual health gave me new, raw insight into the devastating effects of this archaic American health care system.
In our country supposedly so fair and free, women are driven out of their doctor’s offices to far-off clinics, required to complete manipulative “counseling” sessions before receiving basic care, and made to wait days before having the procedure.
These barriers can force women to turn to back-alley or at-home abortions, resulting in thousands of injuries every year. Or, they simply give birth, and, as a study from the University of California found, women denied wanted abortions were three times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line than those granted access.
Society is oblivious to the plight of these women. You hardly hear anyone talk about her abortion — but you know a woman who has had one. By the age of 45, almost one in three American women will. Yet these human beings, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are silenced beneath a veil of secrecy.
We must begin to cast it off. We must quell the myths about abortion. We must legalize women’s bodies and sexual health. We must normalize periods, pregnancies, miscarriages, and abortions. We must stand up to our unjust laws and control-seeking politicians.
And that starts with profoundly understanding the inhumanity we are wreaking upon our fellow humans by hearing them speak of what the government is inflicting upontheirbodies, by deeply listening totheirvoices andtheirnarratives.
My friend has chosen to join the growing movement of women speaking out about their abortions.
This is her story:
In 38 states, you cannot get an abortion without undergoing state-mandated “counseling.”
You are required to go online, or to a medical office, and read through five “informed consent” documents that describe how the doctor will be “inserting and withdrawing larger and larger smooth metal rods” into your vagina; how “the uterus may be scraped” with a “sharp, spoon-like instrument.”
You are shown pictures of fetal development and told about the stages of fetal formation.
Described are the “many services available to you should you choose to continue your pregnancy” — including how to place “your child” in an adoptive or foster care home — and provided is information about parenting, the stages of child development from infancy to high school and how to have a happy family.
Then, you sign a consent form that is valid for just two weeks.
You are angry. You do not have a “child,” but a group of cells the size of a lentil. You do not wish to “continue your pregnancy,” but to have unchallenged control over your own physical being.
You attempt to imagine how a man seeking a vasectomy would feel if the government made him read, in graphic detail, about the “sharp,” scraping metal tools to be used on his penis; about the life nestled in his sperm; about the available adoption and foster care services for his “child”; about the joys of parenthood and family. How fair would he think it to be guilt-tripped for going tothe doctor? How violated would he feel if the government tried to manipulate him into making the wrong decision for his life and health — and then you realize this has never happened to a man and never will. There is no parallel experience.
Saddened by our politicians and the voters who allow them to enact these invasive laws, now you must make the appointment.
Your first choice, besides your regular ob-gyn (who does not perform abortions), is Planned Parenthood — but not all their clinics provide the procedure, one is closed and two others don’t have any availability for weeks.
You cannot wait that long. Not only are you getting more pregnant, but you’re dealing with all the symptoms: exhaustion, cramps, nausea.
You need the procedure as quickly as possible, yet call after call to abortion clinic after abortion clinic turns up nothing. So many women need abortions (by the age of 45, one in three American women will), but only 39 providers in your state perform them.
The political fight against women’s health has been exceedingly effective.
Finally, you find a clinic that has an opening in two days time. They tell you to come at 9 o’clock.
It’s hard to find — behind another building with no sign on the main road.
When you enter the clinic, there are already dozens of people there, waiting. You realize they tell everyone to come at 9 o’clock.
You hand the receptionist the “counseling” form. She checks the timestamp to make sure it’s not expired, then gives you five or six forms to fill out: exonerating the clinic from any type of responsibility; acknowledging the abortion might not be complete; and accepting the risks and complications that may arise from the procedure.
You feel nervous. You feel unsafe. You feel scared.
You sit down to wait.
The room is filled with women — mostly young, some older, many with their moms. Several are alone. Although men hold half the responsibility for pregnancy, only one — a young teenager with his girlfriend — is present.
You are glad to have your mother, even though the waiting room is so packed that you cannot sit together.
One by one, the women get called back. They disappear for 20 minutes, come back out, wait another half an hour, and then get called back again.
Nobody comes out to talk to you. Nobody says how long it will be. Nobody explains what will happen next.
It is three hours before your name is called.
You walk into the back, where the nurse explains the procedure and tells you that Ibuprofen and a shot to numb your cervix are included, but, if you want further pain relief, you have to pay $100 for a shot of Valium, $150 for Valium with pain blockers or $200 for full sedation.
The abortion already costs hundreds of dollars — you don’t want to spend any more.
You ask questions: “How much will it hurt? Do I need the extra pain medication?”
The nurse is vague. “It’s not comfortable.”
She grows impatient, obviously irritated by your questions.
You might not have chosen to pay the extra $150 if your mom were not sitting beside you, saying, “Yes.”
The nurse makes you pay then and there for the procedure. Ultimately, you spend $800+ for the abortion, the ultrasound, the blood test, the painkillers, the three after-procedure medications, the hormone test and the office co-pay for your follow-up visit — and that’s not including the pregnancy test, the gas money for the long drive and the unpaid days you must take off work to recover.
“If you back out,” the nurse warns, “you won’t get all your money back.”
She leads you to a different room for the ultrasound. This nurse is impatient, too.
You begin to cry. The entire process feels dehumanizing, cold and unsafe.
Because of your tears, the nurse is a little nicer to you.
“Okay, you’re about eight weeks. You want a copy of the picture?” she says.
“No.” You cannot believe she is asking you this, but later you find out that, like the “counseling,” it’s state law.
If these politicians care so deeply about life, why do they not care about yours?
“OK, pull your pants up.”
You go back out into the waiting room.
Thirty minutes pass.
They call you back for the actual abortion.
Tears still leak from your eyes.
You get your blood drawn. It hurts more than it ever has before.
The nurse tells you they have to check your blood type. If it’s negative, every time you get pregnant, you may have to receive a shot to stop your body from producing antibodies. Every time, for the rest of your life.
You were never told about this. And now you’re scared the doctor will do as poor a job as the nurse.
What is happening?
You are sent into a tiny little room and told to take off everything except your sweater.
They give you no blankets, no hospital gown — just you, sitting in a room, legs bare and cold.
You wait for another half an hour. You hear the nurses and doctor talking about other patients, “Oh yeah, she’s full sedation.”
You sit there, silent tears escaping down your cheeks.
Eventually, the doctor comes in with the nurse.
You brush your eyes, steeling for what is to come.
He tries to be friendly. “Hi, how are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
He asks you what you do for a living, and you tell him.
He asks you to lay back and roll up your sleeve, and injects the $150 of Valium and painkillers into your bloodstream.
You become floaty and confused.
You put your feet in the stirrups.
You close your eyes.
You wait for it to be over.
You feel the doctor putting in the speculum. You feel the injection of anesthetic inside you, sharp and painful.
“Oh you’re really tight,” he says. “Good for your boyfriend, bad for me.”
You vaguely understand this is supposed to be a joke. You are angry. This doctor is callous and sexist. You want to respond, butyou only laugh uncertainly because he has the power and you do not want him to hurt you.
You are still crying. You wish for the umpteenth time you could just go to your regular ob-gyn.
The nurse and doctor think you are crying about the choice you’ve made and tell you, “No, it’s fine, you made a good decision.You can get pregnant whenever you want to. You’ve done the right thing for you.”
Even though they don’t understand why you are crying — because of the powerlessness you are being made to feel, because of the unjust laws governing your medical experience, because of your inability to receive care from your normal provider — youappreciate their kindness.
And then, they put a suction device inside of you.
Mechanically, it starts.
Sucking and pulling, sucking and pulling.
It hurts. Really, really, really badly.
You cannot fathom how painful it must be without the extra medication. You cannot believe people are denied relief because they cannot pay.
A vacuum is turned on. There is more sucking and pulling, more of the vacuum, more sucking and pulling.
“Is it done?” you ask.
“No, not quite. Almost.”
Suck and pull, suck and pull.
The pain is terrible.
Finally, finally, the doctor says, “Done.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve been doing this for many years, many times. It’s fine.”
You are drugged up, so it is hard to move, hard to open your eyes.
The doctor is talking to you, telling you not to lift anything, to stay off your feet for two weeks, not to take a bath, not to go swimming, not to put a tampon in.
“Can I exercise?” you ask.
The doctor laughs and says no. He advises you to take time off work, if you can, for at least a few days.
He leaves, and the nurse checks your vitals.
She puts a pad on your underwear and pulls it up for you, leaving you to finish getting dressed.
You stumble around, pulling on your jeans, your socks, your boots.
You walk out.
“Is that it?”
“Yup, see you in a couple weeks.”
Your mom greets you and you lean on her shoulder. You sit in pain the long drive home.
Every day for a week after, you take three kinds of pills — one to prevent infection, one to decrease pain and one to reduce the bleeding and close up your cervix faster. You think of the women who do not have insurance and cannot afford the multi-hundred dollar medications, who are forced to bleed more and recover more slowly in more pain.
There is a deep, deep ache in your uterus for days. You are constantly bleeding and utterly fatigued. You can’t work, but neither can you tell your employer the truth. Instead, you must lie and say you’re sick. You think of the women who, somehow, some way, go to work anyways, because if they do not, they will be fired — and they cannot afford to lose the pay.
You feel deeply sad that women are barred from openly discussing their bodies, their periods, their pregnancies, their abortions; that men pass laws over women’s bodies when they have never been pregnant, never had an abortion and never will.
You feel exhausted anger that the conversation constantly focuses on whether women should be allowed to have abortions, instead of the actual experience of having one.
This is just one of the millions of stories of life as a woman.
We are an oppressed, silent multitude.
We are your coworkers, your accountants, your friends, your lawyers, your teachers, your police officers, your mothers, your dentists, your daughters, your high school soccer coaches, your sisters, your mechanics, your nieces, your cashiers, your aunts, your government employees.
We are your fellow human beings, controlled and harassed for happening to be born into the body that gives birth.
Think of our pain before you demonize our choices; think of our suffering before you deny us rights as human beings; think of our struggle before you vote for politicians who keep us at the outskirts of society; think of our rightful anger and pain before youcastigate us for controlling our own bodies.
Think of us.