I knew about Planned Parenthood, because through years of health classes in high school, social and public media, or strong societal forces, the organization had been ingrained into the minds of young people and in US society as a leader in reproductive health and a champion of progressive abortion rights. Back in March, Paula Gianino, the President and CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood, lectured at a seminar I attended on public health at Washington University in St. Louis, and she made it very clear just how Planned Parenthood in the past century has transformed even the idea of family planning in this country. I don’t recall the exact day, but it was around when she lectured that I made my first call to the Planned Parenthood health center at Forest Park Avenue.
I didn’t even make the call: my best friend did for me. The lady who picked up quickly figured out that the phone call was on speaker, and that there was a bit of a tag-team situation going on, but she was understanding and very helpful, if a bit bemused. She took some numbers and dates down, and gave me an estimate of $550 for a medical abortion. She offered financial services, and because I was a student without an income, was able to lower the price to $290. That fact alone was incredible to me. Here I am, sure, a student, but one that is still somewhat financially dependent on my relatively non-financially-burdened parents; one that would’ve been able to scrounge up the extra $260 without them anyways, through either borrowing from sympathetic friends or pinning the whole cost on my boyfriend, or just selling the TV. I’m not someone who struggles to make ends meet every week; I’m not someone without support or resources. Clearly, the health center gives financial support based on the honor code. I didn’t lie, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty.
$290 covered the cost of 3 visits, the Mifeprex, and all those pamphlets and booklets Dr. Eisenberg passed around in class. My boyfriend and I split the cost, and we borrowed friends’ cars to drive the 10 minutes from Forsyth Blvd to those morning appointments. The vaginal ultrasound was uncomfortable, but I wanted to look at the screen and listen to the heartbeat and I took the ultrasound picture home. I showed my friends the ridiculous quote on the first page of the Missouri booklet. I didn’t even know about the 3-day waiting period, but I made it to my 2nd and 3rd appointments easily. At 7 weeks and 5 days of gestation, they gave me another ultrasound (this time there was an outline of a heart on the screen), and another printed picture. I took the Mifeprex, and then the antibiotic at the clinic. The Misoprostol and Tylenol with Codeine from the Schnucks pharmacy added up to $10. I writhed and cried on the bathroom floor for 4 hours on a Sunday night until the damned pain relief kicked in. The next morning, I woke up without morning sickness, and the 3rd appointment confirmed my terminated pregnancy.
Back in sophomore year of college, me and my suitemates had a jar that we called the abortion fund. Sadly, no one ever quite took it seriously, and by the end of the year, it contained some change, a pregnancy test, and a whole ton of condoms. While certainly the jar was mostly just a joke, it never occurred to me at the time just how “radical” us 7 girls were. Not only were we preparing for the possibility of a procedure that just about half the country deems as murder, but we were doing so because we were fully aware and we actively conversed about the fact that sometimes, things just go wrong. And furthermore, if they do go wrong, we want to do something about it! None of us were saying, “go crazy,” in fact we would probably argue we were trying to be vigilant. And yet, even with all our “liberal” ideas and the feminists that I live with, and the fact that I actually chose to have an abortion and went through with it, I still feel stigmatized, and a lot of it is just from me. The country is divided, and this topic is the most controversial one in reproductive health today. It seems like everyone is either on one extreme or the other. But in my opinion, the stigma is everywhere. I can still feel myself holding myself back in many instances.
Back at my first appointment (on a Saturday morning), a protester circled the gate to get right next to our car and yelled out “did you know that you can see a picture of your baby in there? They show you!” The clinic escort came over but to no one’s surprise, I teared up pretty immediately. Now, I wasn’t having second thoughts. I never did. I never regretted my abortion afterwards either. I’ve been a staunch supporter of abortion rights since I knew what abortion was, and I’ve never been raised or taught or come by myself to believe that a fertilized embryo equals a person from the very moment of implantation. But it’s pretty crazy how judgement can make you feel. You start to see it everywhere. You suspect it from the very people who are responsible for you not being currently pregnant. You start having moral crises, and wondering if you were actually wrong all this time.
The following semester, I took a class taught by 2 local OB/GYN’s. Each week we discussed a different topic in reproductive health and then wrote a short paper on it. When the topic of abortion came around, I wrote 2 pages on my own experience and then another 6 on what it might’ve been like if I was underage, if I had no resources, no help, or simply didn’t live so close to the only clinic in the entire state. I wrote openly about the irrational fears I felt closing in one me as I wrote those very words, about how I feared my professors would see me differently now, despite that they probably more than anyone would understand, and would not judge.
“Perhaps I should’ve chosen to not write this week, as you say we can do in the syllabus, but I certainly wasn’t going to lie and say I never had an abortion, because that would only be furthering the stigma. The strongest feelings that came out of my abortion were of gratitude and guilt, but the kind that leads to action. I want to help the girls who didn’t have the help I did, because it is simply not fair to them. I’ve never been particularly well-worded or educated in the rhetoric or philosophy of social justice, so I don’t know exactly what aspect of the injustice it is that overwhelms me when I think of 17 year old girls being told by the government that they must give birth or when the court literally assigns a lawyer for a fetus and then names it, or when a woman dies from an unsafe abortion in a country that fights so hard for “life.” I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough to break my silence for our discussion on Tuesday, and that to me is just another example of holding myself back because of stigma. Just because I had an abortion doesn’t mean I have absolute authority over the topic or that I have the right to speak for all women who have had one (even though it feel lonely when no one ever talks about it). It does mean that I now recognize my own stake in the matter, and how my stake might actually be a pretty small one compared to other women. It means that I’m in a position now to take my revelations and do something, say something, with the knowledge I’ve gained.”
The response I got back was not surprising, but still comforting and heartbreaking all the same. My professors said my paper was the best they had read in all their time teaching, and they thanked me for my courage. I cried still from all the guilt and relief and gratefulness I felt. What society ingrains in us is not so easy to overcome.
Both my professors ended up writing me recommendation letters for medical school, letters that carry a good amount of weight in medical school admissions offices. I am now a second year medical student, 2 years away from starting my residency as an OB/GYN, and one day I will be an abortion provider, and I could not be more blessed. Sometimes I think, despite how ridiculous it sounds, that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t get pregnant, have an abortion, and then be so privileged to have people who didn’t see me as any less because of it. I am so, so lucky, and now I strive for a world where having a choice over your own body is not a matter of luck.