This story includes interviews with three women who spoke candidly with me in 2006 about their abortions. At the time, only one woman requested that I not use her real name. Because so much time has passed, I have decided to use pseudonyms for all three women and the people they discuss. This is my decision, and I do not wish to imply that they do or should desire privacy.
Most of this research is from 2006. But any time statistics are mentioned, I have included parenthetical updates with the most current statistics we have in 2019.
Each worker has a patient who sticks out in her mind, one who reminds her she’s doing the right thing, that this is a cause worth fighting for. For Katie Stephens, 23, that patient was a 16-year-old who got pregnant the first time she had sex. She was scared when she walked into the clinic, but after the procedure, she was smiling, thanking the workers and giving out hugs. Katie is a clinic assistant and counselor at Bread & Roses Women’s Health Center in Gainesville, Fla., which operates as an abortion clinic every Tuesday and Friday. (Contact the clinic for current schedule.)
Friday afternoons, when Katie shows up for work, she walks past a line of anti-abortion protesters and greets her friends, a smaller group of pro-choicers who volunteer their time each week to escort patients and their companions inside, trying to shield them from contact with the protesters.
Twelve anti-abortion activists are out today in the 92-degree Florida heat, holding rosary beads or signs with phrases like, “Choose Life…. Let us Help.” Among them are Kate Keeley, 20, president of the University of Florida’s Pro-Life Alliance, and her boyfriend Barrett. The couple comes every Friday, and if they have their way, the constitutional right to abortion, established with Roe v. Wade in 1973, will be done away with, and abortion, in every circumstance, will be illegal.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which those on all sides of the abortion debate trust for statistical information, at the current rates, about one in three American women will have an abortion by the time they reach age 45. (The rate has fallen — due, in part, to increased contraceptive use — and is now estimated at 23.7%.) Here are the stories of three such women.
Mariana Carroll, with bright blue eyes, thick blond hair and a disarming, slightly crooked smile, looks younger than her 23 years. She loves young adult fiction (“The Princess Diaries movie is okay, but the book is waaaaay better!”), listens to “cheerful” music like Less than Jake and the Planet Smashers, and dreams of someday being a librarian.
Mariana grew up in Cedar Key, a sparsely populated fishing town on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where people register Democrat but think like conservatives. The town’s Chamber of Commerce website proudly proclaims that, in Cedar Key, “time stands still.” Mariana is the sole liberal in her conservative, Baptist family, and she says that is why she’ll never tell her family that she had an abortion.
When Mariana, a classical studies major at UF, started college, she joined Campus Crusade for Christ. She made some friends, had some fun, but when everyone started praying, she just didn’t feel she belonged. She didn’t know what she believed anymore. It’s harder to live without beliefs, she thought, but the more she learned, she found it was even harder to just accept things as truth, to have faith.
In January 2005, she started dating Mark, “not exactly the kind of guy you want to have a baby with,” but she was smitten. One month later, their condom broke during sex. She realized immediately what had happened, but she didn’t panic. She wasn’t going to get pregnant. There was just no way.
After a couple weeks without her period, Mariana took a home pregnancy test. The line was really faint, hardly a line at all. Was she pregnant or not!?
She called Willow, a friend since the diaper days. Willow told her, faint or not, if the line was there, she was pregnant.
Could she have the kid? No way, she wasn’t ready for that at all. Maybe adoption? She thought it probably would’ve been the best thing to do, but then she would have to admit to the world — to her family! — that she had gotten herself pregnant, while in school… unmarried… with a jerk. It would crush her mom, her mom who thought abortion was a sin. How could she tell her mother, who had never even had the sex talk with her? (She learned about the birds and the bees from the same cousin who told her Santa wasn’t real.)
Another of Mariana’s cousins had just gotten pregnant too. She was planning to give birth and raise the baby, but still an aura of shame surrounded her because she was unmarried. And this cousin wasn’t even “one of the good ones.” But Mariana was. She got good grades, never got into any major trouble. She was sure if her family knew she was pregnant, it would change their opinion of her. Yes, they’d still love her, but they’d never look at her the same way again.
Even before she told her boyfriend Mark, she’d made up her mind what to do. He seemed okay with it, but quiet, like something was on his mind. Yeah, of course he’d go to the clinic with her.
The night before, Mark called her, angry and crazed:
How do you know it’s even mine?
He knew she wasn’t seeing anyone else.
Maybe you’re just lying to get my money!
She had never asked him for a cent, and she’d asked him to go to the clinic with her, where it would be obvious she wasn’t lying.
The next morning, he didn’t show up. He didn’t answer his phone, didn’t return her calls. Luckily, Willow, who she had called right after she took the pregnancy test, was ready in a second to come with her.
In the Bread & Roses waiting room, Mariana saw another college student with a friend, a handful of couples, a 16-year-old with her mom. A counselor guided her through the paperwork, which told her what to expect and included questions designed to make sure she was confident in her choice, questions like, “Was abortion your first thought?” “Do you feel pressured by anyone to have an abortion?” “Do you think abortion is a sin?”
It would crush her mom, her mom who thought abortion was a sin. She was sure if her family knew… they’d never look at her the same way again.
She signed the paperwork.
The ultrasound — “Strange… Just a blob” — showed the doctor that she was only six weeks pregnant. They gave her Valium, but nothing to numb her body. “It felt like they were sucking the baby out, like a vacuum,” she says, not letting herself really think about the pain, even as she talks about it. She hadn’t expected it to hurt that much. She started to cry. Willow grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly, holding it until the doctor was done.
The next day, Mark came by and offered her money, which she refused.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” he said.
After the things he’d said to her, the way he’d neglected her, she had no desire to see him ever again.
As a final hurtful goodbye, he added, “You always wanted to know why we hung out with your friends all the time and I never introduced you to mine. It’s because you’re too fat. Even if they didn’t say anything, I know they would have been thinking it.”
Mariana never saw Mark again. He instant messaged her months later to inform her that he’d found a new girlfriend.
With her carefully styled black hair, trendy clothes, and one-inch button (“I like to read”) pinned on her collar, 21-year-old Suzy Ballantine looks fully committed to style. Yes, her eyes are framed with thick, black eyeliner and mascara (how can she resist, working all day at the Dillard’s cosmetics counter), but she’s also glowing with cleverness. Suzy, who plans to go to cosmetology school to be a hair stylist, constantly tosses out quips, each time rolling her hazel eyes and smiling so wide that it looks like she’s about to swallow the world in one gulping instant and fill her teensy body up with the whole damn universe.
If you ask Suzy about the abortion she had when she was 17, she’ll tell you everything she remembers. There are some details she forgets— partly because of the alcohol and drugs she was using that year, partly because she’s not one to dwell. But there are no regrets when it comes to her abortion
“I don’t regret things, in general. I try to learn from things. It’s pointless to regret,” she says. “The only way I’d ever regret it is if it wasn’t my choice, if it was my boyfriend’s or my parents’. I’d regret not standing up for myself.”
Now, Suzy works one day a week at Bread & Roses, counseling other girls and women who come in for abortions.
In 2001, 17-year-old Suzy was in Clearwater, Fla., a high-school drop-out (with a GED) living with her parents, six months into a “serious, but in a high school way” relationship. She’d been on the pill, but was she taking it at the time? She was definitely popping pills, but maybe not birth control? Who can remember?
Three months without a period, throwing up every morning, she never even took a home pregnancy test. She didn’t have to; she knew. Her first thought was abortion, because she didn’t want her parents to know she was pregnant. She is still sure it was the right choice for her, especially because of all the chemicals she’d put in her body before she knew she was pregnant.
Soon after she realized, she got into a stupid, irrelevant fight with her boyfriend and threw down the ultimate retort:
“Well, I’m pregnant!”
He just couldn’t top that.
While working at Bread & Roses, Suzy’s seen different types of guys. Some are really sweet and supportive. Others are the most depressing part of the women’s situations.
Suzy recalls a patient who begged for the workers to bring her boyfriend into the recovery room. It was the end of the day, so they obliged. Without a word or a glance to his girlfriend, the boy stayed in the recovery room on his cell phone for 20 minutes, talking, and laughing. He spoke in Spanish, so “fuck” was the only word Suzy could make out. Finally he got off the phone to ask the workers if he could see the removed fetus.
“No, we don’t really do that.”
“Well then how do I know she was even pregnant?”
Seeing that stuff, Suzy feels sort of jaded. Other times, though, she feels fulfilled, realizing she’s doing something she deems worthwhile — helping women to make their own choices about the direction of their lives.
On the day of her own abortion, her boy was one of the sweet ones.
Not only did he accompany her to the clinic, but he also footed the bill (and received a discount with his student I.D.). That night, with her parents out of town, Suzy threw all the sofa cushions on the floor to make a huge bed and stayed there, not moving, for the rest of the day and night. Her boyfriend stayed with her all night. Actually, he stayed with her for another year, until they broke up for unrelated reasons.
“The only way I’d ever regret it is if it wasn’t my choice.”
No one Suzy knows personally has ever spoken negatively to her about her choice, but Suzy frequents MySpace and LiveJournal groups that explain, support, and/or debate abortion, so she’s gotten e-mails calling her a murderer. She’s going to Hell and all that.
“I hate to say people with the opposite opinion than mine are dumb,” Suzy says, “but in this one case, they are dumb.”
Viola Bowen, 3-and-a-half years old, looks like a little Snow White, with her dark hair and hazel eyes (green when she’s happy, brown when she’s sick or mad). The walls of her home are covered in paintings she and her mommy did. When she does her favorite yoga position, downward dog, she waves her imaginary tail. Her favorite bedtime story is Ramayana, the Indian epic. She likes to garden and bake with her mommy, and sometimes they go out together with matching braided pigtails.
Mommy, or 27-year-old Leah Bowen, has long, wavy, fairy-tale, brown hair, and a natural serenity that she attributes to Buddhism. She cannot stop gushing about her daughter.
“I’ve never met a kid like her, and I’ve known a lot of kids.”
Leah tries to raise Viola right, to give her positive role models, tell her why things are the way they are, keep her away from TV, and most importantly, teach her to notice the little things, to see the magic in everything.
It would be her and her daughter against the world.
You might be surprised to hear that Leah has had two abortions. But you shouldn’t be. Actually, 61% of women who have an abortion in America already have one or more children. (The statistic is now 59%.) Leah hates that there’s a stigma about abortions, that they’re treated as something to be ashamed of when it’s healthier to just talk about them.
In 1995, Leah was a high school senior, dual-enrolled at Santa Fe Community College. She was seeing a boy, but knew he was dating other girls too.
“You know how it is when you’re convinced that you’re the one who can change him,” she says, “when you’re young, before you realize that you’re never going to change them.”
One day, the condom broke. This was before emergency contraceptives, so Leah could do nothing but worry until enough time had passed for a pregnancy test. She snuck into Eckerd Pharmacy, found that the two-pack pregnancy test was going on sale the next day, and left empty-handed. (She never could pass up a sale.) The next day she bought the test and took it in the Eckerd bathroom.
She went to her best friend Gwendoline’s house to take the second one.
Leah had been raised very liberal and had always believed in a woman’s right to choose, but she had never expected to make the choice herself. Still, she knew right away what to do.
“I’m way too young to be responsible for another person,” she told her mom, “and I hope you’ll support me.”
Her mom started to cry.
“The only thing I was afraid of was that you’d keep it,” her mom replied.
When Leah told the boy she was dating that she was pregnant and having an abortion, he told her about his day working at Wendy’s, about a headache he’d had over an order of Biggie Fries. That was the end of that.
Her mom and two best friends, Gwendoline and Forest, accompanied her to Bread & Roses for the abortion. They had all pooled their money to afford the procedure, which Leah remembers as being between $400 and $600. Forest got dirty looks from other women who assumed he had put her in this position.
Leah’s ultrasound showed she was only six weeks pregnant. She says they used the D&C method of abortion, which felt like scraping inside her uterus, an awful sensation. The Valium they gave her didn’t numb the pain, but it did cause her to have a giggle-fit on the way out because she couldn’t lift her feet. Needless to say, no one else appreciated the humor.
“Even though I wouldn’t say the first abortion was a defining moment in life,” she says, “I remember it moment for moment. It’s not one of those things you can forget.”
Because everyone who loved her was there, Leah never felt shame about her choice.
In 2002, although she was taking birth control pills, Leah got pregnant again, this time by her boyfriend of four years, Paul. In September, they got married and she gave birth to her darling Viola. From the start, Leah felt like a single mom, working full-time, pumping breast milk at work, nursing at home. She learned to shut down all her own wants “to be a good mother.”
Paul moved out in January of 2004. Her short-lived marriage was falling apart, and she was feeling more and more the truth she had known even when she was pregnant with Viola — it would be her and her daughter against the world.
Then the dreams started. She’d never been to New York, but she was sure that’s where the dreams took place. Every night — every night for eight months — she dreamt about living in Brooklyn with her daughter Viola, her old best friend Forest and a little baby boy, blond like Forest had been as a child. The dreams were chronological, lasting until the little boy was 5 or 6, and they were vivid — she could see them trimming topiaries together in front of a brownstone with wrought iron detailing.
She and Forest had never really dated before, but they had loved each other when they were young; they had just been too scared to act on it. She knew she had settled when she married Paul, that she had never loved him the way she loved Forest. She sought out Forest, who happened to be living in Gainesville again, and he helped her through her impending divorce. When she told Forest about the dreams, he told her he had stayed in a neighborhood in Brooklyn with houses just like the one in her dreams, that she was describing his favorite of the buildings.
Spending time together, they couldn’t help falling madly in love all over again. One thing led to another and they found themselves in a sexual relationship, and once again, although she was taking the pill, a sale-priced home pregnancy test told her she was pregnant.
She wouldn’t let Forest come with her to the clinic. Emotionally, this would be much harder than her abortion eight years ago. She was so young then, but Forest had been there. He had always been there. But this time, she needed to be alone.
At Bread & Roses, the doctor did an ultrasound to ensure that, yes, she had been pregnant for under seven weeks, the cutoff for receiving the RU-486 abortion pill. (Today, according to Planned Parenthood, you can usually get a medication abortion up to 10 weeks after the first day of your last period. If it has been 71 days or more since the first day of your last period, you can have an in-clinic abortion.)
Watching the ultrasound screen, Leah had a painful realization — she was staring right at the little blond boy from her dreams. That was the baby she had watched grow up, the child who could make them a family.
She reminded herself why she was doing this. She wasn’t ready to get married again (her divorce wasn’t even final). She didn’t even know where she was going to be in six months. Why would she bring an innocent victim into that uncertainty? A second child would mean her daughter’s quality of life would suffer. She’d be a Welfare mom, a burden on society, scrounging the ground for bus fare. And perhaps there’d be a harsh, drawn-out custody battle too.
And would she ever finish school? She had finally decided to complete her two-year degree and dreamed of eventually getting a PhD. How would a single, working mother with two kids ever do that? Conscious choices are better than emotional ones, she told herself. And you can’t force a family. It has to happen magically, at the right time. This wasn’t the right time. She shut down the part of her brain that lived in dreams, and took the pill.
She told no one but Forest. She took the second pill on a night Paul was watching Viola, so no one else was home. Forest came over with the corniest movies he could think of — Xmen and the sequel, X2 — anything to take her mind off the abortion. But it was impossible not to think about it, as flu-like symptoms and cramps took over her body. She was freezing. Forest got her blankets, hot tea. He helped in every way he could and never once did he voice his opinion about her choice.
Three weeks after the abortion, Forest took her to Disney World to get her mind off of things. Sitting in their hotel room, she started bawling.
It was the first time she cried.
He asked what was wrong, and she told him that when they did the ultrasound, that she knew it was their son, the son she’d dreamed about every night for 8 months, the son she’d seen grow older alongside her and her daughter and Forest. She knew she was killing the dream, but she also knew that it had to be done.
He admitted that he had also felt that was their son, their chance at a family together.
He had never tried to dissuade her, but she realized then that she had broken his heart, that the culmination of all her dreams was this night, crying in a hotel room with the man she had loved since she was 14, the only man she had ever loved.
The next morning he took her to IHOP for Swedish pancakes and to Disney World, “the happiest place on Earth.”
Leah’s no longer with Forest, but she credits him for making her the person she is today, teaching her how to trust and showing her the magic in the world.
“Until the end, he treated me like the most precious treasure on Earth,” she says. “I would’ve given anything to him.”
Nowadays, Leah works as a graphic designer for the University of Florida, does yoga daily, is learning Mandarin Chinese and, as always, puts her daughter first. She especially likes a quote she heard: “I’m not responsible for my child. I’m responsible to her.”
“If she becomes a stripper or a Republican, okay,” she says, a smile on her face, “but hopefully she’ll be a happy, responsible adult.”
Although she sometimes wonders what life would’ve been like if she had the child with Forest, Leah knows she made the right decision. She gets very frustrated at conservatives who don’t think you can be pro-choice and pro-child.
Leah might someday adopt a child, probably from another country, but for now, she’s in no rush to expand her family.
Viola, however, has made it clear she wants a little brother. “Get a man, Mommy,” she said to Leah when she was only 2.
Leah, believing “it isn’t really socially responsible to pump out kids because your kid’s bored,” explained to her young daughter the ideal steps that lead to having a child. She told Viola:
First, you meet somebody, then you become best friends, you fall in love, you decide neither of you wants to go home anymore because you’re so in love, you get married and move in together, and then, later, maybe, you have a baby.
Pro-Life? Pro-Choice? Pro-Woman?
Just a block from Bread & Roses, directly next-door to each other, are a Planned Parenthood building and the Women’s Resource Center. Katie Stephens, the Bread & Roses counselor, also works at this Planned Parenthood. Kate Keeley, the Pro-life Alliance president and protester, is interning this summer at the WRC.
At first glance, it seems strange that these buildings are right next-door. Don’t they provide the same services? The difference is that the WRC is a crisis pregnancy center, a place that appears to offer a full-range of reproductive options, but which actually has an anti-abortion (and, often, anti-contraceptive) agenda.
There are tons of crisis pregnancy centers in America now, “about seven for every abortion clinic,” Kate says proudly, adding her belief that Planned Parenthood only offers abortion choices, but places like the WRC offer other choices. (Planned Parenthood offers a range of reproductive healthcare, and the majority is preventive care, not abortion. As of 2013, there were approximately 2,500 CPCs in the United States, as compared with 1,800 abortion clinics, according to the New York Times.)
Sara Hanson, who is trained in Planned Parenthood’s Pregnancy Option Counseling, says Planned Parenthood counselors discuss all options and, unlike crisis pregnancy centers, they aim to fully inform women before they make their choice. Sara, 22, is the president of UF’s chapter of Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood, which spreads information about reproductive rights to 18- to 30-year-olds. She points out that Planned Parenthood’s “What if I’m Pregnant?” pamphlet lists all three options: having and raising a child (either as a single parent or with a partner), adoption, and abortion — in that order. There are also quizzes and information to help women make their choice.
Plus, an emphasis is put on prevention. Sara says 90% of what Planned Parenthood does is not abortion-related. They have a comprehensive health agenda that aims to lessen the number of unintended pregnancies through sex education and more access to contraception. Sara wonders why more anti-abortionists don’t support these goals as well, since less unintended pregnancies mean less abortions.
Members of the Pro-life Alliance have differing views of birth control, some seeing it as a solution, some viewing it as part of the problem. Although having sex without birth control obviously puts you most at risk of pregnancy, Kate says dependence on birth control can actually up the abortion rate, since, according to the Guttmacher Institute, about half of women who abort were trying to use a method of birth control when they got pregnant. (This is still true: 51% of abortion patients in the US reported that they had used a contraceptive method in the month they became pregnant.)
Kate, who plans to someday be a post-abortion counselor, says she’s pro-woman, but much of the current feminist movement concentrates on the wrong things. She contends that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women,” that it works to the advantage of males who can use females as sex objects without consequence.
If she has her way, the constitutional right to abortion, established with Roe v. Wade in 1973, will be done away with, and abortion, in every circumstance, will be illegal.
Sara and Katie, though, say that if abortion were illegal, the women would be paying the consequences. They say access to abortion and contraceptives is not only an important aspect of women’s rights, but central and foundational. Access to other rights like equal jobs and pay are important. But if women don’t have control of their own reproductive functions, all progress in these other arenas is nullified. If a woman can be controlled by her fertility, be forced to have a child when she is not ready, it could force her to forego all other aspirations, such as school or career. Would men be ready to give up everything they planned or hoped for without a choice?
At the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004 in Washington D.C., Katie saw a sign that summed up her view of how fundamental women’s choice is to equal rights:
“If men could get pregnant, abortions would be available at Walmart.”
Bread & Roses is still providing pregnancy testing, options counseling and abortion services in Gainesville, Fla.
This piece discusses abortion as a women’s issue, but reproductive choice is an issue for transgender men and some non-binary people as well.
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