Vats of ink have been spilled trying to figure out whether the coming right-wing majority on the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. The truth is, we just don’t know; it will all come down to what’s in the hearts and minds of five anti-abortion, very conservative men. If I were one of them, I would definitely opt for keeping Roe and letting it dangle in the wind. Upending the precedent could awaken the majority of Americans who want to keep abortion legal. Right now a lot of pro-choicers still don’t pay attention to restrictions on abortion, no matter how stringent they are, as long as the procedure is technically lawful and available to them personally.
How do I know this? Abortion is already greatly restricted in many states and unavailable in huge swaths of our enormous country. Moreover, many women can’t afford an abortion, and that’s not the only problem. Some don’t realize they’re pregnant until it’s too late. Some can’t deal with the screaming mob—I mean kindly grandmas who just want to give them a pamphlet—outside the clinic. Some fall into the hands of crisis pregnancy centers, which feed them lies to frighten them into keeping their pregnancy or delaying their procedure until it’s too late. Some can’t make the long trip to the clinic or take three or four days off from work to meet a mandatory 72-hour waiting period. Some are undocumented and can’t travel long distances without risking arrest and detention.
And here’s the rub: We are so used to thinking of abortion merely in terms of rights on paper that we don’t think nearly enough about what women go through right now to end their pregnancy. As long as they’re successful in the end, the difficulties along the way don’t matter. But why do we accept that women should have a hard time? Do anxiety and stress and fear not count? What about loneliness and having no support, even from the people closest to you? What about stigma and shame?
We Testify, a National Network of Abortion Funds program guided by the phenomenal reproductive-justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman, promotes storytelling as a way to expand the understanding of abortion experiences, especially those of people of color with low incomes. Here are a few of their stories:
In 2008, 16-year-old Stephanie, pregnant from a sexual assault, wanted an abortion. Since she lived in Florida, that meant she had to notify her parents, who were deeply religious and wanted her to have the baby. Moreover, because clinics were under such pressure from anti-choice activists and the state, Stephanie had to bring a parent to the clinic to prove her identity. She got her abortion, but afterward her parents refused to let her use birth control (she was on their Medicaid, so they’d know). Her dad told her to close her legs. The next year, a condom broke, and the pharmacist wouldn’t sell her 18-year-old boyfriend emergency contraception, which underage Stephanie couldn’t buy without a prescription. (The law was changed shortly after.) It took her three weeks to navigate the state’s judicial-bypass system, which finally allowed her to have an abortion without notifying her parents.
Kelsea had two abortions, one in Florida and another in North Carolina under wildly different circumstances. The first time, she was surviving on $800 in unemployment benefits and was about to lose her apartment. Her mother and boyfriend were supportive, but “I was deep into hating myself for needing an abortion,” she recalls. “Even in the pro-choice community, there’s stigma: Why were you so careless?” Kelsea tried herbs and vitamin C, which didn’t work, and finally found her way to the National Abortion Federation hotline, which helped out with funding. She chose a medication abortion and found it painful. The second abortion, also by medication, was completely different. She could afford it; she was over the stigma and felt surrounded by love and care. The abortion itself was no worse than an ordinary period. “I’m convinced that stigma and shame make abortion more painful,” says Kelsea, who now works at a clinic in North Carolina. “One Saturday, no protesters showed up. It was such a good day! Patients didn’t feel as much pain. They were calmer; sedatives worked better.”
Aimee had an abortion in Texas in 2003 when she was 25. “I have started to tell my story in order to combat the anti-abortion-movement claims that abortion causes mental-health issues,” she says. “When I got pregnant, I was still an undergraduate because I spent years in a manic and depressive cycle. I was self-destructive; I couldn’t stay on track. I was bipolar, undiagnosed. The abortion itself was very easy—at that time Texas had very few restrictions—and it was the turning point in my life. My abortion enabled me to become healthy—and I am! If I had had the baby, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be in a healthy relationship with my partner. I wouldn’t have graduated from college and gone on to law school. I wouldn’t have helped care for my father during his brain tumor, and I wouldn’t have had two children when I was ready and able to make them my priority.”
Aziza had an abortion in Chicago in 2012, at the age of 33. “I’d never even had a pregnancy scare,” she told me, which is why she didn’t think she could get pregnant. She couldn’t afford to have a child. Unemployed, with no health insurance, she called a lot of clinics, but $400 was too much. But for $75, she was able to get an abortion at a public hospital. It was a “less than stellar” experience: “We were like cattle—a line of women snaking through the bowels of the hospital, ending up in the basement sitting on metal chairs.” Aziza talks about it now with humor, but “it wasn’t compassionate care.”
Whatever the future holds, this is how too many of us are living right now. It doesn’t have to be like this. Inform yourself, reach out to your local abortion fund, volunteer, get your friends involved, donate. Contact the National Network of Abortion Funds for more information: abortionfunds.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately placed Kelsea’s second abortion in Florida. It was in North Carolina. The text has been corrected.