The amazing Heather Corinna of Scarleteen.com reminds us that today is Blogging for Choice Day. On one hand it’s tempting to say that this blog isn’t political; however I think we all know that sexual pleasure and well-being remains a hugely controversial topic. As I like to remind parents that attend my workshops on raising kids to become sexually healthy adults, there is a beautiful irony in the fact that my career is made possible by all of the sex-negative forces in the world (especially abstinence-based education… give my card to your kids in a decade or two). Furthermore, sexual rights are necessary to sexual pleasure, among so many other things. Now that we’ve established that Blogging for Choice Day can fit into the theme around here, I will get back to the task of telling my story.
Should I begin with Catholic high school? Sure, why not.
I suppose that’s when I first began thinking about abortion, especially when the opportunity for double credit for community service hours rolled around. That was their incentive to get us to join the annual abortion protests. It did not seem right to bribe for that kind of cause, but then neither did the idea of countless dead babies at the hands of immoral, uncaring mothers. Meanwhile, I got my service hours taking drink orders for old men (in my uniform skirt and oxford) at the annual fund-raising dinner. When undergrad came around, I looked for new opportunities to figure out where I stood on the whole dead babies issue.
And there were certainly lots of opportunities. From the lesbian, feminist roommate to the women’s studies courses to the campus protesters for every side of the issue, I was suddenly exposed to a great diversity of thought. Everyone seemed to have an agenda, but no experience, at least not that they were willing to talk about. During my senior year I took an internship as a pregnancy options counselor-in-training at my local Planned Parenthood. I figured that by the end of the semester I might have enough experience to form a well grounded opinion that I could support with something other than repetitive rhetoric. So there I was, making up my mind by jumping in the trenches. That’s the way I like it.
I remember the training well. It began with a tour of the waiting room, with its play corner for children and informative displays on the walls. From there it was how to do the filing, work the phones, and test the urine. Then it got more serious. Then we talked about how to run a pregnancy test and how to get the results. Of course, after that comes with discussion of what to do about the results. While there is a widely held belief that clinics who perform abortions make it their business to talk women into terminating their pregnancies, it turns out that isn’t the case. Instead, I was trained to tell every woman that she has three options. The first is to keep the pregnancy, which can mean keeping the baby, or giving it up for adoption. The second is to terminate the pregnancy, which means having an abortion. The third option is to make no decision right now, but if you wait too long it’s the same thing as taking the first option. Any woman who went with the first or third was given information on prevention of later pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, but most of all they were given information and resources for prenatal care, birthing, and parenting or adoption. At no point was I ever instructed, pushed, coerced, or even permitted to encourage women to take action number two over either of the other options. It was, after all, up to her.
What if she chose option number two, to terminate her pregnancy? Experience quickly taught me that the women who came to the clinic already suspected that they were pregnant, and had decided to pursue an abortion before they ever met the counselor or I. They were also to receive prevention information, as well as information on what was involved with the abortion surgery. What kind of women were these? Who gets pregnant when they don’t want to, and then tries to make it like it never happened? After all, abortion is supposed to be the easy way out, right?
Allow me to tell you just a little bit about the kind of women who get abortions. I met a wide variety of women, and everyone has their own story, but perhaps I can give you a little idea about who does something like this. Your neighbor is the kind of woman who does this. Even you, yes you, or the kind of person who does this when a situation occurs that you never anticipated and that you know must change even your strongest beliefs. There were quite a few times that I recognized one of the protesters outside the clinic from their time with me inside the counseling room, or vise versa. Some looked away, others made eye contact defiantly, perhaps secure in the knowledge that I was sworn to secrecy. Women of all ethnicities sat in the chair, women of all income levels, women of all sorts of relationship statuses. Every educational level was represented, every religious belief system, and every sexuality. At the same time, every one of my stereotypes blown clear of the water. Yours would be too, I promise.
Some women told us their stories about why they were there, how they came to be in that chair. Others never did, and that’s okay, too. Over the course of the semester I found myself at the clinic for many more hours than required. I started to wonder how things might be different if the protesters put all of those resources and all that time into prevention. I wondered how it would be different if the women in the line who had had abortions stopped yelling, and turned to tell their stories to the others in the line. Could they brainstorm a better way together? When the anthrax scares began I wondered what would happen if the law enforcement and the media could put that kind of effort into raising awareness for pregnancy prevention, after they were done talking about how we were all going to die in the middle of a pregnancy options counseling session. After the protesters no longer had the opportunity to tell the cameras how we all deserved to die in the middle of her pregnancy options counseling session. Pro-life only applies to the innocent, I guess.
It wasn’t until halfway through my semester that I finally got to visit the room where the surgeries occur. There was a pleasant nature scene painted on the wall and ceiling, something to look at, something to think about, during the 20 minutes I had been told were the easy way out. After the termination was done, the women would be wheeled to a different room filled with recliners, glasses of water, and supersize menstrual pads. After a few hours, they were encouraged to go home with a loved one, but I learned that most didn’t have a loved one who would take them home and so they climbed into a cab or bus. I can’t explain to you what it felt like to see these rooms, to imagine what it must be like to lay on the table with my head turned towards the image of forests. I hope that you will believe me if I simply tell you that these are not the rooms where an easy way out occurs. These are the rooms where carefully thought out decisions, based on unanticipated or unpreventable events become reality. No one leaves their armchair and forgets that they were there. No one turns away from the picture of trees and walks off to a carefree weekend, month, or year.
It takes a hell of a lot of responsibility, clarity of thought, determination, and bravery to take this not-so-easy way out in order to ensure a better future for yourself. To ensure a better future for children at the right time. It’s not the ideal for anyone, you know. It’s not a win-win. But it is what it is; a procedure that has been sought by women since before recorded history. To question the ability of women to make this choice, this decision, is to question the ability of women to make every basic decision for their own future and the futures of their communities. Facts must be weighed and considered, tears are often shed, and the future is different no matter which choice is made. Some people will regret their decision, either way. Everyone will have an opinion about it, no matter what. But the opportunity to make sure that this decision rests with the person who lives with the results remains essential.
The opportunity to learn from a snapshot of the lives of these women was an incredible gift for me. Am I thrilled about abortion? No one who sat in any of those chairs was, including the chairs for interns and pregnancy options counselors. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. It’s not about that. It’s about recognizing that being human means weighing previously unimaginable factors at the worst times. And at the worst times, it is absolutely necessary that each person have the right and the ability to judge which decision is in her own best interests.
That’s what I learned as an intern for the pregnancy options counseling department at the abortion clinic.