It was a sunny spring day in Oklahoma, the kind of April Saturday that beats down on you, reminding you that summer is just around the corner. Elizabeth, followed by her boyfriend, stepped out of the car and looked up at the unassuming blue sign above her: Planned Parenthood.
In the waiting room, she kept her eyes fixed on her lap. No one knew she was here: not her mom, not her dad, not her best friends. Only her boyfriend, who was splitting the cost with her.
She wished the Planned Parenthood staff didn’t know she was there either, that she could shut her eyes and banish the image of herself sitting on a hard plastic chair, eyes lowered, waiting to get an abortion.
Elizabeth told herself that having this abortion was the right thing, that it wouldn’t bother her. As she was led back through the labyrinthian clinic to undergo the procedure, she thought, It’s just a clump of cells. It’s not a baby yet. There was something in her subconscious that disagreed. But that something felt very, very far away.
In the recovery room, she reclined in a long row of chairs next to other post-abortive mothers. The cramps were unbearable, and she could feel the blood seeping onto the large pad the doctors had given her. None of the women looked at each other. No one spoke.
She had had to come up with an excuse to get off work, so she and her boyfriend left the clinic, going to a spring festival nearby. The cramping and the bleeding continued. The sun was shining relentlessly. And Elizabeth was trying to smile as if she were a normal teenage girl who hadn’t just had an abortion. “That was the beginning of how I would hide it to the entire world,” she says.
It was a full year before Elizabeth told anyone about her visit to Planned Parenthood. That much vulnerability took an invitation to Bible study and a rededication to her Christian faith. She had been afraid that having a baby at 18 would ruin her life, would change the way people thought of her, would ruin her freshman year of college even if she gave the baby up for adoption.
No one in her life had assured her that they would support her if she chose to keep the baby and give him or her away. Looking back, she thinks she would’ve had enough aid — if she hadn’t been too scared to ask for it.
Sometimes she wonders if the baby was a boy or a girl. Would they be married by now, have their own children? What couple, maybe one struggling with infertility, would have adopted them?
“Abortion was so easily accessible that I never even considered alternatives.”
In Oklahoma in 1985, Roe v. Wade was just 12 years old. The Supreme Court ruling had found a constitutional right to abortion, one that meant even the most conservative states couldn’t ban abortion until a fetus was viable outside of the womb, around the beginning of the third trimester.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, Oklahoma’s trigger law went into effect, banning all abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother. Now, Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to get an abortion. Back then it was too easy. “I did in the back of my mind already have it decided because it wasn’t a big discussion between my boyfriend and me,” Elizabeth says. “I never let my mind go down another route. Abortion was so easily accessible that I never even considered alternatives.”
Statistics (likely swayed because women who regret their abortions are reluctant to talk about them) indicate that most women who abort are fine with their decision years down the line. But there are plenty of women who do regret their abortions, and acknowleding that truth shouldn’t be limited to one side of the political aisle.
So when we talk about what Roe meant to our mothers, we can’t ignore what it meant for the mothers who wish that abortion hadn’t been the only solution presented to them. We can’t ignore what it meant for women like my mother.
Whether or not abortion is legal, which it will continue to be in blue states across the United States, it should not be the first thing we offer to unexpectedly expectant mothers. Instead of making abortion access easier, we should be boosting the social safety nets that, when torn, may make mothers think abortion is their only option. And, of course, we should never judge or belittle women who felt like they made the decision they had to at the time, even if they feel differently now.
“I felt, if it was legal, it must be okay.”
In 1985, the same year my mother had her abortion, Sheila Harper was 19 years old and pregnant. She decided to end her pregnancy. “It felt wrong, and I couldn’t figure out why,” she tells me. “But I felt if the Supreme Court made it legal, it must be okay.”
That one decision sent her down a spiral of depression and alienation. Her boyfriend, who wanted her to keep the baby, broke up with her. She attempted suicide. “I spent the next seven years hating myself because of that choice,” she says.
It was only when she attended a Bible study where she met other women who had had abortions that she was able to forgive herself. She also made a decision: It was time to talk about what happened. “At least once in every class, someone would say, ‘If I could save one unborn baby, I would tell my story.’”
Later, Sheila Harper founded SaveOne, a nonprofit ministry that now has hundreds of chapters across the globe. Members work through a curriculum designed to help women, men, and families recover after abortion.
Through her ministry and classes she has led, Harper estimates that she has met with thousands of men and women affected by abortion. She says the trauma manifests itself in different ways: alcohol and substance abuse, pornography addiction, anger, workaholism, even helicopter parenting.
Abortion advocates may argue that such visceral reactions to an abortion story simply indicate religious guilt or an overwrought sense of morality. Harper says it’s biological.
“We were created as women to nurture and protect our children,” she says. “That’s why the aftermath of abortion is horrific because it strips us of who we are at our core. We were never created to make this choice.”
“I probably would have made a different decision had abortion been illegal.”
Last fall, Pulp Fiction actress Uma Thurman penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, writing that the abortion she had in her teens “was the path to the life full of joy and love that I have experienced. Choosing not to keep that early pregnancy allowed me to grow up and become the mother I wanted and needed to be.” Twenty-three-year-old Stranger Things star Maya Hawke, Thurman’s daughter, recently told Jimmy Fallon that if her mother hadn’t gotten an abortion, she “wouldn’t exist.”
“My mom wrote this really beautiful essay about her abortion that she got when she was really young and about how if she hadn’t had it, she wouldn’t have become the person that she had become, and I wouldn’t exist,” Hawke said.
“What kind of message is that sending?” Harper asks. What does it say about our perspective on children if we have to sacrifice one in order to have another? What does it say about our perspective on motherhood if it can only develop under narrowly defined ideal circumstances? No wonder abortion so often seems like the only option when motherhood is presented as something you can only undertake once you have your 401(k).
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, many news outlets have used language that our mothers had more rights than we now do, that states enacting abortion restrictions are setting back the clock. But the world Roe built was one that let social services and society take the easy way out. It was one that made it too easy to make a decision many of our mothers wish they could change.
“People who come to us say, ‘I probably would’ve made a different decision had abortion been illegal,’” Harper says. “We hear that a lot.”
Whether pro-choice or pro-life, most people would agree that many mothers choose abortion just because it feels like the only option. It’s not a choice they want to make, and for so many, it leaves them with deep scars for years to come.
“As scars heal, the inflammation will slowly fade, but we retain the mark for the rest of our lives,” my mother tells me. “Not of shame, but of regret for the unfixable, unchangeable decision made out of fear.”
Casting aside real women’s concerns, glibly telling them to “shout their abortions,” is one of the most anti-woman things we can do. At the very least, we must offer women alternatives to abortion. Not doing so means we callously cast aside all of the women now desperately searching for help.