I watched the film “Happy Endings” on Sunday night. I got it from Netflix because it starred Steve Coogan as a gay man. Ten seconds into the movie, I knew I’d seen it before. But it wasn’t until Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character appeared onscreen that I remembered the plot, the year it came out, and how I reacted as I viewed it in theatre, with a girlfriend next to me. As Maggie’s character laid on a clinic bed moments before getting an abortion, I wept uncontrollably. This past Sunday, I was touched by the scene, but more emotional about another storyline.
My story starts at 21, as I entered last year of college. Because I was a dormitory resident assistant, I arrived on campus two weeks earlier than the rest of the student body for “Residence Life” training. Several days after settling in, I woke up nauseated and puked my brains out for thirty minutes. My sexual partner (we’ll call him ‘Friend’) wore condoms during sex, but as I kneeled on the dorm bathroom floor, alone, before heading to a full day’s training with chipper resident assistants, I was fucking sure I was pregnant. Only a few days of persistent morning sickness went by before I realized there was no running and hiding. After urine and blood tests at University Health Center, the registered nurse confirmed it. I think I nodded and said, “yeah, I know. Are abortions done here?”
I was referred to Planned Parenthood, where I had a meeting with a counselor. I was asked questions such as “are you in an abusive relationship?” “did anyone influence you in making this decision?” and “have you spoken with your parents and religious leader about your decision?” Then it came time to choose the method (though I was told I had a few days to change my mind): abortion pill or in-clinic aspiration method. My memory of that conversation is hazy, but I recall being scared by the counselor’s warnings of what could go wrong with the in-clinic procedure: life-threatening anesthesia side effects, the possibility of “not removing all contents” of the uterus (and having to return for a second procedure), infection or damage to the uterus that might result in infertility. The abortion pill, on the other hand, was “simple,” and more “natural;” I’d feel period-like cramps, abdominal discomfort, and heavy bleeding for four to six hours. I’d later realize that this young woman being paid to provide unbiased information was delivering some fucking biased information. No matter what I found on Google after that visit, I couldn’t shake the fear of being broken and infertile at 21, so I chose the abortion pill. The earliest appointment I was able to schedule was for two weeks later. Thanks to health insurance, I had only a $30 co-pay.
On that day, I also had an ultrasound. I was told everything was fine health-wise, and I was a good candidate for the abortion, being only 6 weeks pregnant. I asked to look at the image; my uterus looked huge on the screen, and the embryo was a tiny bean on the bottom right corner. For some reason I asked for a print-out of the picture. I kept it for a while but threw it out years later.
I was alone on a dorm floor for 40 students, and the only people on campus were my co-workers – very nice people, but not close friends. Friend was back home but we talked on the phone every day, and he was positively supportive. “Whatever you choose to do is OK with me, and we‘ll do it together.” His voice quivered on the phone line, and while I knew he meant his words, I also knew he was scared of fatherhood. I wanted to be a wife and mother someday, but “not now. No way,” I told him mid-tears. I assured him I wanted an abortion.
The appointment was scheduled for a Friday, after the start of classes. My friends were all back on campus and we were seniors; everyone was partying but I was exhausted by nine every night. My mornings began about an hour earlier than usual; I’d get up to vomit, walk around my dorm room drinking tea and watching the news until the sickness stopped, then I’d get ready for the day. There were a few days of afternoon and evening sickness too – those were most inconvenient and tiring.
Friday came and my Friend waited in the PP lobby as I moved from room to room; paperwork to fill out, another counseling session, another urine test, questions by a doctor. A couple of hours later, I was finally led to the room where the pills would be administered. The nurse showed me to my seat and left me alone for a few minutes until the doctor returned. As I waited. the thought entered my mind, is this what I really want? I saw a calendar on the desk, and knowing I was eight weeks pregnant, I looked for the date 32 weeks ahead – May 22nd, 2005. That was the week of college graduation. I imagined myself at home (the gap in this scenario being “how would my parents react?”), waiting to give birth, as my friends finished finals with their caps and gowns hanging in the closet. Fuck that. No way. There‘s no way, I thought. The doctor came in, watched me swallow the first pill and instructed me on when to take the second at home. Friend and I went back to my dorm room, I took the second pill, and what followed were the most excruciating and miserable hours of my entire life.
I had insanely painful cramps – they felt like contractions. At times I couldn’t find a single comfortable position in which to lay, I was biting on cloth so as to not make too much noise (again, I was in a dorm room), while squeezing my friend’s arm with my hand. I made a conscious effort to breathe regularly during the pain, mid-tears. I would fall asleep crying and wake up thirty minutes later – my Friend sat next to me the entire time, watching me, holding my hand, wide-eyed, looking helpless in a comforting way. In between the abdominal cramps (the drugs indirectly force the uterus to contract and “expel its contents”) I would run to the bathroom as I could feel “content” was about to come out – it being lots and lots of blood. In clumps. (You’re welcome). This lasted for about five hours on Friday night, as the rest of campus celebrated back-to-school. My Friend stayed with me through Sunday, and on Monday I was back in class.
I’d always been openly pro-choice, but once I had the abortion I felt incredible shame. Now I know why: I was very alone during those two weeks; I was young and working alongside my peers six days a week through the sickness and constant headaches. I would call home and have to talk to my mom as if nothing were happening. By 6pm I was back in the dorms, alone. I felt very alone, but I dealt with it by suppressing my feelings. During the pregnancy and after the abortion, I focused on schoolwork and barely allowed myself to acknowledge and process what I‘d gone through.
A few months later I watched “Happy Endings” in theatre, and the 30 second “implied abortion” scene broke me down. I think that was the first time I acknowledged everything that I had bottled up. The truth is, the abortion process was traumatizing. It was painful and scary and it felt unbearably long. I still see it advertised as a method “of dealing with abortion in the privacy of [my] own home,” “similar to the morning after pill,” “simple,” and “a way to avoid surgery and anesthesia.” I will preach this until the day I die: my experience was painful, it was scary, it felt like a barbaric punishment, I couldn’t tell if the bleeding was normal or if I should be alarmed and call the doctor, and above all, it felt unnecessary. I wish I’d told a girlfriend, I wish my assigned counselor had kept her opinions to herself, and I wish I’d found what I spent hours googling: one girl’s story. An honest, non-judgmental account of her experience – someone to relate to. Not having that, I think, played a major role in the anxiety and guilt I felt.
Years later, while on the pill, I became pregnant again. I’d missed a pill here and there, but had taken it less than 24hrs later, as it happens with virtually every woman on the pill. It’s hardly ever a problem – except for me, the most fertile woman on the planet. My hang ups about abortion were non-existent this time around and I knew with certainty that I’d choose anything but the abortion pill. The non-surgical aspiration procedure consisted of this: local anesthesia (though I could’ve gone to sleep completely – I just didn’t see the need), a bed, and spread legs, much like a GYN visit (yes, boys, just like that). The doctor inserted things in the vagina: “this is to numb the cervix,” “this is to dilate the cervix,” “now we’re going to remove the contents of the uterus.” Within twenty minutes, including the initial anesthetic, I was done. The time spent on the bed was probably half that. I felt a bit nauseous because of the medication and had some abdominal discomfort that day, but my boyfriend fed me ice cream and we watched Robocop all afternoon. I wondered why the fuck I had ever chosen the abortion pill the first time around.
Pregnancy happens. I used contraception and still became pregnant. Having a child was something I did not want – I would’ve been devastated if I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I have no hang ups about my abortions. There is nothing wrong or immoral about it. It is more common than one might think; once I felt comfortable talking about it, I found out four of my friends had one. It most certainly isn’t a walk in the park, but neither is having a child; pregnancy is fascinating and beautiful, but a woman should get to decide if it’s something she wants, and she shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for wanting control over her life.