One thing I never expected after my teenage pregnancy and subsequent abortion experience was how difficult it would be to be honest about this procedure on a routine doctor’s intake form. I felt a deep fear each time I encountered one of the most difficult questions for a post-abortive woman – number of pregnancies.
My “reproductive history” was difficult to verbally outline until healing had taken place in my heart. Quite obviously, my abortion decision violated my “feminine ideals” of womanhood that were based on the concepts of sexual purity and nurturing motherhood. I also violated my own maternal genetic code that was designed to encourage my mother’s heart to “protect my young at all costs.”
The abortion I endured in 1981 was a closely held secret for many years. I was hesitant to share it with anyone — especially a physician. However, fear of condemnation and my own shame never over-ruled my conscience and I was normally truthful. As each new doctor reviewed my form, and clarified the fact that I had an abortion, my heart shame was increased. Rarely did I allow my emotions to surface in these encounters. Yet, regardless of how the question was asked, it always resulted in new grief for the child I’d never hold this side of heaven.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute of Reproductive Health, states that “…at current rates, 33% of all American women will experience abortion at least once by the time they are 45 years of age.” If abortion is such a common experience, why do you rarely hear women share their own abortion experience? Why would there be any stigma in a medical setting that could mean women would lie about a past abortion?
Many of us chose abortion to erase a mistake. Many felt it was the only choice in a difficult situation. Others were dragged into clinics by parents or boyfriends who gave them no other options. Like Feminist Frederica Matthews-Green once stated, “A woman doesn’t want an abortion like an ice-cream cone or a Porsche, but like an animal caught in a trap who knaws off its own leg.”
Years after an abortion many women come to quietly regret this choice in one way or another. In order to hide the pain and grief, many isolate this remembrance and give great physical energy to the task of forgetting it ever happened. Avoiding triggers of the memory is required to keep our skeleton hung firmly in the closets of our minds. Yet life is full of reminders — a child that is the same age as our aborted baby, a gynecological exam, a dentist drill that reminds us of the sounds of the abortion clinic, subsequent pregnancies, and that simple question — number of pregnancies.
I remember struggling with infertility in 1987. I was terrified that my abortion could be connected to my closed womb and determined to be truthful with my new OB/GYN about this past choice. When I was truthful about the “number of pregnancies,” this physician politely outlined that a uterus could certainly be weakened by the suction machine that is used in the abortion procedure. He never revealed his political perspective on abortion during these visits. Instead, he shared the truth that my abortion could indeed be the reason I could not get pregnant.
This physician went on to outline that uterine scarring and blocked tubes could result from a less than perfect abortion procedure. I was instantly terrified by his comments. Could I have aborted my only child? He must have understood my shame/fear because he wasn’t judgmental in any way. Instead, there was kind and gentle compassion, when he relayed a simple test could determine if this was my situation. If there had been uterine scarring, that didn’t necessarily mean I’d never be able to bring a pregnancy to term.
The next week, a test called a hysterosalpingogram was scheduled. I didn’t expect the procedure to feel physically like the abortion. Intense uterine cramping quickly triggered my memories on the abortionist’s table where I had endured an abortion without benefit of anesthesia. The teenage memory I had worked to contain flashed instantly to the surface of my mind as I re-experienced the abortion again at a psychological level. Later the doctor would explain my tubes HAD been blocked but the procedure seemed to have remedied the situation. Ten days later I became pregnant with my beloved son, Bruce.
After this procedure, my abortion experience was so close to my heart that it seemed only a day had passed instead of six years. The humiliation, physical pain and intense fear of being unable to get pregnant were right in my throat all over again. I found myself crying through most of the night. My heart was insisting that I grieve this loss but I fought that sentiment. After all, I told myself, I had only lost a blob of cells and not a child!
This same caring doctor helped me when I suddenly hemorrhaged sixteen weeks into Bruce’s pregnancy. When he put the doppler on my stomach and we heard Bruce’s strong heartbeat, we were all relieved. He thought I was experiencing a condition called, “placenta abruptia,” which was common with post-abortive women. My unborn son’s placenta could have torn away from a possibly weakened uterine lining. Then he said, “Let’s do an ultrasound to see if I’m right!”
The ultrasound was conducted quickly and I had no time to prepare. As my husband, Tom, and I headed to the adjoining ultrasound room, I thought about how developed this unborn child could be at 16 weeks. The abortion nurse had clearly told me that I was only aborting a blob of cells at seven weeks. Not knowing a great deal about fetal development, I expected the ultrasound to reveal a cluster of cells.
As I lay on the exam table, I noticed my husband’s excitement. He was hoping to see the sex of our child. Logically, I felt that was impossible based on my “blob of cell” theory. Seeing a fully formed baby on the monitor was a complete shock. The screen revealed my unborn son, fully developed, obviously a male and he was sucking his thumb and kicking me violently. I could not feel his movements yet.
Needless to say, Bruce’s humanity on that screen ruined my closely held belief that I had only aborted a blob of tissue. If this baby was fully formed at 16 weeks, how developed had my aborted child been at seven weeks gestation? Again, I tried to push those thoughts aside but it was difficult.
Several months later this physician smiled as he placed my firstborn son into my arms for the first time. I never expected to feel the depth of love towards such a small person in an instant. It was at that point that I realized how much I would have loved my aborted baby and grief descended once again. This doctor was at my side during this realization.
After my second son was born, this phantom grief grew even worse. Unable to put these memories aside any longer, I finally surrendered and began an abortion recovery class at a local pregnancy center. The results of that class were life changing. In grieving my lost child, I found peace at a spiritual, physical, psychological and emotional level. I have spent the remainder of my career working to offer this hope to other women who could also be struggling with a past abortion decision.
If you are part of the medical community, please understand that the “number of pregnancies” can be difficult for post-abortive women to answer truthfully. When women are honest on a medical intake form, please understand they’ve shared a very deep secret. Please do not offer insensitive comments like, “You made the best decision at the time,” or “You can always have more children.” These comments tend to make women feel like no one wants to talk about their obvious pain. Instead, be ready with compassionate responses that allow the individual to speak freely about this past choice, positively or negatively.
For those obviously in pain, be ready with a referral to a local pregnancy center’s abortion recovery ministry that can help them deal with these memories in a positive manner. Likewise, if a post-abortive woman does not seem concerned or upset about a past abortion, don’t outline any sympathy or judgment. Health care issues relating to a past abortion are best discussed without including any political perspective.
My honesty on medical intake forms today is due to my ability to finally grieve this experience in my life. With God’s help, and the gentle compassion of a caring doctor and many others, my pregnancy loss grief relating to abortion has been expressed. I have dedicated my life to helping others find the peace I so gratefully enjoy today. That peace and hope is available to everyone, regardless of their political perspective on this issue!
 “Facts in Brief: Induced Abortion,” The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Washington DC, January 2008.