The pregnancy was the crisis, not the abortion
Summer 2009—The first time seemed the fastest. My best friend, Emily, took charge. “Call this clinic,” she texted after I left the gynecologist’s office, where a woman I’d met twice for annual checkups informed me I was pregnant. When I told the woman I wanted an abortion, she said her practice didn’t offer them because one of the partners was “pro-life.” I asked how far along I had to be to get one and she said, incorrectly, eight weeks. I asked her to recommend where to go and she told me to use Google. I asked what to look for when I searched. “You never know what you’re getting,” she said, as if discernment wasn’t worth attempting. “Some doctors are good, but some . . .” Yes, some doctors are bad. She was visibly displeased with the speed and certainty of my response. Maybe she had expected me to be happy. The paperwork I’d filled out in the waiting room included an extensive checklist asking about my interest in Botox and vaginal rejuvenation.
Emily was eight years older than me and had had seven abortions by the time we met, then more once I knew her. That scandalized me. As for everyone, there were circumstances: she was allergic to latex, couldn’t tolerate hormones, never wanted to have kids. I didn’t believe abortion was wrong in an absolute sense, yet seven was somehow too many. Get it together, already. But her experience was invaluable. “You’re early enough to get an injection,” she said, which I didn’t know existed. She described the surgery, too, presented every option. She never pressured me. She asked if I wanted to keep it. “I’ll drive you,” she said. “You’re barely pregnant,” she said. She loved me so well, and I had judged her.
I recall the clinic as airy, bright, clean, staffed by women who were friendly and nonchalant. They let Emily stay with me the whole time, through the blood test and the empty ultrasound, which produced an image of grainy blackness they printed out and clipped to my chart. It was a photograph of nothing but I wanted it. It was too silly to ask for. “This is your first pregnancy?” the doctor said. “You must be terrified.” I don’t think I was. The shot went in my hip. I rested my elbows on a table and wiggled my ass with my skirt up to make Emily and the nurse laugh. I asked the doctor if I could hug him and didn’t wait for an answer. I was giddy with freedom, the new appreciation for freedom; high on the awareness of diverted catastrophe.
My follow-up fell on a Saturday, when protesters choked the entrance to the parking lot. “Don’t take the abortion pill!” one shouted at me through the closed window of my boyfriend’s car. “The abortion pill kills women!” I felt smug knowing they were too late, that I wasn’t pregnant anymore and I was also alive. In that state, at that time, there was a counseling and waiting period requirement, but it could be satisfied by listening to an automated recording over the phone, or calling and pretending you listened, or (maybe?) pretending you had called. There are no words that could have changed my mind but I dialed anyway, curious.
I wanted to tell everyone in the store what had been in me, what came out.Tweet
My grandfather had died the month before, and my boyfriend made reference to what his parents would think, if they knew about the pregnancy and knew about the timing. But I didn’t want to give birth to my grandfather. He was a brusque man who beat his dog and treated my grandmother so badly that she finally fled him without saying goodbye and I never saw her again. I didn’t want to have a boy at all, and I dreamed I had a girl so I decided it was, or would have been. I imagined her not as a baby—I’ve never liked babies—but at the age I enjoy most in children: 3, 4. I didn’t picture a face so much as a sweet and radiant presence, a soft golden weight rested on my hip and in my arms. This sort of thinking was safe, even appealing, once I’d been restored to unpregnancy. How loving I felt toward her now. How connected.
A large clot came out a week later, clinging to a tampon removed in a cupcake shop’s bathroom. I dangled it close to my face and touched it. It felt like any interior tissue: silky, warm. Red. It was probably just uterine lining, or maybe the mucus plug, though I didn’t know that then. My mind was, still is, filled with the images that illustrate news stories and generic medical literature: the pink-hued, magnified little astronaut in profile; the heavy head, the lidless black eye. I wanted to take it home, to keep inspecting, though I didn’t do that. I wanted to tell everyone in the store what had been in me, what came out. I didn’t do that either. This sort of thing happened all the time, I suppose. It was the first time it happened to me.
The drug I’d used, methotrexate, was already being phased out in medication abortion in favor of mifepristone, the abortion pill, which is more effective and has fewer side effects. But since I experienced no heavy bleeding or nausea, methotrexate seemed perfect to me—a miracle. I liked that it was a cancer drug and I liked that it came as a shot, so quick and definitive. From conception to miscarriage, the entire episode had been surreal because it was miraculous. I felt very lucky, even blessed.
With the abortion over, I could focus on an injury incurred during something I didn’t want to call a rape but also couldn’t call anything else. An “accident,” maybe? With hope, I asked Emily if the issue might be from the pregnancy, and would therefore resolve soon on its own. She shook her head, holding her face in that Emily way: an expression of patience, forbearance, and possibly a bit of pity. “I don’t think you can blame that on the baby,” she said.
Winter 2017—I had my first surgical abortion on February 15 against a backdrop of near-constant political protest though no agitators were outside the clinic. Four weeks and six days is handwritten under “gestational age” on my intake sonogram, which sounds precise but doesn’t indicate the date of conception. By way of standard medical convention—devised by a German in the early 1800s—in which a pregnancy is recorded as beginning on the first day of a patient’s last menstrual cycle, I was rendered retroactively pregnant: pregnant when Trump put his hand on the Bible and I bled through the tail end of my period; pregnant when I stood with friends at John F. Kennedy International Airport chanting steam into the night, each egg unfertilized and nestled in its ovary; pregnant when I had the sex that created the pregnancy; pregnant alone, without act or collaborator; pregnant with fate.
For years the CDC has said that if you can get pregnant, you should act as if you are, or will be: avoid cat feces, don’t drink alcohol, take folic acid. The sociologist Miranda Waggoner calls this “the zero trimester.” If you could be pregnant, you’re already in a stage of pregnancy. A specter baby hovers above you, wincing and withering and crying out with every cigarette, every day devoid of leafy greens. How could you harm an innocent baby? Does your selfishness know no bounds? Would it kill you to drink something other than Diet Coke? In my journal, in the days before I knew, I lamented how bloated and constipated I was. I wrote that I felt “deeply insane,” like a machine with frayed wires.
After CVS’s cheapest stick bloomed with the news, I sat on the couch and googled abortion clinic, then made an appointment at a place that took my insurance. I rode the subway in the cold early morning. My boyfriend at that time was there, too, and I spoke to him as little as possible. This abortion was different from the first, not only in method and company. It made the first feel like it didn’t count, or wouldn’t have counted until this second one placed it in a sequence. One was OK: a mistake. But two was a pattern. I knew at an early age that I never wanted to have kids but I didn’t think I was the type of girl who would have an abortion, certainly not more than one. Not because of adherence to a religious or natalist ideology but because I was too educated, too responsible—which is an ideology, too.
There is no pregnancy I could conceive that I would allow to continue. Did my body doubt me? Did God?Tweet
My sonogram, sent to me through the mail, shows a small, dark, gherkin-like smudge. A gently bent bean. The embryo inside this gestational sac was the size of a poppy seed: something that could get caught unnoticed between your teeth. When I look at the paper I don’t experience emotion, just an interest that hasn’t faded with time. The shape is sort of cute. I keep it filed alongside my normal life records: contracts and bank statements. I would be unhappy if it were gone.
When I remember it now, the procedure is overshadowed by the relational trouble the pregnancy drew out. A month or so after the abortion, I screamed at my boyfriend, shoved him, and smashed a glass on our terrace, none of which is typical behavior for me. I saved a piece of the glass, an oblong shard with bevels created by the fracture. It’s small enough to fit in a closed fist and it lives in a little drawer with jewelry I don’t wear. I would be unhappy if that were gone, too.
I wanted to be awake for it. My gynecologist friend told me I’d be fine, that she stayed awake for hers and it’s quick, bearably painful. “Oh no, you don’t want that,” one of the nurses said. She stared at me like I’d requested to perform the procedure on myself: “You really don’t want that.” I felt confused and didn’t argue. I was in the thin gown and sticky socks, holding my clothes in a bag. Later, online, I read they insist on this so they can charge more to your insurance. They wouldn’t let me see the sonogram, either; they told me I’d have to call to request it afterward and I emphasized that to myself, don’t forget to call, since I knew how sedation effects, like pregnancy, tend to float backward in time. I walked in, lay back, placed my legs in the usual way, opened my inner arm. I disappeared, and then I woke up.
Summer 2018—My period was only two days late and I felt vaguely virtuous for taking the test, which I expected to be negative. The plus sign brought on an adrenaline surge so strong I almost dropped the stick in the toilet. Then the adrenaline alchemized into rage, a fury with no target, which meant fury for every target. It was unfair, too personal, an act of aggression and chaos beyond comprehension, like I’d been punched on the street by a stranger or shoved out of a window by someone I’d never met. I would rise to this attack. I would fight back until it was over. There is no pregnancy I could conceive that I would allow to continue. Did my body doubt me? Did God? How many times would I be made to prove it?
I’d been obsessively rereading magazine stories on present-day underground abortion networks. Kavanaugh was Trump’s latest nominee and Gorsuch already confirmed. The inevitable was closing in. I didn’t want to have surgery again because I didn’t want to go to a clinic or involve doctors at all. The previous time was protracted, and saturated with apathy. I didn’t want to be sedated and I didn’t want to be in a crowded waiting room, forced to endure the waves of anger and impotence churned up in me by proximity to other people’s despair. A friend urged me away from the pill, which she said was gruesome and agonizing. I trusted her because now anything involving a clinic seemed ugly, the beautiful methotrexate days gone forever. I needed more options. Everyone did.
I posted about my pregnancy on Instagram, saying I wanted to learn how to induce a miscarriage. “Black cohosh,” one person texted me. “Pennyroyal,” suggested another. They offered zines and mentioned what worked for “a friend.” Several pointed me to SisterZeus, a crudely designed website that’s no longer active online. “This information is for educational purposes only, it is not intended as a guide,” read the first message on the Herbal Abortion tab’s home page, though another page titled “Abortifacient Herbs” deemed vitamin C “probably the least toxic and most effective choice available.” The instructions were to take up to ten grams a day, five times the upper recommended limit, though even non-abortion sites say taking a lot isn’t likely to be harmful. “I have had two abortions in the past,” wrote a woman on SisterZeus who said it had worked for her, “and when I think of what I went through compared to this, I become very angry.” I started taking ten grams of vitamin C per day.
In 1994, when 24-year-old Kris Humphrey died while trying to abort an ectopic pregnancy with pennyroyal, a housemate said she’d chosen herbs because she “experienced a lot of pain and personal indifference” during a previous abortion at Planned Parenthood. The dream of the herbal abortion, for me, too, was a dream of restored dignity and power—a corrective to the humiliating vulnerability of being unwillingly pregnant. A nurse at Planned Parenthood once told Emily that she wished abortions were more painful, to discourage women from coming back. She thought it was Emily’s first, and apparently presumed it would be her only. Emily, like me, is white.
The sections of SisterZeus I read made the process of herbal abortion sound healing, intimate, and almost effortless. Women wrote about communing with the life inside them and coaxing it to leave. “Why not ask the spirit of the child to return when you are ready?” suggested the “What to Expect” page. “I’m sure the spirit child would be more than happy to oblige.” This is not so different from the former congressman Todd Akin’s infamous contention that “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” And it complements the cloying fantasy that I was meant to be pregnant with this soul, that it was visiting me for the third time to insist upon its immutable self and its dependency on me. People can invent any thought to justify how they feel, or sentimentalize their hunger for dominion. But there was nothing anyone could have said that would make me want to be pregnant. My justification was not an idea or hypothesis but a fact, and therefore the final word: I didn’t want to be pregnant.
I wasn’t convinced there was a life inside me, but that didn’t stop me from trying to establish some sort of psychic bargain with it. If there was a kernel of a soul there, I didn’t wish it harm, I didn’t want it to suffer. The truth about pregnancy, as far as I can tell, is that you’re profoundly and entirely in it by yourself. Even if you have an Emily, even if you’re pregnant intentionally and happily. And from inside that power and isolation, it can be comforting to anticipate the pregnancy as a second presence well before such a presence has the bodily ability to make itself known. That’s what felt special to me, in the moments when it felt special. “It’s sort of exciting, isn’t it?” Emily had asked me years ago. “It’s kind of cool, right?” said another friend, who knew I’d recently had an abortion and who had had one, too. So many people had had abortions, so many people I loved. The best way to learn that seemed to be by becoming one of them.
In tandem with the foregrounded, overtly political conflicts, the struggle around abortion is about chance and helplessness, the blind horror of fortune and the unbearable reality of a woman’s hand on the wheel. I understand that each pregnancy suggests a potential person, a person who won’t exist unless it’s carried to term. But isn’t that true of every missed conception, too? Maybe if I’d been conceived a week later, I’d be the type of person who could tolerate pregnancy. But if I’d been conceived a week later, or a day later—even a minute later—I wouldn’t be me at all. Because I never would have been.
Five days passed, six, and the vitamin C didn’t work. Out of my mind with panic, I added more: black cohosh; parsley; some other one I forget; the most miserable orgasm of my life because orgasms helped, allegedly. I didn’t know what I was doing. My torso was a swollen, rotting melon, unrecognizable in the mirror. I could hardly bear to look at it, let alone touch it—“it” meaning me, my body. When you see someone in the grip of a phobia, you see how they have left themselves, been thrown over the cliff of the self by their terror. This pregnancy was like that for me. The only thing I wanted more than to avoid going back to a clinic was to no longer be pregnant. After ten days, I couldn’t wait any longer. The pregnancy was the crisis, not the abortion. The clinical abortion, if it were like my second, would merely be an abasement.
I went back to the same place, for reasons that don’t seem good enough in retrospect: I was too overwhelmed to research alternatives; I didn’t believe any other clinic would be much better and knew it could be worse; I was too proud to admit that the previous time had caused me grief, not because I regretted the abortion but because the experience had been unnecessarily degrading. Even when not pregnant, women’s clinics, due to their ghettoization, the abhorrent state of health care in general, and the ambient desperation and shame surrounding women’s sexuality, are where I’ve most regularly felt despised. And so the terribleness of my second abortion had been intelligible. Of course in this country there is some punishment, some trial you have to endure on account of your uterus, whether you need a Pap smear or an IUD or termination. I tried to turn it into a virtue, my having an abortion again this way. I was proving I would not be deterred, that the state wouldn’t win, no matter how miserable it wanted to make me. And yet I felt guilt. I had failed myself by getting pregnant again, then failed myself by not figuring out a better way to solve that problem. And in my urgency to restore myself, I harmed myself.
I cried because waking up among the other women has a timeless quality to it, like giving birth in a wayward girls’ home in the 1930s, and it’s comforting and awful at the same time.Tweet
I came unaccompanied and I didn’t bother objecting to the sedative. My appointment was one of the day’s last; I just wanted to get in as soon as possible. But the timing meant everyone was short-tempered and impatient to leave. “You’ve been here before,” the doctor said when he checked my chart. He didn’t meet any patients until it was about to happen, in the moments right before. He patted my naked inner thigh, looking down at me. “So you know all about how this goes.” I can tell myself he was trying to be nice, and that he was weary from helping everyone who had come before, but that was a horrible thing to say and he had no reason to touch me there. For the first time, I was scared, because he was right. I remembered how it had gone before. I asked the nurse administering the sedative if she would hold my hand. I know I asked in a nice way, with an apology in my voice, because I felt embarrassed by my need, and with suppressed resentment, she took it. She’s had a long day, she’s tired, I thought. I wondered if it had been wrong of me to ask that from her, if I were unfairly demanding emotional labor. I knew I’d be OK but I was scared. I was scared.
When I came to in the recovery room, I didn’t cry. I was too disoriented and nauseated, a tranquilized animal. I repeatedly told the attendant I felt like I was going to throw up and she was annoyed and didn’t believe me but gave me more medication so I would shut up about it. I spilled cola down the front of myself when I tried to swallow the antinausea pills and stared down at the stain with the slow knowledge that I had no idea how to respond to it. I kept wanting to go to the bathroom and they wouldn’t let me. “Tell her, Jasmine,” one attendant demanded of another girl, someone who I’d guessed had also been there before. “You don’t have to pee.” It was funny, to now be disdained as new. The attendants hadn’t looked at my chart; every detail about me was irrelevant. A person was dressed and leaving—was that Jasmine? I wanted to say goodbye but thought it might be rude. They had the radio on. Doctor’s offices always have the radio on.
Last time, the nurses said the same thing when I wanted to pee but I prevailed against their resistance and when I got into the bathroom stall I wailed like a drunk. I cried with confusion and frustration, because I couldn’t pee and I wanted to and it wasn’t fair that they were right. I cried because waking up among the other women has a timeless quality to it, like giving birth in a wayward girls’ home in the 1930s, and it’s comforting and awful at the same time. Why were we so alone together? Why does it have to be this way? The sobs were remarkably loud, as thoughtless and reflexive as a sneeze. People would come in to ask if I was OK, and I’d try to stuff the crying back inside so I could call out, “Yes, I’m fine!” and then go back to it as soon as they left. There was nowhere for me to do all that this time, and the urge eventually passed. The gown with the soda spill went into a hamper. I put my own clothes back on. You pay up front, so when you’re ready to leave, you just leave.
Outside, on the street, it was a Saturday in the 21st century. I didn’t have anywhere else to be, so I went home.