Abortion is a common medical procedure: Nearly one in four women in the United States—23% to be precise—will have an abortion by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Visualizing and grasping statistics can often be tricky. Not so in this case. Picture the women in your life—the aunts and nieces, sisters and mothers, friends and acquaintances. A one-in-four stat means that many of them have had abortions. But the frequency of this procedure doesn't necessarily translate to an open conversation about it.
Health spoke to seven women about their abortions. All were eager to share their very different personal experiences, which spanned the 1980s to just a few years ago. Here's a look at what it's like to get an abortion, from the decision-making process through the actual procedure and recovery—and the emotional fallout.
"I consulted no one but my conscience"
When she was 28 and living in New York City in the early 1980s, Diana terminated her pregnancy.
"I was in a rocky relationship with my boyfriend, and I’d been thinking about ending it. I’d also had all these weird symptoms of being exhausted and peeing every five minutes, and when I mentioned that to a girlfriend, she said, 'Uh-oh! It sounds like you’re pregnant.'
By luck, my annual gynecologist appointment was already scheduled for the following week. The idea of being pregnant seemed inconceivable, but in the back of my mind I was afraid. So when I went in for my exam, I asked my doctor for a pregnancy test. When she came back into the exam room with the results, she saw the panic and desperation on my face, and she said, 'I have an appointment available this afternoon if you’d like to terminate the pregnancy.'
I immediately said yes. The doctor did a D&C that day. I got an infection afterward, so the experience wasn’t a walk in the park, but I don’t remember the actual procedure being terrible. I consulted no one but my conscience. I told my boyfriend afterward because I wasn’t interested in debating my decision. I wasn’t sure at that time what my future held, and I certainly wasn’t interested in being a single mother. I think about it sometimes now because of the news, or as a marker of my getting older."
“I remember thinking, oh my God, what am I going to do?”
Teresa moved to Seattle after her high school graduation. It was 1986, and on weekends she was seeing her boyfriend—who lived in the nearby county where they grew up.
"I was 18 years old, and I still didn’t know the connection between [not getting] your period and pregnancy. I was sitting on the porch of the house where I was subletting a room, chatting with my older sister and another woman. I offhandedly mentioned that I hadn’t had my period in a while, and they looked at each other, then looked at me and said, “You need a pregnancy test.”
I took a long bus ride across town to Planned Parenthood. I remember sitting on the table when they confirmed I was pregnant and thinking, Oh my god, what am I going to do? I had a sense of a little life growing inside me, but in a hundred thousand ways, it seemed like a bad prospect to have a baby. I was so unequipped and wouldn’t want the father involved in my life.
I wasn’t very far along, maybe eight or 10 weeks. Planned Parenthood referred me to a clinic in Seattle. The procedure cost over $200, and I wasn’t sure how I’d pay for it. That’s why I told my mom. I don’t think I would have told her if I could have afforded it on my own. My mom took me to the appointment, bless her. It was hard for her. I was awake and didn’t have anxiety, but it was strange—that seems like a small word for the experience. There’s nothing to compare it to. It hurt slightly, but they'd numbed me. The feeling was of some pressure, and recovery was brief and not bad.
For years, I did think about it, but I didn’t regret it. I’ve told my daughter and close friends, but to start talking about my abortion opens up the door to everything else, and how alone, abused, and dissociative I'd been for so many years back then. I’m just trying to live my life and move past all of that."
“I was 12 or 13 weeks along, and my doctor said I needed to decide now”
Crystal a 37-year-old mother of two, was divorcing her husband in 2017. She’d been on-and-off dating another man when she discovered she was pregnant.
"I was on the pill, but I must’ve screwed it up. My boyfriend and I were out to eat and a waitress asked when I was expecting. Then a colleague asked the same thing. When I met up with my mommy friends, I complained about how people were so rude. One friend said, 'You’re glowing' and very gently suggested I take a pregnancy test. It was positive.
My boyfriend an I were on a break, but I told him, and he said he’d support whatever I wanted to do but was up for keeping it. I grappled with it, but I knew I couldn't have this baby. I was looking for a job, and with the divorce and everything, I was a hot mess. My gynecologist told me I was 12 or 13 weeks along and that if I didn’t want to have this, I needed to decide now, within days.
I went to Planned Parenthood. It was $900, and I remember is a lot of waiting. I was at the clinic for hours, but I think the actual procedure was fairly brief (I was totally under anesthesia). I wasn’t too concerned about the actual surgery. I was sure about my decision, but there were so many emotions and teeny doubts. I had a real awareness of the consequences and ripple effect of choosing this path. I don’t have regrets. I know I made the right choice for me at that time in my life. But sometimes I look at my ex-boyfriend, and I feel so sad for him that he didn’t get to have this baby."
“It felt like a really heavy period, with lots of cramping”
Margot was 20 years old in 2001 and living in Chicago when she realized she was pregnant.
"I was on Depo, but my period was late, so I took a pregnancy test. I was about 10 weeks along, and I went to Planned Parenthood. I wasn’t ready to be a parent. It was an easy decision for me to get an abortion. I told my boyfriend at the time, and he went with me. They did counseling with me alone to make sure he wasn’t coercing me into getting an abortion.
I had local anesthesia, and they talked me through everything they were doing. The dilating of the cervix was probably the worst part not surprisingly. I’d taken the next day off because I had no idea if the recovery was going to bad or not—it felt like a really, really heavy period, with lots of cramping. And I was sad. At the time, I was very certain I never wanted children. But it did make me feel sad.
I got pregnant again the next year. It was a one-night thing with an ex-boyfriend. He wanted to get married and raise my daughter, but that wasn’t happening. I would’ve had an abortion again, but it was way too late by the time I realized I was pregnant. I’m a huge advocate for open adoption, and that’s what I did with my daughter.
Frankly, placing my daughter for adoption is the single most traumatic thing that’s happened to me. She’s a person who’s part of me. She has part of my DNA, she's my parent’s first grandchild, and I couldn’t do it, I couldn't raise her. The abortion is not something I think about a lot—it’s a thing that happened to me, and I’ve moved on."
“I went to all my appointments alone, including the abortion itself”
The first time Lee had an abortion, she was 18 and living in New Hampshire.
"I’d been on birth control, but I realized I was pregnant at around six weeks. I knew immediately that I was not going to keep the baby. I had not gone to college and was working as a housekeeper at a nearby hotel. The guy I was with agreed to help pay for the procedure, but then he moved to California. I reached out to his mother, and she agreed to help me pay for it.
I was definitely nervous, but more scared that I would grow up living on welfare in a trailer (like most of the people in the surrounding area) if I decided to keep it. I went to a Planned Parenthood clinic. They were supportive and fantastic and gave me all my options: keeping it, adoption, and abortion.
I went to all my appointments alone, including the procedure itself. I had the option of IV sedation but I had no one to drive me home, so I had to go with just Ibuprofen. The procedure was not that painful to me—it was the equivalent of having the worst period cramps you can imagine. It was most painful when they dilated my cervix, but the suction itself was not bad.
I’m glad I made the decisions I did. It took me 35 years to find the most amazing man to marry and have a life with—it was worth that wait. I can honestly say that would not have happened had I chosen the alternative. Some may say my decisions in life were selfish, but I think I knew myself at an earlier age than most people do."
“I felt alone and empty, like I’d been left at the bottom of the well”
At age 23, Liz was in a “good but not great” relationship with a live-in boyfriend in New York City. When she thinks back to that time, in 2004, she says she should have taken better care of herself and been on medication for depression.
"I hadn’t had my period in a while, and something felt wrong. I didn’t have insurance, so I went to Planned Parenthood and had a sonogram, and I discovered I was pregnant and quite far along—20 weeks. I called my boyfriend and he came and got me, and we walked to a diner. It was somber and sad. If anyone can be sure about not being sure, that’s where I was.
At 20 weeks, I was just weeks away from an abortion not being legal in New York. I could visualize all of these imaginary storylines, but the one where I didn’t keep the baby was the clearest. My boyfriend was sensitive about communicating that he didn’t think having it was a good idea. And he was the one with a job, so he would be the provider for this baby.
I went to a clinic that was literally under a bridge—it was a windowless, concrete building. There were protesters outside, and the nurses told me not to make eye contact but to just walk in. At my appointment, they put in little rods to widen my cervix, and then I went home. It felt like putting in multiple tampons. It was uncomfortable at first, and got progressively more painful; it was a rough night.
My boyfriend went with me for my appointment the next day. We had a final meeting with our social worker, and I don’t remember being able to answer a lot of questions. I was just nodding or shaking my head. They put me completely under for the procedure. I woke up after with a scream that came from the bottom of my gut. I wasn’t in physical pain, but I felt alone and empty, like I’d been left at the bottom of the well. I knew I was missing something. I went home that day from the clinic, and I don’t remember anything about the recovery. I felt very sad in the months afterward.
I have regrets: that I got myself into this situation, that I didn’t take care of my mental and physical health, that I didn’t have access to insurance or see a doctor regularly. All of these factors I wish I could have changed. I wish I’d had people around me who knew me. I wish my mom had been there."
“Having a baby wasn't anything either of us wanted”
In the early 1980s, Karen, then 21, had just graduated college and was living in Massachusetts when she realized she was pregnant.
"I missed a period, and my breasts felt sore. I started throwing up almost immediately, even though I was so early on—just six weeks. I was living with my boyfriend, and I don’t think there was any question from either of us that I was going to get an abortion. Having a baby wasn’t feasible or anything either of us wanted—we were carefree and so unequipped for parenthood. I never thought about having the baby; I was very certain.
I was nervous and panic-stricken in the days before the procedure. But I was also so grateful for Planned Parenthood and the fact that I had access, could afford an abortion, and could do it relatively easily. I don’t think I told my parents, I don’t think I told many people. I just remember being sickened by the whole idea: that I’d let it happen, that here I was, an educated and aware person, and I had allowed myself to get pregnant. I was ashamed.
To be honest, sex and pregnancy, sex and baby, were just vaguely connected in my brain at the time—it was intellectual. When I had the abortion, I got it. It was like a sledgehammer.
My boyfriend came to the clinic with me. I paid for it, but I told my boyfriend to split the cost with me once he had money. I thought it was so important that it wasn't just my responsibility. He never paid me back, and it still upsets me all these years later. Not the money, but the principle that the price paid for mutual carelessness was all paid by me in every way.
I remember that the doctor was just awful but the nurse held my hand, and that made all the difference. I had local anesthesia, and it was painful and oddly humiliating. I deeply regret that I got pregnant, but I do not for one instant regret my decision."
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