A couple of Fridays ago, I walked my older son to school and then my younger son to daycare. Then I crossed over the ice-and-salt encrusted overpass to the metro station and headed downtown. As I emerged back up onto the street, I checked my phone and enjoyed a little lift of triumph. Getting places a bit early or exactly on time is one of my small pleasures. It means all my systems are humming just right. That morning, I was five minutes early for my appointment to have an abortion.
Why am I sharing this with you? Isn’t this personal business, best kept to myself? No. The abortion debate is immeasurably worse off for having been dominated by everyone except the women who actually receive abortions, and any medical procedure whose legality is being debated at the federal level is everyone’s business, besides. There are an estimated 1.2 million abortions performed each year in the United States. That’s more than twice the number of angioplasties performed each year, according to the Center for Disease Control. If angioplasties were suddenly on the chopping block, I imagine some men whose lives had been changed by them would be compelled to speak up.
I found out I was pregnant at my mom’s house, over Christmas. I had an IUD, the copper kind, and after two years of loyal service it went and took a sick day. For weeks I’d been feeling like my legs were filled with wet cement. My emotional state had been ass. Part of me was relieved to learn what was causing that, but mostly I was pissed. I did not want to bring another child into the world. My husband and I had already had this conversation. We have two kids and the younger one isn’t yet two and a half. We’d decided that once he is nearing five, we’d reconsider a third kid. I’ll be 35 then. The little joke I always tell is that I’ll only want to have another if in three years we find ourselves suddenly rich and bored.
According to a study published in the June 2011 issue of Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, roughly 60 percent of women seeking abortions in the United States between 2001-2008 were mothers. I am a mother, and this abortion would be my first.
We tend to think of reproduction as following a strict teleological pattern: You use birth control until you’re ready to have a family, then you stop, get pregnant, have the family you’ve planned for, and then resume birth control until menopause. There’s no room in what’s acceptable for unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, or trouble conceiving. A woman’s body ripens into fertility and then, babies duly birthed, folds tidily in on itself at the desired time.
But the experiences of most women I know who are in their thirties or older have not followed this narrative. Whether due to miscarriage, conception trouble or abortion, this teleology is a lie.
My mom seemed sad when I told her. Not because she opposes abortion, but she didn’t want me to suffer. For women of her generation, abortion is associated with suffering. She wanted to make sure I was OK. For me, a third pregnancy would be suffering. The abortion would be a relief.
I could go into more detail about why I didn’t want to have a third kid this year, but do you really need to hear that? You can trust that my feeling was justified, right? Let’s skip the part where I argue my case, for both my sake and yours. It feels great to do that.
I texted and called my best lady-friends near and far. “I’m preg w an IUD WTF is this shit.” We’re all terrible correspondents but everyone replied right away.
“CALLING U NOW,” they texted. “OH FUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKK CALL ME. I’m calling tonight.”
Most of my friends said the same thing: Don’t feel shame. Their absolution was such a relief. I wasn’t ashamed, but I felt like I was supposed to express regret that I didn’t truly feel. One friend texted that she was on her way to spend the evening Netflix-and-chilling with another mom-friend who’d just had an abortion, too.
I called a clinic back home in Montreal. The woman on the phone was sweet. “We’ll take out your IUD,” she said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
But there was a little wrinkle: We were about to embark on a long-planned family trip to the southwest, to take a road trip in my in-laws’ old VW camper van. My husband had taken on extra work for months to pay for this trip and the kids couldn’t wait to go. The abortion would have to wait a month, until I got home. I was worried that I’d be an asshole to my family on this trip, that the symptoms of early pregnancy—which, for me, have always been the worst—would make me listless. I couldn’t let my five-year-old overhear anything about a pregnancy. Once I made the abortion appointment, we stopped talking about it.
Despite my exhaustion, the trip ended up being a hoot. We drove past many anti-abortion billboards in West Texas and New Mexico, blasting stern reminders that the fetus already had fingernails and eyelashes. I ate a lot of tacos and tried not to think about all the ways I knew my body was changing to accommodate pregnancy. When I was pregnant with my sons I loved learning about how my body was making more blood, how my joints were softening. I didn’t eat my placentas, but I did give them both a good long look and found them very impressive. The billboards weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
During that month I ended up telling a few other people I was getting an abortion, mostly family members. I was compelled to tell them so they’d understand why I was going to bed at 8 p.m. every night, and why I lacked patience with my kids. I was too proud not to explain myself. The older people I told—including my mom, ultimately—tended to settle on a final justification that seemed to satisfy them: “It’s better for the kids.” I would be better able to care for them if I weren’t saddled with a third, they said, consoling themselves more than me. I would be a happier mom.
Abortion in Quebec is free. It is covered by universal provincial health insurance. But Canada as a whole is not some reproductive health Valhalla. The province of Prince Edward Island forbids abortion; women have to leave the island to access them. In the U.S., there are about a dozen states where it’s just about as easy to get an abortion as it was for me—although there, it’s never free. A steady march of restrictions have been put in place in many other states: 288 new anti-abortion laws in America since 2011, to be exact. Abortion is as contested now as it has been since Roe v. Wade.
The clinic I visited was decorated with framed hand-written thank-you notes from two decades’ worth of patients. Some of the notes were signed by partners. Some had drawings on them, of smiling stick figures, or flowers, or birds. Imagine feeling such gratitude that you’re compelled to doodle a garland of flowers on your thank-you note. I thought of the morally condemnatory billboards I’d seen outside El Paso and experienced a dizzying feeling of relief .
The waiting room was spotless, brightly lit and windowless, with little in the way of distractions. No magazines, no pamphlets. Half a dozen women and a few men stared intently at their phones. Never is one’s Facebook feed so riveting as in an abortion clinic waiting room.
Everyone sees a counselor before heading in for a confirmation ultrasound. The counselor’s job is basically to ensure that patients feel safe and ready to have the abortion. When I told her I was there because of a failed IUD, she chuckled. “You must be frustrated,” she said. “You tried to do the right thing but you ended up here anyway.”
The ultrasound tech who located my errant IUD and confirmed that I was 10 weeks pregnant referred to “the pregnancy” rather than “the fetus,” which I appreciated. And no, she didn’t make me look at the screen.
The abortion itself took about six minutes. As I lay down with my feet in the stirrups, a nurse chatted with me while giving me a dose of anti-anxiety medication through an IV tube in my arm. I was also given a bit of local anesthetic around my cervix. We talked about my sons, and about how I should probably switch to the IUD with hormones in it since she’s never seen a woman come in pregnant with one of those. The doctor dilated my cervix and inserted a small tube into my uterus through which the fetus was suctioned out. I felt no pain, just a little cramping. Maybe it’s the two vaginal childbirths talking, but for me, the least stressful part of the whole experience was actually having the abortion.
I was delightfully medicated and staring at the ceiling, so I didn’t ask myself what they did with the fetus until I got home. I did wonder, though, in the way that you might wonder about the whereabouts of a lover from your past. I’m sure it was disposed of in the most discreet, contained, clinical way possible, but maybe those horrible billboards affected me after all. Where did the doctor put it?
Possessing the physical responsibility of reproductivity is not a condition that lends itself to absolutes and easy answers. A woman’s feelings about childbearing don’t swing on a pendulum between pride and grief. There is a world of ideas between those poles. I wondered where the pre-human tissues that my body was making were put, but I didn’t wonder this out of anger or grief or regret. The fact is, my body was working on something, and I put a stop to it. I never took that choice lightly. No regrets is not the same thing as no questions, or no struggle, or no mute minutes lost in thought while riding the metro home.
Before that, though, the nurse led me to a curtained-off bed to rest. I was supposed to wait until the bleeding tapered off, about an hour. She returned with saltines and ginger ale, and more maxi pads. She checked in on me every few minutes. I felt so cared for, and so respected.
My husband came to take me home. He had taken the afternoon off from work. On the way we picked up some souvlaki for lunch, and ate it on the couch while watching a show on Netflix about a hot Danish dude living among the Saxons in medieval England. I ate an entire bar of Lindt chocolate. Then I went back out and picked up my kids.
I want to thank Lindy West for her #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, without which I would not have written this.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. She’s 33, her kids are 2 and 5, and she’ll be contributing a semi-regular parenting column called Hey Ma here on Jezebel.
Illustration by Sam Woolley