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The Enduring Stigma Around Abortion

It was the spring of 1997, my body lay on the hard table, my upper portion covered by a gown and thin sheet. My lower portion was exposed as my feet rested uncomfortably in the stirrups. One nurse stood by my head, while another stood close to the doctor performing the procedure.

The procedure.

My eyes remained fixed upon the multicolored glass chime hanging above my head. “Keep your eyes on the chime,” the nurse reminded me. A distraction from the reality of life being ripped from my womb. The sound of the suction was like a tidal wave rushing in from the sea and back again. Whooosh. Whooosh. Whoooosh. Tears fell steadily down my cheeks. One after the other. A sob escaped my throat. It was guttural and wild. The cry of a mother losing her firstborn child.

By choice.

My choice.

The doctor was irritated by my outburst. “This will teach you not to ever do this again,” he said angrily. The sound of his agitated voice was like venom being injected into my veins.

Suddenly, the whooshing stopped.

The procedure was over.

My body hurt. My heart hurt. Where there had been life just seconds before, there was now nothing. I could feel the nothingness slowly turning to pain. A stabbing pain in my heart and an ache in my womb began to sink in as the reality that something irreplaceable was now gone forever. And there was relief. What a strange mixture. Pain so deep and relief so freeing. An unlikely pair.

I was 19 years young; a freshman at Indiana University with plans and dreams and a lifetime ahead of me. A lifetime that did not include me being a mother at an age when I felt so lost and insecure– yet at the same time so confident of what my life was supposed to look like. I went back and forth and back again, trying to decide. I would hold my abdomen at night and dream of what life with this little one would look like. I met with doctors and a pastor. I wanted to know my options – and to know if I could be forgiven. I stopped drinking and smoking. I changed my diet. I did all the things I was supposed to do for my baby to have a healthy life in utero. And then I chose death.

Isn’t that odd?

I was wheeled into a room with other women. Some looked relieved, others sad. I would imagine a lot of us were feeling a lot of emotions– and maybe some of us not much at all.

“Your boyfriend is waiting to see you,” the nurse said.

“Just a minute. I need a minute.”

Eventually, I saw him. He was holding flowers. A gesture of love in an awkward moment. His attempt to begin the mending of what had been broken.

Regardless of where you stand on the abortion issue spectrum, the reality is that many men and women have been affected by an abortion. According to a 2015 Abortion Surveillance report, the abortion ratio at the time was 188 abortions per 1,000 live births (CDC). Some have processed their experience and feel it was the best choice for them at that time in their life. Some do not experience guilt or shame, while others walk around silently suffering – afraid of what other people may think if the truth is discovered about the abortion choice they once, twice, or multiple times made. They may have turned to substances and other self-destructive patterns and habits to numb the pain. And for some, like myself, it may be a complicated mixture of emotions and behaviors.


• If you need a post-abortion support group, the Texas Equal Access Fund runs one called PATH for those in need of a safe space and community. You can also connect with them at 844-832-3863. Or find a local or online space here.

• Share stories of people who have willingly shared their own about getting an abortion. Here are stories from business leaderscelebritiesmen who didn’t receive one themselves, and more.

• Support Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, Wellspring Health Access, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice that are working to preserve and provide reproductive rights and care.

• If you have the capacity to do so, mobilize in person for reproductive rights and body autonomy. Planned Parenthood is organizing a Bans Off Our Bodies Walkout on July 13. Refer to our protest guide to learn how to do so safely.

With the termination of pregnancy comes a complicated array of emotions. Emotions that people should be able to share freely – yet so often, because of fear, do not.

One woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, opened up about her abortion experience. When asked if she had regrets, she simply replied yes. When asked if she thinks about it every day, her answer was no. Does she remember when she found out she was pregnant? Like it was yesterday.

My reaction was visceral. My heart raced. My stomach churned. My emotions ricocheted. Denial, fear, anger, self-deprecation. My first thought was of my parents and how utterly disappointed they would be. My mom, though pretty cool for her generation, was a practicing Catholic. I could imagine saying, ‘Hey mom, guess what I got in graduate school? A 4.0 and an unplanned pregnancy!’ I wasn’t worried about making her mad; I was afraid of disappointing her.

Having a baby would interfere with everything: my education, my career, my future. And I knew, deep down– even though I said I was in love– marrying and raising a child with my then-boyfriend would be disastrous.

I remember making an appointment with a clinic out of town. I didn’t want anyone to see me or know me. I even thought about using an alias and would lie in bed at night wondering if anyone would ever see my medical records. The actual procedure was simple and easy. In and out. As I say this, I realize how ironic it is. Abortion is not simple. It’s never easy. And though the physical procedure is in and out, the regrets have remained since I terminated the pregnancy 42 years ago.

The experience changed my attitude toward abortion. I used to think it wasn’t a terrible thing. I believed, and to some degree still do, that some circumstances warrant the choice. What really changed my mind was giving birth to healthy, happy babies, who I love immeasurably. They are the joy of my life. It is because of them that I wish I could raise every unwanted baby. Instead of having an abortion, a woman could just give her baby to me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve been blessed with the realization that there is nothing sweeter and more innocent and more deserving than a newborn.

She then ended by saying, “Sometimes I wonder whether God will take away one of my children because I gave one away.”

Another woman who also prefers to remain anonymous echoed the feeling of fearing retribution for her choice. When she had a miscarriage, she wondered if this was God’s way of punishing her. She wondered if she would ever be able to get pregnant again or carry a baby to term. Shortly after the miscarriage, she discovered she was pregnant and realized her fears were unfounded when she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy son.

When asked if she would share about her abortion experience, this is what she said:

It was several weeks prior to spring break during my senior year of high school and a month or so prior to my 18th birthday. After finding out I was pregnant, I remember thinking, what am I going to do? Who am I going to tell? I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood to confirm. I found out I was about eight weeks pregnant. I made more phone calls to weigh my options. I discovered I could no longer have an abortion in my hometown once I was 12 weeks along or further. I would be 12 weeks or more by the time I turned 18. I knew I had to tell my parents. I told my mother and the next day we went to my dad’s house to tell him. He was upset, to say the least. That was the toughest thing I had done in my life. I never wanted to disappoint my parents. Together, we decided it was best to have an abortion in my hometown and not wait until I was 18. I made a phone call to the father of the child; he was less than supportive and in denial that I could even be pregnant. That conversation was short, and our paths never crossed again after that day. I felt so alone.

My first feeling after the abortion was relief. I was young and had the rest of my life to think about. A baby didn’t fit into that picture. I also felt anger toward the father for not stepping up and helping.

The abortion isn’t something I think about often, but I do find myself wondering at times what the baby looks like and if I will recognize him or her when I get to heaven. I have not let my choice to have an abortion define who I have become as a person.

My experience was a lot like the couple that Ben Folds Five sings about in their late 90’s hit song, “Brick.”

“Now she’s feeling more alone than she ever has before … As weeks went by, it showed that she was not fine. They told me, ‘Son, it’s time to tell the truth,’ and she broke down. And I broke down ‘cause I was tired of lying.”

After my abortion, the pain and shame I felt threatened to tear me apart. I was on a self-destructive downward spiral in an attempt to numb the pain, but nothing I did helped. I would meet people and think, “what if they knew? What if they find out?” I was afraid of the judgment and condemnation of others. I would think of people picketing outside of abortion clinics and wonder if I had committed an unforgivable sin.

My secret consumed me.

Fast forward a few years after college, my boyfriend and I married, and I knew it was time for the healing process to begin. I met with counselors, attended a support group for post-abortive women, and was encouraged to share my story with loved ones.

Although I knew it was time to share, I wasn’t sure how. I had confided with a few select people over the years, but the majority of the people I was close to had no idea this was a part of my story. I began to pray about when and how to share. And then, one day at church, our pastor said he was going to do something different. He was going to open up the floor for anyone to speak. Could this be the moment? A large number of our close friends happened to be at the service that day. Yes. I was confident. It was the moment. I stood up and the truth poured from my mouth into the open space around me. It was so freeing to finally speak these words. I was no longer afraid of what people would think. I just hoped that if there was just one woman, or man, who needed to hear these words, to know they weren’t alone, that they would hear – and know.

After I spoke, I was not met with anger, judgment, or condemnation – but instead, with love.

As I began to heal, my desire to see others heal grew. I went on to lead post-abortion support groups like the one I had attended and saw the healing that springs forth when women come together to share their pain and stories.

Many men and women walk around carrying this silent burden. This shame. This guilt. Just as I did for all of those years. Some believe they have committed an unforgivable sin. Some believe they will face some type of retribution for what they have done. Not all who experience an abortion carry this with them, but many do. If you are that person, I want you to know that nothing you have done is unforgivable and that there is a safe space, somewhere, for you to share your story. Healing begins when we take what is being held captive inside of us and bring it to the light.

I want you to know that even though you made the choice, it is OK to grieve what you have lost. I want you to know that there is help available to you. I want you to know that you are still worthy of love. And if someone chooses to judge or condemn you, that is on them. That isn’t on you.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

If you, or someone you know, has experienced abortion and is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, please know there is help available. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential support for those in need 24/7. Call 1-800-273-8255.

The National Abortion Federation Hotline is available to answer any questions you may have about abortion, unintended pregnancy, or related issues. Call 1-800-772-9100.

2400 1350 Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Thompson is a freelance writer and passionate storyteller who believes every person has an important story to tell. We grow when we share. And even more when we listen. Her work can be found on a number of blogs and parenting sites. For more of her writing, follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @trulyyoursjen.

All stories by : Jennifer Thompson
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