I SURVIVED, BUT MANY DON’T: I Had An Illegal Abortion

The pain was radiant, white-hot, overwhelming. I was instantly sweating from every pore, and shaking. I had never felt anything so extreme.

Nov 1, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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It was 1993, and I was a young rebel in the midst of ending a crazy-making relationship of four years. My becoming-ex-boyfriend and I took a road trip to Mexico to celebrate our break-up. We rode his motorcycle to an idyllic fishing village in Baja, and camped in a pasture near a beach. We had crazy, risky, very hot, I-guess-this-is-goodbye sex.

We were, as they say, young and dumb and fulla cum.

We parted ways in Southern CA, and I took the Greyhound bus to my hometown. After many long months of trying to break free of the relationship, I was finally feeling over it. Little did I know, I’d gotten pregnant somewhere in the midst of those few bittersweet days of road tripping.

Of course I thought about having the baby. I had always wanted children, and had for years thought my ex was the one I’d be having them with, even though our relationship was the opposite of healthy.

Those thoughts were put to rest once I got my ex on the phone and told him the news.

His first words were, “You aren’t thinking of having it, are you?’’

I should have said, "Yeah, I was, until I remembered it’s yours," but didn’t. Instead I said, “It’s my choice. I can have this baby if I want to. I’d never require you to support it.”

But he was adamant. He didn’t want to bear the weight of knowing he had a child, whether he was expected to be involved or not.

Feeling pressured into choosing to terminate the pregnancy, I became committed to at least owning that experience as much as I could.

I told a friend what was going on, and she offered me an option that felt more appealing than going the standard route. She knew women who were involved in a women’s underground health collective, and they knew how to perform what the book "Our Bodies, Ourselves" refers to as an “early uterine evacuation,” or an EUE.

In other words, they knew how to perform an abortion in the privacy of one’s own home.

My friend told me about the procedure. It was illegal. I wouldn’t know any of the women. I’d never learn their names. I’d have no way to get in touch with them after the procedure.

It was scary, but I was a passionate and rebellious person by nature. And feeling more than a little bit self-destructive.

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I justified my choice by revolutionary reasoning; if my experience could be useful to others, it would be more worthwhile to me. I was doing this for all women, everywhere. I was part of a movement, walking the talk, ensuring personal liberties regardless of political climate. If abortion were ever illegal in America again -– and we all knew it could happen –- we’d need women’s health collectives like this one around so we wouldn’t have to subject ourselves to the horrible things women had to live through in the past.

An added bonus: The EUE was going to be 50 bucks instead of 150 or more, and the money would be supporting the ongoing work of the collective which would perform the procedure. The EUE would be performed by a group of very aware and empowered women, in a space of my own choosing.

I would have had my baby at home. Why not my abortion? I liked the idea of having more control over the experience, not giving it over to “the Establishment.”

We’ll call the contact person "Rose." Rose and I talked about what I could expect. There would be five women there for the procedure. I could have my ex-boyfriend there. I’d be responsible for any after-care I needed. If I had to go to the hospital due to hemorrhaging or other complications, I’d have to tell them I was miscarrying. If a post-op emergency came up, I’d have to handle it on my own.

A friend loaned us her apartment for the procedure. I’d been staying there on and off during the break-up, and felt comfortable. The apartment was small and private. It was a safe place.

One of the women asked if I wanted a lidocaine injection in my cervix. I said no, that I wanted to feel it all. I just wanted to be present. I didn’t want to candy-coat the experience. I felt I owed at least that much to this baby-that-could-have-been.

In retrospect, I believe I wanted to punish myself for having become pregnant, for having decided to have an abortion, for not standing up to my ex and taking the choice -– my choice -– into my own hands.

Rose showed me the equipment. Sounding rods to measure my uterus, and a set up that was sparkly-clean, but so low-tech that it was intimidating. A mason jar with a big, black, rubber seal, a cannula (the thin tubing that goes into the uterus), lots of clear rubber tubing, and a hand pump. It was a homemade, manual aspirator.

These women would be performing a manual vacuum aspiration on me. The reality of it was staggering.

I was anxious, but ready to go. Rose said she’d start by “sounding” my uterus to see how much fluid they’d have to pull out. Then she’d begin dilating my cervix with different-sized rods. After this point there would be no turning back.

I told her I was ready.

My ex sat on the bed with my head in his lap. My knees were up and I was stripped from the waist down, lying on clean, white sheets. 

Speculum in place, Rose got the sounding rods and started forcing the tip of the smallest one into my cervix.

The pain was radiant, white-hot, overwhelming. I was instantly sweating from every pore, and shaking. I had never felt anything so extreme. It was like a red-hot poker was being forced into my uterus. Into the very center of my being. I was straining against the nearly undeniable need to pull myself away from the pain.

Rose was talking to me in a stern voice, trying to get me to calm down. I felt like I was going to die. My insides were tying themselves in knots, bile rising in my throat.

Rose got my cervix dilated enough to get the cannula into my uterus, but it wasn’t pulling any fluid out. It hurt like hell to have that thing inside of me like that, and I was whimpering, while tears streamed down my cheeks. I was in a cold sweat, and told Rose I needed to puke.

She said she’d let me go to the bathroom, but afterward we’d have to finish the procedure. I needed to be prepared to lie back down. I agreed, got up, went to that bathroom, puked, sat shaking and nauseated on the toilet for a while, puked again, and finally went back to the bed.

Rose shot a few injections of lidocaine into my cervix before she started again. By then it was too late for the lidocaine to do much. The cannula in my cervix still hurt beyond hurt -- white-hot fire eating at my core.

Rose got the cannula into my cervix. Then into my uterus. Finally she began pumping blood, amniotic fluid, and tissue into the jar.

In the most horrible way, my physical pain mixed with the emotional, and, head resting in my ex’s lap, I felt my spirit beginning to leave my body.

I was in shock and didn’t know it.

My ex felt me slipping out of consciousness and grabbed me. He held me tight by the arms and talked to me. He may have been the only thing holding me to the earth in that moment.

It felt like eons, but was minutes at most. Rose thought there should maybe be more fluid, but she was satisfied that she’d gotten all of the fetal tissue out.

It was over, and I was still shivering, quaking, crying. I felt like there was something wrong with me because the experience had been so hard on me. That I wasn’t being strong or stoic enough. That I was feeling too much.

I am sure now that none of those women were expecting anything so intense. I certainly wasn’t.

Though the story you have just read may have been overwhelming, I had a much easier go of it than many women had before abortions were legalized in this country, or than woman still do in less liberal political climates.

We all know the stories. Women died -– and still die -- while undergoing illegal abortions. Women end up unable to have children due to less-than-sterile environments and botched procedures.

There are the women who have had to exchange sexual favors with an unsavory doctor willing to perform a quiet abortion. And the women who have killed themselves because of the shame and fear attached to parenting alone, or even admitting to an unplanned pregnancy.

What I did was dangerous. And it was unnecessary at the time.

I still believe that my values were in the right place, and that the risk I took was a righteous one.

And I hope and pray that the option I availed myself of remains only one of many choices women have when they choose to terminate a pregnancy; I pray that underground collectives are never the sole recourse women have when facing this often-difficult decision. I hope and pray that the efforts we all make to keep our right to choose in our own hands are effective and eternal, and that we continue fighting for these rights, and access to the services, for those who don’t yet have them.

I hope and pray that we never forget that these rights were hard-won, and that they're still contested. Even here in the U.S., the fight for women's rights is far from over.

Abortion is rarely easy. But it is the best possible option at times.

We need to keep it safe. We need to keep it legal.

Or it may be your daughter, or girlfriend, or mother, or wife, who ends up in shock on a borrowed bed. And she may not make it through like I did.