This article originally appeared in On the Issues magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
Several older women stood on the sidewalk a few feet from the entrance to Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York. They aggressively approached every woman who walked towards the door, literally getting in their faces with rosaries and anti-abortion literature in hand.
“Don’t kill your baby,” they implored, planting themselves between the woman and the clinic entrance. “We can help you.”
I had come to Choices to interview head counselor Sophia McCoy, and the first thing I asked was what she thought about the protestors.
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“I walk in past them every day. I can’t be up in arms about them all the time or I couldn’t do my job. But they really upset some of the women.”
McCoy has headed up counseling services at Choices for five years, training other counselors and, herself, talking to dozens of women each day who come to the clinic for abortions, both first and second trimester. “I discuss the abortion procedure with them,” she said, “and make sure they are sure and feel secure about their decision.”
“By the time a woman arrives at Choices,” McCoy said, “she has already thought a lot about her pregnancy and what to do next. A woman’s decision depends a lot on how well she knows her partner, relations with her family, what’s going on in her life…her age, her school, work, health. Most have tried to talk to a close friend or relative. Making that first phone call to the clinic for an appointment can be very scary. And then they get here and run into the protestors.
“Most women are very firm in their decision. They are generally confident about what they want to do with their lives and often have good support for their decision to have an abortion. It’s not easy for protestors to approach these women. I’ve seen women say, ‘get away from me,’ and walk right up to the door. But I’ve also seen women go back and forth, inside to the waiting room and outside to the protestors, sometimes for an hour. These women are generally more ambivalent to begin with, and the protestors have an easier time talking to them. Some are affected by the offers of free baby showers and financial help for diapers. But this often doesn’t last long. The protestors also tell a lot of lies.”
In fact, much of McCoy’s job is to educate women, something that she accomplishes by bringing to bear both her medical training and her own personal experience. She is on the front lines, addressing a gauntlet of lies and a vacuum of accurate information daily.
After a woman comes into the clinic and registers at the front desk, she has a sonogram and blood work. Then she sees a counselor. “If a woman expresses doubts,” McCoy said, “I try to explore her feelings with her, what the pros and cons are of having the procedure, based on who she is, and help her resolve any questions. If she feels sad, I tell her it’s okay to be sad, but the main thing is for her to be sure that this is the right thing for her to do at this time. And it has to be her decision, her choice. It’s only after I’m confident this is the case that she has the procedure.”
“The protestors tell women that we don’t care about them. They say that ambulances come and take women away once or twice a day here, that women have to have hysterectomies after an abortion, that we throw away ‘the baby’ (that’s what they call it) in the garbage afterwards. All of these are just lies. And many women don’t know how their own body functions or about the reproductive process.
“I talk to the women about all this. When a patient comes in and she’s upset, I explain to her the importance of being able to come here and what women went through before abortion was legal. I tell them, ‘Today, abortion is very safe, but it wasn’t always that way.’
“Women are not aware of the history of abortion, that women had to be driven long distances to find a doctor who would do one. Or women would get an illegal and unsafe procedure. I tell them this is why we have to fight to keep abortion legal and a woman’s right.”
The Impact of a Photo – And a Teenager’s Death
When she was about 11 or 12 growing up in Queens, McCoy heard her mother and grandmother talking at home about how difficult it had been to get an abortion before it was legal. She read about it in the pioneering women’s health care book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and saw a photo that she could never forget. It was of a woman lying on a motel room floor who had died from an illegal abortion (now known to be a picture of Gerri Santoro.) After high school when McCoy was an accounting student, she heard about a fellow student who had tried to use a bottle to terminate her pregnancy.
“The topic just kept coming up,” McCoy recalled. “You know how you hear a lot of stories growing up, and some things jump out at you and eventually it all takes shape. Well, these stories stayed with me, and I knew I needed to be part of not letting this happen again.”
“I discovered that accounting really wasn’t for me; I wanted to work with people more. I studied forensic psychology for three years, but then I saw an advertisement for a school for medical and dental assistants and I thought, ‘maybe that’s for me.’ By that time, I was a single mother with three young children. As part of my medical assistant training, I did an internship at Choices specifically to learn about second trimester abortions. And then it happened that I needed a second trimester procedure myself. Shortly afterwards, I applied for a medical assistant job at Choices and was asked to become a counselor because I had worked in every area of the clinic and knew the procedure so well, including through my own personal experience. During my interview, the social worker showed me the exact same photo that had made such an impression on me earlier…I knew this was where I needed to be.”
Another thing that had a big impact on McCoy was the story of 17-year-old Becky Bell, who died from an illegal abortion in 1988 in Indiana, a state that required minors to get parental notification or a judge’s waiver. But word on the street was that the judge was anti-choice and hardly ever said yes. Becky couldn’t bear to “disappoint” her parents, so, it turned out, she got an illegal abortion. A few days later she ended up in a hospital where she died of a massive infection caused by whatever was done to her.
“I have three children, including a 17-year-old daughter,” McCoy said, “and when we first talked about sex, all I could think about was Becky Bell. Young people get the wrong information on the streets or from boyfriends – so I knew what I had to do…even if it meant getting her birth control at a young age. I want my daughter alive and healthy.”
“A parent’s views on sex may differ from her child’s, but I am so happy there is a place like Choices where my children can go if they need to. Teenagers, like Becky Bell, can become desperate to avoid hearing those words, ‘You disappoint me.'”
In fact, McCoy encourages her daughter’s friends to come over to her home to talk, and this has developed into a regular weekly session about what’s going on in their lives, their thoughts and feelings, including about sex, contraception and other reproductive health matters.
Getting Patients to Open Up
“I have to keep asking the patients, ‘how do you feel?'”
“What gets to me most in counseling at the clinic,” McCoy said, “is the lack of self-esteem the women have. I try to get the woman to focus back on herself, her own life, and what she wants.”
This isn’t easy. “Often,” McCoy continued, “a woman will talk about how everyone else feels about the pregnancy but herself. It’s never about them, and I have to keep asking, ‘how do you feel about becoming a mother, what do you want?’ I worry most about the 15-16-17-year olds. They have such low self-esteem, and they think that having a baby would make them more of a person… They also think that a baby would give them the love they often don’t feel from anyone or anywhere else.”
“It gets to me sometimes,” McCoy said. “Some women think that having the baby would make their boyfriends stay with them, even though they really don’t want to have a child right now. Their need for someone else’s approval takes over everything else. It comes from an empty space that needs to be filled; until you look in the mirror and like the person you see in it, you’re always going to be seeking approval from someone else. They’ve got to learn to stand up for what’s right for them, and sometimes that means simply saying ‘no’.”
She sees this lack of self-esteem among her daughter’s friends, as well. “The message they get from music videos and TV is it’s okay to run around naked and have sex with multiple partners, that this is the way to get attention, to get love.” McCoy cited one young woman who got her tongue pierced. “I asked her why, and she said she did it because men liked that when women gave them oral sex. Now, I could see it if she said she liked the way it looked or the way it felt,” McCoy continued, “but this was to please a man, not herself!”
“Sex is sometimes not really consensual, with girls just going along with it because their boyfriends want it. This is really just another form of abuse,” she said. “Adult women find themselves in this situation so how could teens be different?”
McCoy said her experience at the clinic as well as with her daughter’s friends shows “there’s a great need for programs in schools and other places where teens can come and talk about these things. When you give them a chance to say what’s on their minds, they really open up, and in a group, they encourage each other to talk. They can see that what they’re thinking and going through is similar to what’s happening to others.”
Until that time comes, Sophia McCoy will be on the frontlines, offering her experience, wisdom and reality-based information to help women make informed decisions that are truly right for them.