Culture & Conversation Abortion

What My Abortion Experiences Taught Me: Ending Stigma Requires Unconditional Support

Kelsea McLain

Forty-four years after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, it's become clear that it's not enough to technically have access to abortion care. People need to be able to exercise their constitutional rights without stigma and fear too.

I’ve had two abortions.

Both were safe, legal and happened in licensed medical offices—realities I am quite thankful for—but they were completely different experiences.

Forty-four years after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, our constitutional right to access an abortion remains on the books. But seeing as many anti-choice legislators continue to push the limits of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is it enough to technically have a legal right to access? And does that right even matter when people are subjected to agony, struggle, judgment, and shame when they need a basic health-care service? Is this really what Roe promised us?

What I’ve learned after having two abortions is that in order to see the landmark ruling fully realized—while we still have the opportunity to do so—we need to combat the stigma that continues to exist around abortion care. That work begins with showing the people in our lives unconditional support for their decisions.

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I had my first abortion in 2009 at eight weeks pregnant. At the time, my then-boyfriend, now fiancé and I were in a long-distance relationship, and we weren’t sure what the future held. I was unemployed, with a college degree and zero job prospects.

After returning from a trip visiting my boyfriend, I began to notice that I was feeling exhausted and nauseated every morning. And then my period was late. I drove across town for a pregnancy test, which I peed on at 2 a.m., alone, in my apartment.

I knew what I wanted to do the second the test turned positive (and boy, did that test turn positive with an abrupt and insulting quickness!). But it wasn’t until after I made up my mind to terminate the pregnancy that the difficulty truly began.

Abortion stigma is real, and it pushed me into a pretty dark, isolated place—a place no one should have to experience. I felt alone, even though I wasn’t. I had always been a supporter of abortion rights and had no qualms with those who chose abortion themselves. Yet the moment I realized I was pregnant and would terminate that pregnancy, I felt the need to isolate and punish myself. I didn’t think I should burden my loved ones with my decision to have an abortion, so I didn’t tell them. Instead, I began taking the necessary steps to end my pregnancy.

On that first call with my local abortion clinic, I remember the staff telling me the abortion pill would cost $500, but not much else. I felt the blood rush from my face as panic set in. In order to cover the cost of the service, I would need to save three of my unemployment checks, without spending a single penny on food and rent. Further, in order to get all of the money I would need, I would have to delay my abortion for weeks. (This was before I knew about the abortion funds, which help people cover the cost of their care.)

With every ounce of my being I knew that I did not want to continue the pregnancy, and every moment spent pregnant was agonizing. It felt like my body was betraying me.

In a moment of helplessness, I turned to the internet for answers and found websites filled with tips for an “herbal” abortion. The websites warned too much of the herbs would poison me or make me sick for weeks, but I was desperate. Maybe I could just shove a bunch of parsley in my vagina and that would do the trick, I thought. After realizing I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I didn’t want to poison myself—I reached out to the two people I love the most: my mother and my boyfriend.

Both were alarmed I had been struggling with this on my own for a week, and both wanted to help me get through this intact and healthy. Even so, I spent a week terrified I had let down the people I loved. Together, we found the $500 to pay for my abortion. Unfortunately, that also meant that my boyfriend couldn’t fly in to hold my hand at the clinic; we couldn’t afford both.

As tough as accessing that first abortion was, I was lucky. At the time, there were fewer restrictions impeding my access: I could call the clinic and be seen the same day if I wanted; my counseling and ultrasound were quick and not filled with medically inaccurate statements or state-mandated; and the clinic wasn’t held to unnecessary surgical standards. In addition, my clinic was only 10 minutes from my home.

My second abortion was in September 2016, with the same partner (without the long distance), and with a shiny new ring on my finger.

Research shows that for those of us who have more than one abortion, the experiences happen under unique circumstances. They’re completely different moments in our lives. This couldn’t have been more true for me, on a number of levels.

To say a lot had changed in my life since the first abortion would be a huge understatement. I was employed, working as the director of patient advocacy at an independent North Carolina abortion clinic. On the side I was (and still am) organizing a volunteer clinic defense group and serving as board chair of the Carolina Abortion Fund. I had also just joined We Testify, an abortion storyteller leadership program through the National Network of Abortion Funds.

This time, I could afford my care without challenge and didn’t have to sacrifice emotional support and comfort for funds. With my first abortion, I was in pain and bled for days. But with the second, I had minimal cramps and bleeding. I didn’t spend a week in solitude, trying risky things and hating myself. I had an entire community of abortion storytellers who also have had abortions and were there for me emotionally, sending a heartwarming care package.

I received gifts for my decision to have an abortion, an idea that reduced me to a pile of gratitude-filled sobs on my kitchen floor. That’s what unconditional support looks like!

But it wasn’t all perfect. Living in a different state, I experienced new abortion restrictions. My state, North Carolina, required me to have an ultrasound and wait 72 hours before receiving abortion care. Even though I worked for a provider, I still had to speak with our nurse, listen to state-mandated political speech, and then wait three days to take the medication that would end my pregnancy.

Unlike the negative and misleading narratives perpetuated against abortion providers, our facility follows the local laws and, as such, I was subjected to every procedure and policy the people I serve are subjected to.

Additionally, even though I was open about my first abortion and worked at a clinic, a tiny inkling of stigma had remained. I asked my mom if she was disappointed in me; she wasn’t. When I told my partner, I had a small fear he would be angry with me, but he wasn’t. I didn’t tell my friends because I was secretly worried they would judge me, so I reached out to my fellow abortion storytellers, with whom it felt liberating to share.

I speak with people seeking abortions daily, encouraging them to buck the shame and stigma they feel and love themselves the way they deserve, yet I still had these small pangs of worry and guilt that were self-imposed rather than based in reality. It was then that I realized how much society’s shame was ingrained in me. I am confident the overwhelming support I received was essential to my positive experience with my abortion the second time around.

I also know my story is the exception rather than the rule. Even as we fight to eradicate stigma, very real access barriers exist for many people seeking care.

For both of my abortions, I lived near my abortion providers. However, 90 percent of North Carolina counties do not have an abortion provider. Many of the patients I work with have to travel two or more hours to reach our clinic, which adds to the burden and the costs they face.

Imagine if people were unburdened by medically unnecessary regulations, could access a provider within 10 minutes of their home, and didn’t experience fear of condemnation by their family, friends, and community? Their experiences could be more ideal and live up to the promise that Roe symbolizes.

Pregnant people deserve our respect no matter the ultimate outcome of their pregnancy. No one should feel scared to reach out for help, uncertain of where to go for help, and like the only person in the world with that struggle.

As we say in We Testify, “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion.”

It’s time for us as a society to drop the judgment and hate, and quit standing in the way—or placing hurdles in the way via unconstitutional legislation—of those of us who need abortion care. I know it’s possible, because I saw a glimpse of it in my abortions.

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