I Had an Abortion When I Was 19
The Power of Choice in Realizing Social Justice
I had an entirely different post planned to release this week with poetry and stories about joy and awe inspired by a desert trip we took this spring on Lake Powell and a bit about the Yellowstone floods. Then I awoke this morning to the news of Roe v. Wade overturning, and while spreading the good word to counter the bad is my goal, it just didn’t seem right. The story below was written during the Trump years and quietly published on Medium.
My shame turned into fury; today, I’m shouting my story to the rooftops. While the states where I split my time - Wyoming and Idaho - are lost causes, I do hope the good fight continues in others.
I had an abortion when I was 19. It was the summer of 1982 between my first and second years at Stanford. My 23-year-old high school sweetheart got me a summer job with him as a ground laborer on an oil exploration crew working its way from Hayes, Kansas, to Kalispell, Montana. We were, much to my parent’s dismay, “living together” in dingy hotel rooms and single-wide trailers. In Kalispell, we stayed long enough to get a month’s lease on a little cabin with a kitchenette where I could make mac and cheese and eat at a table in the sun. For the first time in my life, I supported myself and made my own decisions.
Growing up in the 1970s in Evergreen, Colorado, I got most of my sex-ed and contraception information through the rumor mill and the experiences of more promiscuous friends with whom I’d sneak down to Denver to Planned Parenthood to get birth control pills. A year at Stanford didn’t teach me much more — we were left to figure it out on our own. My “more experienced” boyfriend assured me that the “withdrawal” method was safe during the first month before the birth control pills I was taking were reliable. We partied a lot, smoked cigarettes, ate tons of junk food, and everyone around me dabbled in some nasty drug called “crank,” which I am now mortified because I’m sure was a precursor to meth. We were living paycheck to paycheck. We were infatuated and, as it would turn out, totally incompatible.
Finding out I was pregnant in the middle of the summer was devastating, I had no friends to talk to in Montana, couldn’t afford payphone calls, and my parents were already disappointed with me — why would I tell them? My boyfriend, a sweet guy who was born a child of teens himself, had little ambition or desire for further education and would have been thrilled to start a family, but he left the decision in my hands. He couldn’t even get the day off on the procedure day, and I went it alone. I had never even had a pelvic exam before, so it was the first time I felt the humiliating cold of the stirrups on my bare feet. The clinic did provide considerable counseling before and after the procedure, and I limped out in tears. The decision to terminate my first pregnancy is a decision I’ve never regretted, and today, 35 years later, I remain eternally grateful to the visionary leaders, judges, politicians, and activists. They made a choice possible for me to make.
Sometime mid-pandemic, I was sitting around a campfire in the Utah desert, social distancing with a handful of girlfriends. Discussing abortion, we were cataloging the many horrific reasons for legal abortion — a child of rape, an abused mother, fetal abnormalities — when I threw out the question: “But how do you justify me having an abortion just for the sake of it simply not being the right time, right place, or with the right person?” Dr. Giovannina Anthony, obstetrician/gynecologist practicing in Wyoming who is one of a small handful of practitioners who offer (or she did until yesterday!) abortion services in our giant state, didn’t miss a beat with her answer:
“You have a right to explore your sexuality at 19. Your male partner had a right to that as well. Men and women should have the same right to body autonomy. But men do not bear the same burden of the potential outcomes,” said Dr. Anthony. “It is ultimately unjust and unfair for him not to bear that burden. And when you bear that burden, you are not on the same playing field; you are not in the same equal space in pursuing what’s best for you and your future family. A 19-year-old girl knows in her heart if it’s right for her or not. And if it’s right, she will keep it; if it’s not, she won’t.
And if she is forced to keep it against her will, it leads to unstable family units, it leads to poor partner choice, and it leads to poverty. Women who have an unplanned pregnancies and are forced to continue them cannot realize their ultimate potential. They just cannot. It’s not possible.”
Dr. Anthony goes on to explain that in areas where access to abortion is limited, if a woman is wealthy, they will get it somewhere else.
“It’s the poor women who pay the price, and that’s unjust. It is social injustice and trashes our communities and the social fabric of our culture with unstable family units. Many women are forced to stay in relationships with their rapist or unfit partners for a lifetime, which is tragic.”
Sonya Renee Taylor, the brilliant author of “The Body is Not An Apology, says, “After years of racial protests, we have all had to look closely at the social systems that keep white people of privilege in power at the top of the hierarchy ladder and the rest of us groveling up the rungs.” Taylor encourages us to forget trying to climb the ladder and look at ways to break the cultural rungs that support it. Although we are talking about women’s rights here, I will throw in the cost of healthcare and access to higher education as other strategies to keep certain people — women, people of color, the disadvantaged — poor and on the bottom rungs of the social justice ladder, unable ever to reach their potential.
In 1994, the clinic where I had the abortion — All Families Healthcare in Kalispell — was firebombed by Richard T. Andrews, a Washington man who was eventually convicted of scorching seven clinics in Western states. Twenty years later, in 2014, Zachary Klundt broke into the same clinic and lay waste to everything with monetary and sentimental value, leaving women in the Flathead Valley to travel over 100 miles for abortion services. Abortion-rights advocates and providers say such restrictions and clinic closings do not reduce the demand for abortions; instead, they increase the distance patients must travel to receive care and strain the resources of the poor women and clinics that remain.
I didn’t get pregnant again until I was ready — at 39 years old. For twenty years, I traveled the world working as a rafting, ski, and trekking guide. I’d become a writer, an activist, and a successful entrepreneur. I married a mountain guide with whom I had a beautiful, natural pregnancy. Today, my 20-year-old is a junior at Stanford studying architecture, obsessed with social and environmental justice; she’s one of the many brilliant and motivated young people challenging the system and creating real and hopeful change.
I got pregnant unexpectedly for my third time at 44 while living on a remote ranch in Chilean Patagonia (my birth control pills had run out, and I thought I was on my way to menopause). A second child was not in our plans — my daughter was then five, and we thought we were out of the woods of toddlerhood, and I was free to pursue other dreams. Abortion entered my mind then, but only for a split second. It was inconceivable for me at the time to choose abortion — even while doing the genetic testing recommended for a high-risk pregnancy at my age. I was a capable, financially secure, healthy, loving parent. I got my one chance at 19. I have never dwelt on who that aborted child could have become. Still, I know who my 13-year-old son has become — a joyful, intelligent, compassionate ball of potential who is already profoundly aware and concerned about social justice.
Listen to Dr. Anthony on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned on Wyoming Public Radio: Abortion provider says making the service illegal "is destabilizing for family units, communities, and the health care system"
Teton Strong is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.