By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
A few years ago I was at a Pirates tailgate with friends, and a woman I didn’t know asked about the small hanger tattoo on my ankle. “Is it because you love fashion?” I told her that it’s a reminder to myself of what happens when abortion is made illegal—women die. She said she didn’t know anyone who’d had an abortion. I told her that she most certainly did—one in four people with a uterus will have an abortion. We all know people who have ended a pregnancy, but many folks don’t feel safe or comfortable disclosing it because of the rhetoric, shame and hate that is ubiquitous around the subject.
I’ve had an abortion. Since multiple states have passed bills that will criminalize abortions and miscarriages, it seemed like the time to be vocal about my experience. This story is not for people who think ending a pregnancy is callous or unfeeling, or those who believe that unplanned pregnancies should be carried to term to teach folks a lesson about personal responsibility. This story is for anyone who feels isolated, shamed or silenced about their personal experiences.
I don’t have what some might consider a “good” abortion story. My pregnancy wasn’t the result of rape or incest. I had an abortion at about 7 weeks, too soon to tell if fetal anomalies were present or if the pregnancy might cause other complications. I was pregnant and I didn’t want to be, so I had an abortion.
After working on the 2012 Obama campaign in Colorado, I was back in Pittsburgh looking for another job—and without insurance. I went to Planned Parenthood to get a refill on my birth control and a pap smear. When the nurse told me that the routine pregnancy test I had taken came back positive, I was in absolute shock. This was impossible! While I had always been pro-abortion rights, I hadn’t thought about what I might do personally, and had been very intentional about never having to find out.
This wasn’t how I was supposed to feel the first time I find out I was pregnant! I didn’t know if I wanted kids, but I knew that if I did I would want to provide my child with everything my parents gave to me and more. At that point in my life, I wasn’t even sure if my debit card was going to cover parking. The Planned Parenthood staff noted that had I come in any earlier, my pregnancy might not have even registered on a test.
I was lost in an ocean of feelings, and then had a moment of clarity. “This is so amazing, I am so excited that you’re even possible,” I said to the cluster of cells in my uterus. “But I’m just not ready for you yet. Please try again in a few years.” I made the soonest available appointment for an abortion, and since it would be weeks away, I asked for information about adoption as well, thinking that since I had time I could at least look into it.
My body did not react well to the pregnancy. I lost weight because I couldn’t keep food down. I was exhausted. My coworkers asked if I was on drugs because I was so out of it. I called a few adoption agencies and was dismayed to find that medical bills for prenatal care wouldn’t be covered until the seventh month. I also considered the psychological reality of carrying a baby to term—to feel them grow and kick in my stomach, to go through giving birth, to hold them in my arms only to give them away. I wouldn’t be able to do that. I never realized how callous and offensive it is to suggest that folks with unplanned pregnancies “just choose adoption” as if that isn’t a MASSIVE fucking deal. Other than the psychological factors at play, early abortion is 14 times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term. Adoption is an alternative to parenting, not pregnancy.
I had told my mom, but I didn’t want my dad to know. He was very Catholic. Like “went to the seminary and left right before becoming a priest because he didn’t think he was worthy” Catholic. My mom promised she wouldn’t tell him, and then did anyway. He told me that he knew and wanted to talk about it. I was crushed. I had made my decision, but I didn’t want him to know. He pressed the conversation—“Jessi, I want to talk about this.” He said that my mom mentioned I spoke with an adoption agency. “Dad, to be clear, if I were to do that I would give it to a gay couple.” He immediately said, “and what a blessing that would be for them.” I shook my head. “Honestly, dad, I can’t do that. I’m going to have an abortion.” He continued, “that’s your choice, and I support your decision.” “Dad, you think that this is a sin,” I replied. Without hesitation he said, “Jessi, I’ve had premarital sex. I’ve sinned in my life. God gave you free will and a conscience to choose what is right for you. I love you.” If my mom hadn’t told him, I wouldn’t have had the chance to see his grace and compassion in that moment.
I went to Planned Parenthood, feeling strangely calm as I walked past the protesters. During my ultrasound, the technician asked if I wanted to look. I glanced over, and saw a blip on the screen. She said it was about the size of my pinky nail. That image was a far cry from the gross, misleading pictures protesters held outside. I know that what I looked at had the potential to be more, but in that moment, it was the best choice for me. The peace remained. I took the first dosage of mifepristone and headed home.
Driving home, I called my best friend to update him on the procedure. He commented that the tone in my voice had changed—it was the first time I sounded like myself in weeks. Like 95% of folks who have abortions, my immediate feeling was relief. The next day I took the second dose of medication, had about a day of what felt like a heavy period and that was it.
But, months later, I was still dealing with the shame of even having an unplanned pregnancy. That changed one evening as I was working as a server, and one of my coworkers suspected she was pregnant. I suggested she take a pregnancy test as soon as possible, so she knew her options. She exclaimed, “just because YOU had an abortion doesn’t mean I’m going to!” The kitchen went quiet. I took a deep breath, and said loudly “Yes. I did have an abortion. That does not mean I think you should, and how dare you try to shame me for my decision.”
That night, an 18-year-old woman we worked with sent me a message online. “Hey, I just wanted to say I’m glad you stood up for yourself today. I had an abortion last year, and only my boyfriend knows. Thank you.”
Not everyone is in a safe space to “come out” about their abortion story, and that is valid. Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have, and if it means more folks will be comfortable sharing their truth, or feeling less alone, deal me in. I will not be shamed, and I am not alone.