Rollback of abortion rights triggers heartrending memories for local women
With the right to an abortion guaranteed for half a century, many people had come to take it for granted. But when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that right last June, some women who were of child-bearing age before 1973 recalled the fraught realities and emotions they faced when they didn’t have the ability to plan their lives and their families.
Several long-time Okanogan County residents chose to share their stories to enrich understanding of the situations they faced. Some related not only personal stories, but also the stories of people they cared for as nurses. These women are being identified by pseudonyms to protect their privacy and the privacy of the people who entrusted them with their stories.
Like most lives, theirs were complicated. Some of the women already had children, but didn’t have the financial resources to raise another child. Although some were married, the husband wasn’t equipped to help, either financially or emotionally.
Some struggled with PTSD from military service. Some were dealing with a drinking problem and knew they couldn’t responsibly raise a child. Some actually wanted to be a mother, but other obligations, including military service, made that impossible.
Jennifer decided to speak out because she believes an open discussion about abortion can build compassion and understanding. “The stigma behind abortion has kept personal discussions behind closed doors for too long. The prevalence of these procedures is not recognized,” she said. “If more women’s voices were heard on this topic, perhaps a space of awareness and understanding could be created.”
Jennifer thought about the impact another child would have on her family.“ One day, as I stood at the top of the 10-foot ladder, a picking bag around my neck, with my 2-year-old crying and trying to climb the ladder beneath me, I broke down.” – Jennifer
Jennifer’s husband was a Vietnam veteran who never recovered from the three years he spent at war. The strained marriage ended when their son was 2.
She was on her own, with a job picking apples when she became pregnant again. “One day, as I stood at the top of the 10-foot ladder, a picking bag around my neck, with my 2-year-old crying and trying to climb the ladder beneath me, I broke down,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer thought about the impact another child would have on her family. “The picture in my head was of the following year, when I would have both a newborn and a 3-year-old to be responsible for, all the while trying to work in an orchard. My inner voice screamed at me: ‘What are you thinking?’ When able to procure an abortion, I felt only the relief of an enormous weight lifted from me,” she said.
Several years later, Jennifer had a daughter with a man who did not believe in marriage. “He loved his daughter, but was never faithful to me and had multiple affairs during our years together,” Jennifer said.
“We separated, but he would show up once a year and spend a week or two with us. Every time I hoped that this would be the time we would permanently reunite our family, and my heart broke anew each time he left,” she said. The man refused to use condoms and Jennifer became pregnant again.
Jennifer knew she couldn’t afford to raise another child. In a rural area where abortion wasn’t accessible, she had few options. After an unsuccessful attempt to self-induce an abortion with herbs, Jennifer performed a dangerous physical procedure on herself that resulted in heavy bleeding. She waited overnight, praying for the bleeding to stop. She was lucky that it stopped and that she didn’t develop an infection.
For some women, giving up a child for adoption is a comfortable alternative, but for Jennifer, it was unthinkable. “Could I have given two children up for adoption? NO. I love my children, and most women understand the bond that is forged during pregnancy and birth,” she said.
Stephanie was raised as a Catholic. Although she attended public school, she didn’t receive any instruction in sexual education. Her parents weren’t comfortable explaining the basics, either.
When Stephanie became pregnant in her teens, she was sent to a home for unwed girls and women, where she remained behind closed doors so as not to shame her family. The facility was caring, but “it was a real hiding time,” she said.
The thought of carrying another child, only to give it up for adoption, was devastating.“ I felt like I couldn’t do it again.” -Stephanie
When Stephanie’s daughter was born, the nurse mistakenly brought the infant to her to hold for an hour before the girl was taken away. This was contrary to the common belief — at that time — that any contact would be traumatic for the mother, Stephanie said. And although it was devastating for Stephanie to relinquish her child, she was glad to have met her rather than not to have had that opportunity.
Some years later, Stephanie became pregnant again. She went to a different home where, after women gave birth, they were required to spend 10 days with the child to be sure they wanted to go forward with the adoption. It was a wonderful but emotionally exhausting time, but Stephanie said it helped her realize that her decision on adoption was the right one.
That home also taught the women about their bodies and the reproductive system. “I learned a lot — I hadn’t had it in school,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie, who now has two adult children, became pregnant a third time when her birth control failed. She was drinking, her life was in chaos, and she knew she wasn’t in a position to be a parent. But the thought of carrying another child, only to give it up for adoption, was devastating. “I felt like I couldn’t do it again,” she said.
Stephanie sought out a counselor who connected her with an interfaith network that helped women. They required the women to read accounts by women who’d had abortions — one account by a woman who was grateful she could move ahead with her life without caring for a child, and one who regretted her decision. Then Stephanie was allowed to make her choice.
The network gave Stephanie the name of a contact in Puerto Rico for an abortion. Stephanie called and made an appointment, took two days off work, and traveled all alone to a clinic on the island. After the procedure, she stayed overnight to be sure everything was OK. Then she flew back home and went back to work.
“It didn’t feel shady,” but it was emotional and scary to be alone, Stephanie said. “Then I blocked it out.”
Because of her religious upbringing, Stephanie lived for years with the fear that she would be punished for her pregnancies and abortion and would never have children of her own. “It still feels so painful — it’s just such an imprint on you,” she said.
Although Stephanie didn’t search for the children she gave up for adoption — she didn’t want to interfere with their lives — she yearned to connect with them. Later, she signed up with an organization that maintains a registry for birth mothers and children who want to find their birth parents.
She was immensely grateful when she was contacted, separately, by both her son and her daughter. “It was incredible to hear from them, and wonderful to see them,” Stephanie said. She has a close relationship with the son today.
Clara was serving in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War when she became pregnant for the first time. The Army didn’t allow pregnant women to serve. Clara wanted to continue her service, so she had to terminate the pregnancy.
“ Roe v. Wade gave women and girls hope, a way out of impossible situations, and the ability to plan their families, which benefitted not just them, but their partners and children as well.” – Clara
After she completed her service, Clara became pregnant again when an IUD failed. She was 24, single, very unsettled after the war, and in no shape to raise a child, she said. Even if she’d wanted the child, she worried that there was the risk of an in-vitro injury because of the IUD. So Clara had a second abortion.
After the war, Clara worked as a nurse for 45 years. She recalls the searing stories she heard from women she cared for in nursing homes. “There were women who were poor when they were young, had more children than they could support, and ended up having to give them away. Some had to sell their children,” Clara said. “These stories broke my heart.”
Those women said that if abortion had been an option, they would have chosen it, Clara said.
“Roe v. Wade gave women and girls hope, a way out of impossible situations, and the ability to plan their families, which benefitted not just them, but their partners and children as well,” Clara said.
“I know that many women here in this county have had to have abortions, for many reasons. The decision to have one is not an easy one, and anyone I know who has had to make that decision has had to search hard and deep before making it,” Clara said.
Moving on in life
Jennifer knows that having had more children would have affected other major life decisions. “My current husband of over 30 years would likely not have taken on such a burden when he had his own children, whom I became mother to. More likely, I would have joined the numbers of single mothers existing on the taxpayer dollar, instead of being a contributing member to this community,” Jennifer said.
I feel like it’s up to the woman – it’s not up to me. I don’t think it’s the state’s business at all. It’s a woman’s body. I am very vehement – it makes me very angry that the state could control a woman’s choices.”
Today, Clara lives with her partner and has two biological children and two stepchildren. Her daughter has two children, who have Clara’s three great-grandchildren. Her son has two children, including a newborn. “That makes nine wonderful people who are alive because of those decisions I was able to make, when they were the right thing to do,” Clara said.
When Stephanie was young and influenced by the teachings of the Catholic church, she was opposed to abortion and felt adoption was the right choice. Her views have evolved over the decades, she said.
“I feel like it’s up to the woman — it’s not up to me,” Stephanie said. “I don’t think it’s the state’s business at all. It’s a woman’s body. I am very vehement — it makes me very angry that the state could control a woman’s choices.” This country needs free child care to help women who have children, she said.
Jennifer’s experiences have left her with a personal, visceral understanding of the stakes when women can’t make their own choices. “I find it unexplainable and unacceptable that we are having to fight once more to have control over our own bodies,” she said.
“Previously, I was unable to help my daughter visualize the importance of advocating for women’s rights. She once told me she wished I had not made her so independent and self-reliant. She understands now,” Jennifer said.