“You will see me on the news.” Stella* said this with complete seriousness, the gravity of her statement not hitting me at once.
“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
“I’ll throw myself down the stairs. I’ll do what it takes. I need to get rid of this baby.”
Stella presented at my clinic at 28 weeks in her pregnancy. She had no insurance, had become pregnant as a result of rape, and because she had still been getting her periods until about one month prior, had no idea that she was past the legal abortion limit in Pennsylvania. She said this to me from behind sunglasses, her hands tensely gipping the chair’s armrests. I can only imagine the thoughts going through her head. I talked to her about the possibility of going to Kansas (Dr. Tiller’s clinic was still an option at that time) or Nebraska, but she didn’t have the money for a first trimester abortion in her home state, much less the finances to travel across the country. As I was explaining what her options were, including adoption and trying to fundraise to travel to another state, she got up and left. She didn’t slam the door. She collected her things and without looking at me, closed the door and walked out of the clinic.
I didn’t see her on the news. Despite the calls I made to her apartment, her place of work, her partner, I have no idea what happened to this woman. What I do know is that her desperation and anxiety were palpable, and I felt powerless to help her, to empower her to make the right decision for herself regarding her pregnancy.
In the wake of the tragedy of Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, where both women and viable babies were murdered, we have to have an open conversation about abortion restrictions. It is possible that my patient above ended up at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic; I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that women who do seek later abortions, no matter how uncomfortable they make us, deserve nothing less than access to compassionate, respectful, quality medical care. If we don’t want these women to be hurt or worse, killed by amateur doctors willing to break the law, we need to give them legal options to terminate their pregnancies.
Sometimes in the pro-choice movement, myself included, we get distracted by philosophical disagreements or hypothetical situations. We lose the stories of individual women seeking our services and focus on the what-ifs instead of the realities. What happened in my clinic that day was certainly not a common occurrence, but years later, I still think of this woman. What happened to her? What is my responsibility to her? What is the movement’s responsibility to her? The only answer that makes sense to me, that corresponds to my value of reproductive justice, is to demand better access to safe abortion, as late in the pregnancy as necessary.
What does this look like in practice? This means that even if we don’t personally agree with a woman’s reasons for abortion, if that’s what she needs, we help her access those services. Even if we wouldn’t have an abortion in her situation, we provide her with safe, affordable, medically sound treatment anyway. The job of the pro-choice movement, of abortion providers, is not to condemn or judge women for their reproductive health decisions. Our job is to support them, as best we can, and make sure that they can access the services they need. I only wish I could’ve done this for Stella.
* Name changed.