I have never taken as many pregnancy tests as I did when I worked at an abortion clinic. I peed on a stick after not having sex for weeks, or when I’d had sex that day, even though I knew the results wouldn’t be accurate. Pregnancy felt contagious—in the air in the clinic waiting room, on the seats in my counseling office. When you hear a dozen stories a day about birth control failure, about women getting pregnant even when they have an IUD and their husband has a vasectomy, you worry.
I wasn’t the only one who was constantly on the alert, but as a newer employee, I was the most obvious. One of my co-workers, a perceptive lady, noticed my jitters and told me not to worry, that as an employee, if I wanted one, I could have an abortion covered completely by our insurance, I could have my partner with me, the whole staff would support me, and on and on. I appreciated this compassion, but she assumed one crucial thing: that I would have an abortion at all. She didn’t push it on me by any means, but assumed, as I had before thinking I was constantly pregnant, that abortion would be my automatic and obvious decision.
Part of my new employee training to work at this clinic was shadowing a patient all day through her abortion experience. I went with her to get her labs checked, her ultrasound, her counseling session. I was with her during her procedure, where I held her hand and we talked the whole time. She told me about her kids, about how she was going to hug them extra hard when she got home, how having this abortion made her value her kids all the more, how she wanted to give them so much and couldn’t afford to sacrifice that for another child. It made me feel vindicated in my work, being present for this woman’s abortion experience.
With the patient’s permission, I went into the lab room for the next part of the training, examining the aborted fetus to make sure the procedure was complete. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to see, but was very curious. Would it really look like the gory posters that the anti-abortion protestors had outside? Would it just look like a period? I had seen abortions through the first trimester. This particular patient’s pregnancy was almost 15 weeks, the last point at which my clinic offered the option of local anesthesia instead of mild sedation.
As usual, I also thought I was pregnant at the time. I was constantly nauseous, had a heightened sense of smell, and my breasts were tender. The pregnancy tests I took were all conveniently too blurry to come out one way or the other.
The lab tech showed me the fetus. I was surprised to see that I recognized some of the parts—not fully developed by any means, certainly not what I would call a baby, but recognizable nonetheless. What I saw didn’t match the anti-abortion posters outside, far from it. But it also didn’t fit my preconceived notions that a 14-to-15 week fetus would look like a few blood clots. It looked more or less like an alien with see-through skin and insect-like eyes. Not a baby, but not nothing.
When I got home that night, I told my partner about my day, something we did every evening. I confessed to him that I thought I might be pregnant, and I didn’t know how pregnant, and I was crying and also happy but mostly epically confused. I knew we weren’t ready to be parents (most of the time I didn’t even want to be a parent, ever). We used reliable birth control. Did I want to be pregnant? What would it mean for us? I remembered an incident earlier in our relationship when 24 hours after a condom broke, I took emergency contraception, and I was sad about taking it, but I also knew it wasn’t the right time to take that risk. This felt like that all over again, except the stakes were higher. It felt like my body, my brain, and my heart were all turning on me, but in separate directions.
I thought about my potential pregnancy, about the possibility of our freaky alien floating comfortably in my belly, how it would look in the lab tech’s office, if I even wanted that, or if that would break my heart. And then another thought occurred to me: was I a bad feminist for feeling so conflicted? Was I going to be kicked out of the pro-choice movement for not knowing absolutely one way or the other if I wanted a baby?
Luckily for me, I hadn’t caught pregnancy from my patients. I got my period a few days later, and was both relieved and disappointed. In the research world and the pro-choice advocacy world, we talk a lot about unintended versus wanted pregnancies. As it turns out, about a quarter of US women identify as ambivalent about pregnancy, that is, neither trying to become pregnant nor trying to avoid it. How can we create a movement that enables us to talk about our deepest emotional concerns and desires related to pregnancy without shaming or pressuring each other? Is it possible for us to encourage each other to use birth control and have open and honest conversations with our partners, while also acknowledging that sometimes these issues go beyond the logical?