Accessibility links

Women Who Have Had Abortions Describe Personal Struggles With Complex Issue

Thirty-six years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade, effectively legalizing abortion in America, a spirited debate continues between anti-abortion activists and those who insist on a woman's right to choose to terminate her pregnancy.

But what do women who have actually undergone an abortion say about their ordeal and the impact their choice has had on their personal lives?

While Americans debate the morality of abortion, the procedure has been legal and widely used since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. According to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 45 million abortions in America between 1973 and 2005.


Today, Susanne - who, like the other women in this report, asked that her last name not be used - is the mother of a thriving 10-year-old girl. But in 1991, she was a pregnant college girl with an unreliable boyfriend. She quickly chose to have abortion rather than bring the baby to term, yet she still muses about what or "who" might have been.

"Sometimes I do an age calculation, and I think about how I would have been a parent to that other child if I'd decided to have the baby. Looking back, I think I could have been an adequate parent, but I don't think I could have been as good a parent as I am today," she says.

Susanne has no moral qualms about her decision and adds that having the baby under those circumstances would have posed its own moral difficulties.

"For example," she says, "giving up a child for adoption, or perhaps parenting a child without the support of a spouse, or being connected to a person who may not have been a suitable parent as well."


When Susanne had her abortion in 1991, she could choose from among a large number of abortion clinics where the procedure could be performed professionally, under sanitary conditions. It was not always so.

In 1961, when 22-year-old Marilyn became pregnant, it was an era in which premarital sex and single motherhood were both condemned by the culture, and abortion was still illegal. The ergot and herbs Marilyn's friend recommended as ways to induce miscarriage didn't work.

Desperate, she managed to obtain the name of a woman, a non-professional reputed to perform illegal abortions effectively. She paid $150 - the equivalent of two weeks' pay - to a third party and went to a vacationing friend's fifth-floor walkup apartment, which had no phone, and submitted to the procedure.

"It was a very lonely experience for me," Marilyn recalls. "It was like the old proverbial coat hanger where she actually opened the cervix and put a tube in it so that the fluid would drain out and the fetus would abort."

Marilyn says that her illegal abortion was not particularly unsanitary, but it was painful and highly anxiety-producing.

"Of course, you don't know whether you are doing any damage. This was a very frightening situation to have to go through that without any kind of a backup all."

Marilyn says she is glad to see that the culture has changed since that time.

"Now, it is so much easier to have a child without a marriage around it. There are people screaming [clamoring] for children. But the freedom to choose must be maintained, because there are all kinds of extenuating circumstances."


Medical tests such as amniocentesis, which can indicate if a developing fetus has a birth defect such as Down Syndrome or spina bifida, were not available when Marilyn had her abortion, but they were in 1998. That's when a positive amniocentesis test for Down Syndrome prompted Jamie, a married occupational therapist, to choose to abort the baby she and her husband had hoped to have.

Jamie says her unilateral decision created some tension in her marriage and continues to be a topic of discussion with her husband.

"Recently he asked me, 'What if we could tell if a child was blind or not? Would that be something you would terminate a pregnancy for?'" she says. "I thought it was an interesting question… but I'd have to think about it some more. We have to be very careful."


Of course, not everyone has a partner with whom she can discuss her situation. Ursula, a 31-year-old programmer, has had two abortions, one when she was 19 in suburban Massachusetts, and one very recently. She says she felt deeply isolated the first time, but not the second time.

"The worst part of it when I was 19 was feeling so very alone. I just couldn't say this to anyone because of what they [might] think. Whereas now, especially with the Internet, it's so common to hear about it, and I've spoken to so many friends about it. It's like, 'Whatever! It happens! We'll help you through it!'"

VOA asked Ursula if she felt any sense of grief or loss following either of her abortions.

"I suppose that with any endeavor that you start that you can't necessarily carry to fruition, there is a sense of loss," she say.

But Ursula says that, more than anything else, she viewed her temporary pregnancy as an inconvenience.

"There is a sense of lost time and loss effort. I work full-time, and I was exhausted."

Susan "D"

Some women go into the abortion clinic feeling completely "pro-choice," but waiver in their opinions after the abortion itself. Susan "D" felt unexpectedly overwhelmed following her procedure, which she describes as "not especially painful, but horrible."

"[Afterwards] … I felt I that had totally interfered with life. I had stopped life! And, in my opinion, it is a kind of murder. You just can't get around [the fact] that you are killing something that, had you left it alone, would grow into a human being."

Susan "D" says she now understands people who oppose abortion, but says, that for her, abortion is a complicated issue, without clear-cut answers.

"People use birth control. Condoms break. Things don't work. People get raped. And you can't force a woman to have that child."

Susan "D" ascribes her own pregnancy to simple carelessness.

"And I won't deny I was glad I had the choice [whether or not to have an abortion], even though I despised myself for making that decision."

While women in the United States retain the freedom to end their pregnancies - within certain limits - the abortion rights issue remains a live wire in American politics that sparks impassioned debate and legal battles between defenders and opponents. Whether it remains legal or not, abortions will almost certainly continue to be performed, and women will continue to bear the complex burden of their choice.