Another afternoon had fallen over the clinic, the morning bustle turned sleepy lull. In the waiting area, the patients seemed more sedate than I’d come to expect on such days.
Perfumes mingled in the air and dissipated with every opening of the door as patients or their companions entered or left, ignoring as best they could the protesters in the parking lot.
I was invited to leave the front desk and enter the small hallway where a doctor and certified nursing assistant stood, focused on a tray situated on a countertop in front of them.
I was told to put on a blue paper smock, paper mitts, and a mask. My fingers felt unsure touching the crinkly paper.
“This one’s about nine weeks.” The doctor studied and turned over the little bits of blood and matter in the tray with an instrument. Our very pregnant CNA took notes.
I observed the fetus as it was surveyed and reported—all the parts of a fetus needing accounting, because fetal matter left in the woman’s uterus can cause complications. The doctor’s voice brought me back as she suggested that I’d be a good candidate to help with noting fetal measurements on future abortion days.
I was the receptionist at the only feminist women’s health care facility that offered abortion in my adopted county in the Pacific Northwest. To me, this was a pro-choice activist’s dream job. The fact that the job offer came just five days after I myself had traveled a couple of counties away for an abortion just made the job seem ever more appropriate, possibly fated.
I embarked on my activist dream job in earnest. Now I was looking at the remains of a fetus in a tray with a sense of awe I couldn’t yet place.
There are photos of me holding a megaphone, standing in the gazebo of our downtown park. After the march from the Capitol building to the rally itself, the last thing I wanted to do was travel to the west side of town for what would be my first pregnancy test ever. Later that afternoon, I left behind a urine sample at the HMO clinic and was told I could call for the results after four.
At four sharp, I sat on the couch and punched the numbers on the phone.
A perky female voice answered. After telling her the reason for my call, she asked, Which way do you want it to be?
I started to say something, sighed, said nothing.
The test came out positive, she replied after an awkward moment. My breath caught in my throat. Another moment of silence eclipsed everything until she said, It sounds like that’s not the news you wanted. Here’s who to contact.
I was twenty-four, just a few months shy of twenty-five. A few weeks prior, newspapers around the country, including ours, noted the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I hung up the phone. I had crashed into my fertility.
I’d always felt like I was on one side of a fence; my friends who had abortions stood on the other side. I was holding their hands through this fence, but we were indeed separated. I was perfectly content to stay on my side of the fence for as long as possible, if not forever.
Back then, I often collected statistics and rational, practical analyses of most issues in order to compose arguments that would stand up in discussions and even in the most personal dilemmas. My notebooks were filled with talking points to make my case or compose a talk about the latest issue I was involved in. In the case of women’s reproductive rights, I was well-versed in what I believed were the most important facts.
Women average about thirty years of potential fertility. One article I read in a progressive magazine told me that forty-six out of 100 women (presumably American, presumably with insurance coverage…so many things to presume) would have at least one abortion in their lives. One (or two, and even three) unintended pregnancies in thirty years seemed pretty low in that context.
I was buffered by facts, padded with statistics. Pregnant, I wanted to hear about actual experiences, not talking points, not rhetoric.
I opened my black address book. My hand scrawled red curlicues and circles on the edge of each page as I called every friend I knew who had had an abortion. I had to abandon my fact sheets and statistical notes, and surrender to the fact that I was now going to join the women on the other side of the fence.
I worked next to a pregnant woman four days a week at the clinic. She’d had more than one abortion herself and now assisted women during their own procedures. People constantly asked her, Isn’t it weird working here while you’re pregnant? Don’t you find it hard?
Their questions reminded me of the phone conversation I had with a customer service representative of my HMO when I called to inquire about coverage. It went like this:
Does my coverage include abortion?
Ahhh. Voluntary termination of pregnancy.
Let me see. His tone was friendly. He paused. In that pause, I could hear the click of the computer keyboard under his fingertips. I could practically hear him searching for something to say.
Abortion…such an ugly word, he finally said. And then, Yes, voluntary termination of pregnancy is covered. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked him. The part-time state job I was leaving to work full-time at the clinic offered me the kind of insurance I needed for facing this unwanted pregnancy.
There was no dialogue to be had in this instance. I had to accept his comment and move forward.
It also wasn’t until long after I hung up the phone that I realized there was a language to consider and learn. It was the protective, sterile coating that voluntary termination of pregnancy provided, instead of the word people often found shameful, ugly, or rife with political meaning. It was the doctor’s office and insurance carrier’s vocabulary substituted for the more common designation, and I would sometimes find it useful later when explaining the procedure to countless patients.
When people asked my co-worker if she found it difficult, or unsavory, to be working at the clinic while pregnant, she told them, No. It’s not weird, or hard. In fact, she told me in private, she was easily irritated by women who couldn’t utter the words ‘abortion’ or ‘termination.’ Eventually I felt exactly the same way.
In January of that year, 1998, protestors and demonstrators turned out in many cities across the country for the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Norma McCorvey, otherwise known as “Jane Roe,” was no longer a representative of abortion rights. She, had, in fact, been baptized three years before in a swimming pool as part of her conversion to Christianity, and ended up working for Operation Rescue.
Days after the anniversary, a clinic bombing maimed Emily Lyons, a nurse at a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that same year, Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician who provided abortion services, would be murdered in his home, the soup he had been warming going untouched once the bullets hit the window glass. More similar stories, too many, would follow, right up to the present time.
On that day in which I witnessed the aborted fetus in a tray, after finally removing the smock and the mask, I returned to the clinic desk. The last patient left the clinic, and soon after, I was set free to ride my bicycle home.
I thought about what I had seen in the tray that afternoon as I pedaled, knowing I’d want to talk about it with my boyfriend, but not yet knowing the words or the emotions I might express. By day’s end, I had seen one more fetus, estimated at fourteen weeks, a rare occurrence at our clinic. The image felt burned into my brain.
As I locked my bike to the post outside my front door, I remembered the Operation Rescue posters I’d seen when passing by a protest, or when I’d come face to face with demonstrators. It was obvious they were looking for a particular response, and what more provocative way to accomplish this than to have posters of two-inch aborted fetuses enlarged to the size of the six-foot-tall anti-choice protestor holding the sign?
And still, the size of the fetus, or the poster, didn’t matter.
In the days after, I realized that my beliefs were not fundamentally changed. In fact I believed, more so than ever, that it takes immeasurable courage and compassion, strength and caring, to choose to have a child—and equal amounts of the same to choose not to have a child. The choice of either could be, for any particular woman, sacred.
Wendy C. Ortiz is a writer and a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at a community counseling center. Wendy holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has been a creative writing teacher of both youth in juvenile detention facilities and college students, a journalist, library worker, and editor and publisher of a handbound literary journal. She received a B.A. from The Evergreen State College in 1995 and lived in Olympia, Washington for eight years before returning to her hometown of Los Angeles, where she lives now with her partner and daughter.