I found out I was pregnant in a Starbucks restroom just weeks after I started my freshman year at Penn. I was 18 and I did everything I could to keep it a secret. If I bought a test on campus I risked fellow students seeing me, so I walked about 15 blocks downtown to the Rittenhouse CVS. After that I went to the Starbucks across the street where I hyperventilated until my tears dried up enough to go outside again.
I knew immediately that having an abortion was the right decision. In fact, I never thought about the concerns that would soon be pounded into my head by the state of Pennsylvania, nor the pro-life pickets that I ignored outside the doors of Planned Parenthood on the 12th and Locust. The bright future I had aspired to – even denied – was now in jeopardy, so I had to do whatever was necessary to fix it.
Yet I still felt ashamed, which spurred my efforts to remain calm. Growing up, I was raised with a terrible fear of that day. Getting pregnant in high school or college was not an option, let alone having an abortion.
At the time, my only strategy for moving forward was steel lockdown, although it wasn’t (and remains) unsustainable. Being able to connect with a community that understands the messy, conflicting nature of these feelings would have changed my sanity for the better.
I understand that the current roadblocks to safe abortion are traumatic and unnecessary, and I argue in this article that sharing our stories publicly can not only show how impossible it is to escape emotionally unscathed, but can also help others who might be processing their experiences in painful isolation.
Instead, the government made what I was trying to endure more emotional than clinical. At the first appointment, the nurse gathered me and the other patients to watch a mandatory video that emphasized the gravity of our decision and presented misrepresented facts about the percentage of us who would later regret it.
After that, I had to undergo a urine and blood test and a transvaginal ultrasound before I could continue. In retrospect, I doubt the medical necessity of such invasive procedures since the requirements vary so much in different jurisdictions. For example, at the height of COVID-19, the UK government was quick to allow access to medical abortion pills by post, and doctors and healthcare professionals have advocated maintaining the program as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
Abortion regulations in Pennsylvania have evolved since 2010. Patients must now receive a state-mandated consultation, which includes information that will be deferred to prevent the decision to have an abortion, and then wait 24 hours before the procedure or medication is provided. This delay forces many to travel long distances to a clinic more than once and take extra time off work.
At my second appointment, I stayed in the clinic all day just to get two pills. On top of that, the whole thing cost $800 that I had in cash from my high school diploma. Currently in Pennsylvania, health plans offered under the Affordable Care Act can only cover abortions when the patient’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.
Evidently, unequal access to abortion in the United States is nothing new.
The LA Times reported that the University of California and California State University will provide abortion pills to students for about $50. Even some colleges outside of California, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Illinois Chicago, are planning to make medical abortion more accessible to students.
I am not writing this to explain why Penn should follow suit. It’s easy for me to say that abortions should be cheaper and more accessible. It’s harder for me to admit that I’ve retained a stigma about sharing my experiences, even as the fragility of the right to choose has become more apparent. Telling a friend about it might be an exaggeration. Telling a colleague would be unprofessional.
I’m writing this now because I’m concerned that a future employer might find this on Google. That fear was planted there through a process that is inherently hostile and condescending. These regulations have an insidious influence on how people process their experiences of having an abortion. While they are still in place, one power we have is not to let them silence us.
Six states require patients to view their ultrasound and have the nurse describe the picture before they are given an abortion.
Some patients may roll over to see a stubborn accumulation of cells, while others bite their lip to hold back tears. Regardless of the reaction, such measures are designed to wear people down, to manipulate us. They’re just building on the shame I grew up with.
After the fall of Roe v. Wade needs serious work to be done — and maybe we’re waiting for Penn to provide $50 worth of abortion pills in the future. In the meantime, let’s not go backwards. I hope to be frank and share my experience of having an abortion while at Penn helps other students navigate similar terrain.
BRIDGET MCGEEHAN is a 2014 graduate of the College of English and lives in London. your email is [email protected].