(WOMENSENEWS)–The Lovejoy Surgicenter is a flagship abortion clinic in the state of Oregon. A small drab complex located in one of Portland’s wealthier residential neighborhoods, the clinic attracts a regular crowd of anti-abortion protesters, the most persistent of which is a man who has showed up eight hours a day, five days a week for the past decade. Pushing 80, he sits slumped half asleep in a lawn chair, holding a sign reading: “We Will Help You.”
Two months ago I had an abortion (my first) at the Lovejoy. I’m 38 years old, married, and the mother of two children. For some time, I had considered myself distant from the subset of women who might require the services of an abortion provider. Most of my friends who’d had abortions did so when they were in college or in their 20s and early 30s. And it was not an exaggeration to say that I never had sex without birth control. Not until my late 30s anyway.
Even before I got the results of the pregnancy test, I knew what I was going to do. My husband and I were absolutely certain we didn’t want any more children. I was a lifelong supporter of abortion rights, so I didn’t expect many qualms about having one myself.
And yet, mirroring the political vitriol of the national debate, I approached my own abortion with greater anxiety, guilt, and fear than I had anticipated. Equally surprising was the way in which the actual abortion process both deflected those feelings and renewed my sense of female solidarity. In the end, it was the company of women that sustained me.
Layer upon Layer of Guilt
I scheduled the procedure for a Saturday morning, approximately six weeks after my last period–the minimum gestational age required for an abortion. As it turned out, Saturdays are the Lovejoy’s busiest day of the week. Protesters were out in full force, towing billboard-size signs of bloody fetuses up and down the sidewalk.
After two female pro-choice escorts accompanied us inside, my husband and I sat in the cramped, artificially lit waiting room, along with approximately 10 other women, their friends, partners, or parents. Confirming my expectations, I was at least 10 years older than most of the women, in some cases, closer to 20. Some of them looked nonchalant even bored, as they chewed gum and talked about last night’s party or the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Others looked tense and drawn, especially one woman, who sat for 15 minutes saying nothing, holding her partner’s hand.
I tried reading one of the magazines on the table in front of me, a selection that included Glamour and Oprah’s magazine, as well as Sports Illustrated and Automotive World (for the men who came along for support). My anxiety level was at a peak. I hammered myself for not using birth control; I worried about the pain of the procedure itself. And I couldn’t stop feeling guilty: guilty about what I was doing and guilty for not feeling guilty enough about what I was doing. Society excels at instilling such convoluted divisions in and among women. Abortion, of course, is no exception.
I was given an ultrasound and blood tests. A Lovejoy counselor explained the procedure in detail and asked if I had any questions. In the middle of our session, she peeked through the blinds to see if the protesters had gone home. They had, so she pulled the cord, flooding the room with natural light.
More waiting. Then it was time to go into pre-op. My husband kissed me goodbye. As per Lovejoy regulations, no men are allowed in the pre-op room. This was partly because it’s an infection-free zone, said the counselor, and partly because of the presence of other female patients, who might feel uncomfortable wearing their hospital gowns in front of other men. (Female partners are not allowed in pre-op either). A staff person gave me some Valium and Vicodin, then told me to wait a half an hour while the drugs took effect.
Talking with Other Women Relieved the Anxiety
When I got into pre-op, two other women were already in the room, waiting to be called for their abortions. The three of us sat together, munching crackers and holding together our tie-in-the back hospital gowns. There was something very old fashioned about this lack of privacy, but I didn’t find it at all off-putting.
On the contrary, being in the same space with these women helped relieve some of the tension I was experiencing. We talked. We bonded. One of the women, about to make a trip home to her native Bangladesh, had taken a typhoid shot before she knew she was pregnant. The other had been told she couldn’t conceive.
We speculated about the physical pain. “At least it can’t be as bad as childbirth,” I said. “It’s probably like a really bad period,” one of them said.
After a half hour, it was time for the procedure itself. The surgeon did a quick pelvic exam. I felt the sting of the anesthetic needle in my cervix. A fraction of a second later, I heard the roar of the vacuum aspirator and felt intense pressure in my lower abdomen. “Hold my hand and breathe,” the young woman assistant told me. For the first time in my life, I could feel my uterus pumping.
Forty seconds later it was over.
Back in the recovery room, the two women from pre-op and I met up again. We compared notes, recounting tales of relief–and cramping. “It wasn’t so bad,” we all agreed.
Companionship Was a Lucky Accident
A few weeks after my abortion, I asked the administrator of the Lovejoy Surgicenter if the clinic deliberately grouped pre-op and recovery patients in a single room.
Not at all, she said.
“Many women tell me the discussion and bonding with other patients helped them,” she said. “But it’s really a function of inadequate funding and the marginalization of abortion clinics.”
At the one hospital in Portland that performed abortions, she said, I could have had a private room, minus the protesters, with my husband by my side. The cost would have been $2500, compared with the $350 at Lovejoy.
Even if my insurance had covered the fees, I like to think that I wouldn’t have taken the hospital route. Like many marginalized communities, women who are going through an abortion need to find strength in sharing their stories. Discussing my fears and anxieties with my husband, a devoted but ultimately passive listener, was not nearly as reassuring as trading stories with women at the clinic. That kind of continuity of experience is infinitely precious–and infinitely empowering.
A week after my abortion, I returned to the Lovejoy for a follow up appointment. The 80-year-old protester was in his lawn chair out front. Inside, I saw a girl who looked about 17, as well as an older woman, about 35. A rush of feeling came over me. We were all women.
Linda Baker is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore.
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