“The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” – William James
I’ve been watching the news, much like we all have, with great intrigue of late. The Republican candidate for the office of President is being asked to provide copies of his tax refunds for a large number of fiscal years, and he has declined to offer any more than two years worth. He has stated staunchly that he will not release any more information on the topic, that the American people have all the information they need with regards to his financials, and that this is a matter of private information that need not be discussed further. I can’t help but laugh at this, especially when I consider that this candidate’s party has worked very hard to turn the personal matters of women across the country into a very public debate and yet, very few people are putting their foot down to say “Enough already – you don’t get to make decisions about our bodies any more – end of discussion!” This begs the question: why do Americans tolerate privacy when it comes to money but not to medicine? Why do Americans respect women so little that the privacy of a woman to make reproductive health choices with her doctor must also involve her senator and her senator’s priest? Why do Americans continue to allow the systematic shaming of 51% of the U.S. population?
I was once traveling on a plane from Orlando, Florida after a family vacation, where I found myself sitting next to a woman in her mid 40’s, who was just as chatty as I am. We found that we had plenty in common: she happened to be from Upstate New York, just like me, and she happened to be returning from the Virgin Islands because the beach is her favorite respite, just like me. I felt an instant connection to this woman. I felt she was a kind, compassionate, funny lady and I enjoyed her sense of humor, her stories, and indeed, her attitude in general. I felt safe talking with her about all sorts of things: my recent & tumultuous break up with a man I had felt I’d marry and start a family with, the miscarriage that occurred in the aftermath of that relationship’s demise, the challenges of being away from my family and closest friends during such a traumatic time. I shared intimate stories with this woman, whom I will call Annie, and I did so because my gut instinct told me that she was a safe person to talk with, to share with.
And yet, despite discussing the loss of a pregnancy, the ugliest of break ups, the intimate details of internet dating, and a plethora of other personal experiences, I had to think twice before I answered her seemingly harmless question: “So, what do you do for a living?”
At the time, I was a nurse in the recovery room of an abortion care facility. In addition to my duties as a nurse doing patient intake for procedures, medicating patients, caring for women during their procedures, and preparing women to go home after their procedure with the appropriate aftercare information, I had also begun training as a counselor at this facility. This role saw me talking with women about their choices and how they had come to the decision to terminate their pregnancy, being mindful to ensure that this was the woman’s choice, and not one as a result of coercion from her partner, her family, or any other force in her life. Every day that I came to work, I was forced to walk from my car to the front door of my job through a crowd of protesters, some of whom merely prayed quietly and offered me prayer cards, while others attempted to block my entrance into work while screaming and calling me hate filled names like “Baby Killer”. I knew firsthand how difficult it was to BE a nurse at an abortion care facility and so as a result, I also knew how difficult it was to TELL someone that I was a nurse at an abortion care facility. And so when Annie innocuously asked me what I did for a living, I hesitated with good reason. Here I was on a plane 30,000 feet in the air, and unsure of whether my seatmate would accept my answer with support or opposition. It was a familiar problem for me, because the fact is, it’s not easy to say you work in an abortion care facility and it’s even harder to say you’ve had an abortion in a culture that has turned a women’s intimate choices about her own personal healthcare into a national debate fit for all ears. But why is that?
1.37 million abortions happen in the United States every year, which is roughly 3, 700 abortions a day. 52% of those are performed for women under the age of 25. It is estimated that 43% of all women will have at least one abortion by the age of 45 and that 7 in 10 women of reproductive age are sexually active. 98% of women who have ever had sex report having used at least one form of birth control. 62% of women of reproductive age currently use contraception, which is double that of the 31% of women who don’t use contraception because of issues such as infertility; current pregnancy; post partum; sexually inactive; and those who are actively trying to become pregnant. This leaves 7% - that’s seven percent – of women of reproductive age at risk of unwanted pregnancies.** The numbers don’t lie, really – Women are having abortions. Women are using contraception. Women are having sex. And yet, I still worry about telling a relative stranger that for my job, I help women choose the appropriate birth control for their lifestyle, that I assist women in discussing the realities of their pregnancy & how they will move forward in managing either its continuance or termination, and that I hold women’s hands as they leave the recovery room of a facility safe in the knowledge that they have received quality, legal healthcare with dignity & respect. My voice is stifled because of fear, and its representative of what women who choose abortion must live with every day. And simply put, this is not fair and it must change.
As it turns out, my gut told me that it would be safe to share with Annie what my real job was. So instead of saying to Annie, “Oh, I’m a nurse in women’s health care”, I told her, “I am a nurse in the recovery room of an abortion care facility. I help women before and after their procedures, and I also do some counseling for the facility, which is the first step in obtaining an abortion where I live.” Annie’s face was frozen in a half smile, and for a brief moment I feared that I’d made the wrong choice. And then, a tear rolled down Annie’s cheek. And she shared a story with me that I will never forget and one that I will share with you now:
Annie had a 17 year old daughter who was graduating high school that year. She was excited to be attending a respected state university and looking forward to a career in teaching. Her daughter had a long term boyfriend and it was just after Christmas at the end of the past year that Annie’s daughter & boyfriend came to her to tell her that she was pregnant. Annie shared with me the very raw emotions of learning of her daughter’s unplanned pregnancy: the anger, the sadness, the fear. She asked her daughter what she wanted to do and her daughter stated tearfully & with eyes full of fear and angst that she had talked to a few facilities on the phone about her options and that she believed an abortion was the best decision to secure the best life & future for all concerned parties. Annie did not agree with abortion, but she wanted to support her daughter the best she could and despite the conflict it presented to Annie spiritually, she admitted that it was a relief of sorts that this choice was available to her daughter, whose life seemed ready to crumble into pieces in front of her. Annie prayed for several days about this personal dilemma, and ultimately felt that God would always respect her and her daughter and that through these conversation s of prayer she was able to quiet the fear that society would judge her daughter & family without knowing the monstrous impact a pregnancy would have on her daughter’s young life. So Annie took her daughter to the clinic where she spoke with counselors and had ultrasounds and ultimately solidified her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Annie was, in her words, overwhelmed with a “guilty sense of relief”. And then, like 3,699 other women ever day, Annie’s daughter had an abortion. And Annie told no one. Not her daughter’s father, not her best friend whom she’d known for 20+ years, not the coworker whose sister had also had an abortion and spoke openly about amongst their colleagues. Annie kept her daughter’s abortion deep inside her and uttered nothing about it to anyone. She felt shame building within her spirit and she longed to discuss the situation with someone – anyone, in fact. And then she met me. Annie told me that the minute I told her that I was a nurse in an abortion care facility she knew that God was sending her the affirmation she needed to move forward knowing she had done the right thing for her daughter. She knew in her heart that God was saying to her that she could share this story, how it affected her & her family, and not feel ashamed. She told me, through tears, that when I proudly shared the work I do as a nurse in helping women, she felt a strong connection to not just me and my professional experience, but to her daughter as well. That there were people unafraid to lift their voices and share their stories, gave Annie hope and affirmation that she had nothing to be ashamed of and furthermore that she hoped her daughter was as proud of herself as Annie was for making the choice that was best for *her* and no one else. Annie eventually wiped her tears and thanked me, and we parted ways at the end of our flight with a hug. I will never forget Annie and I know she will never forget me.
But why is this story so unique? Why does it take an isolated place miles upon miles in the air with a stranger to talk about abortion and who or how it has affected your life and the life of those you love, positively? Why do we continue to perpetuate this climate of silence, of shame against those who exercise their freedom of choice? 43% of women will have had an abortion by the time they turn 45 years old. And that’s 43% of women who are being bullied into speechlessness. How will YOU help to remind those 43% that their voices matter? How can we all remind woman that they should not be ashamed for taking spiritual & physical control of their bodies? How will we change the negative culture of shaming women for not only answering God’s call to pray but for listening to his answers and applying that personal interaction as they see fit in their lives? It has been said that oppression can only survive through silence. So if you ask me, it’s time to make some noise.
~ Joey Bellerdine
**Statistics courtesy of The Guttmacher Institute. (http://www.guttmacher.org/sections/abortion.php)