Bearing Witness
May 21, 2013 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Private Ceremonies. "Most women don’t talk about their abortions and miscarriages. Virtually none go through the experience with a loved one at their side. The greatest gift an abortion counselor can give is to bear witness, to be with a woman as she goes through this private journey, to witness her strength and weakness, her grief, her relief, her pain." A first person essay from a former abortion counselor.
posted by zarq (34 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
That's a beautiful punch in the gut.

I was prepared to be annoyed from the quote here, but that didn't do it justice.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:02 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

That was a phenomenal article.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:06 AM on May 21, 2013

I went with two friends on two separate occasions as each of them had an abortion. It was, in a couple of words, pretty awful for each friend. They went through an uncomfortable-making medical procedure and there was this weird aura of shame hanging over the proceedings, especially as each friend was trying to keep her abortion a secret. The staff at each place was perfunctory at best, not comforting at all as each friend came up groggily out of the "twilight sleep." The most uncanny part of the second friend's abortion was that it was conducted at a facility that also seemed to be an elder care home, so there were all these senior citizens in the halls in their wheelchairs and walkers while young fetuses were being scurried away in little silver chalices. I am glad I was there for my friends and I hope it helped them.
posted by Lynsey at 11:08 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

What a balanced, non-judgmental take on a tough issue.
posted by cranberry_nut at 11:09 AM on May 21, 2013

I've witnessed both abortion and miscarriage firsthand more often than I'm comfortable thinking about.

But now imagine if, every time a woman had a miscarriage, she had to report it to the police within 24 hours or potentially face Class 1 Misdemeanor charges.

That's the "pro-life" view of how to address these kinds of personal tragedies. As if people don't already suffer enough shame and grief in their personal lives.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:15 AM on May 21, 2013 [23 favorites]

So heartbreaking but full of beauty, bravery and compassion. Thank you for posting it.
posted by billiebee at 11:23 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is VA trying that again? If I'm remembering right, the first time it was pulled from consideration after a lot of women sent in bloody (I'm assuming fake blood) pads and tampons.
posted by rtha at 11:24 AM on May 21, 2013

Mod note: If you could make an effort to not make this into a "hey guys let's all fight about terrible abortion legislation" it would be a kindness to the original post which is not about that.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:26 AM on May 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

all i can say is wow.

just wow.
posted by stormpooper at 11:26 AM on May 21, 2013

You're right of course Jessamyn. I'm sorry for bringing the political aspects into it at all, but I just keep imaging how horrible it would have been to have something like that thrown in our faces too when my wife and I were going through our losses and it's so hard to be rational about this stuff.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:30 AM on May 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I recently was at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Something that struck me was how depressing and lonely that place was.

It actually took me two attempts just to get in the door -- and that was with a confirmed appointment. First time, the security guard with the metal-detector wand asked me if I had anything electronic on me. I had my cell phone in my pocket. I was told to leave and go put it in my car; phones are forbidden inside (because they typically have cameras built in, and no camera is allowed past the door).

So I left it in the car and came back. And showed photo ID which was checked against the appointment list for the day. And was metal-detected and patted down. And then had to do it again because you can't fill out the paperwork without listing an emergency contact number, so I had to go back to my car, get my phone, look up someone's number, write it down on a post-it note, leave the phone again, and come back in.

And then I was in the waiting area, which did not have any pairs of people, only individuals sitting by themselves with as much distance as possible between them and everyone else. I found myself unconsciously keeping my head down and trying to avoid eye contact with other human beings, because that's the vibe you get.

This being an extremely conservative part of the country, I understand why it is this way. But holy fuck is it sad to see.

(once out of the waiting room and actually in the medical areas, everyone was very friendly and positive and upbeat, of course, but the lingering psychological impact of what you have to do to get to that point kinda wiped it out)
posted by ubernostrum at 11:36 AM on May 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

That was an amazing read. More than a few women I met online while I was involved in advocating for women in birth were not only birth doulas, but abortion doulas. There are midwives who do this, also, though for safety reasons, it's not something they advertise.
posted by emjaybee at 11:36 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

As an aside, women who give-up their babies in adoption also experience similar (yet subtly different) levels of grief and feelings of loss, doubt, etc. Unfortunately, most agencies don't provide counseling or support after the papers are signed. Many, not even before.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:39 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've know a fair share of women who have done this, and they are stronger than I can describe. I've worked the front line of this; shielding women through protestors to the clinic, but even as I was training for my PhD in bioethics, I didn't feel prepared to do the job these women do. I wish every clinic had the resources to have one available for every patient.
posted by dejah420 at 11:41 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting this, zarq.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:44 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

ubernostrum, I worked at a PP in NJ during college in the 90's. The differences are stark. There was no concern about cell phones or cameras. No metal detectors. The clinic tried to keep no one in the main waiting room for very long. There were protestors outside nearly all the time when the clinic was open, and one of my jobs was to escort people through them. But while the protestors were nasty and harassing of people who tried to come into the clinic, we honestly didn't expect them to try to force their way in. It was a very different time.

MartinWisse: " I was prepared to be annoyed from the quote here, but that didn't do it justice."

Agreed. This article hit me hard. Took me a long time to decide how to word the post and wish I'd been able to do a better job of describing it.
posted by zarq at 11:53 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Between 8:00 and 5:00, I could meet a twenty-one-year-old mother of three who wanted to get off welfare and go back to school; a thirty-six-year-old new into recovery for substance abuse; or a ten-year-old, the victim of a rape, wearing fuzzy blue slippers and carrying a teddy bear. I could meet an upstanding member of her church who had had an affair, a prep school student who couldn’t bear to disappoint her mother, a homeless mother who couldn’t take care of another child.
posted by gaspode at 11:55 AM on May 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

zarq, this was in Kansas City. There weren't any protestors outside, though again given what this part of the country can be like I understand why they take the precautions they do.

It was just the starkness of the isolation that hit me. No family members/partners/best friends/whatever there with someone. No phone call or text message of support from someone who couldn't be there in person. Just the complete feeling of "you are alone here" while sitting in the waiting area. As soon as my appointment was done and I was back outside I just sat in my car and grabbed my phone so I could get a feeling of humanity again.
posted by ubernostrum at 12:12 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my soon-to-be spouse had an abortion at a clinic in Vancouver in 1990, I was not allowed to see her from when they admitted her to when they released her (that is, I couldn't see her in recovery), and they wouldn't release her with me because I didn't have vehicle to take her home in (we used public transportation) because that was a rule of theirs. She was actually lying awake alone and feeling terrible and upset in recovery for several hours until they released her. So even though her partner accompanied her and was there to provide as much support as I could, I wasn't allowed to do so and the whole experience was shittier than it needed to be.

At least there were no protesters or any of that crap.

However, we talked about all this before and after and she (nor I, for what it's worth) ever felt any grief or emotional trauma from the abortion as abortion; for her it was an unpleasant medical procedure. Women's experiences with abortion are quite varied and while a large number find it intrinsically upsetting (in the non-medical sense), many others do not and the presumption in our culture that it is always and necessarily emotionally traumatizing is false and pernicious. But the opposite assumption is also false and pernicious and it's really damn important that women get the counseling and support that they need, if they need it.

And, now that I think about it, the contrast is striking between how we culturally look at abortion versus miscarriage because with abortion there's the presumption of strong emotional trauma, in abortion where the pregnancy is unwanted, while we just ignore the emotional trauma of women who miscarry, where the pregnancy is wanted and plans have been made and baby names have been considered.

We clearly are aware that there's emotional trauma from miscarriages, but we culturally do practically nothing about it, it just falls into a veil of silence, like it never happened. But we talk a lot about the emotional trauma of abortion. Which, to my suspicious mind, indicates that there are ulterior motives, that emphasizing the emotional trauma of abortion and the implicit claim that it's universal is part of shaming women and presenting abortion as negatively as possible.

But again, for many women there is serious emotional trauma involved with abortion and, for those, there should be as much support as possible.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:19 PM on May 21, 2013 [13 favorites]

See also: Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, a book on the evolution of abortion rites in that country. I picked the book up as an undergrad for the sole reason of the title being amazing. I was not disappointed -- a good read, with amazingly diverse sources.
posted by gusandrews at 12:26 PM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oof, man, what an article.

Roshi Robert Aitken used to have a ceremony for a miscarriage or abortion that was quite beautiful. I can't seem to find it on the internet at the moment, although I know it's in a book at home. Here's a bit from his ethics essay on the subject, anyway:

"Sorrow and suffering form the nature of samsara, the flow of life and death, and the decision to prevent birth is made on balance with other elements of suffering. Once the decision is made, there is no blame, but rather acknowledgment that sadness pervades the whole universe, and this bit of life goes with our deepest love."

Part of supporting a woman's choice is understanding that choice isn't simple or easy.
posted by selfnoise at 12:29 PM on May 21, 2013 [13 favorites]

more people need to know about the difficult decisions that women make every day in silence. thank you for sharing this.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 12:29 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been pro-choice ever since I've been politically aware, but I have to say the description of the 18-week-old fetus, most likely healthy, in the small silver bowl - I don't know. That's a gut punch.

I had a girlfriend in college who'd had two abortions before we met. She's now a born-again Christian, very "pro-life." Do as I say, not as I desperately felt I needed to do at the time. I would hope "Theresa" wouldn't wind up the same way. But I wouldn't put money on that.
posted by kgasmart at 12:39 PM on May 21, 2013

Molly Crabapple: Talking About My Abortion
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:41 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ivan Fyodorovich: "We clearly are aware that there's emotional trauma from miscarriages, but we culturally do practically nothing about it, it just falls into a veil of silence, like it never happened. "

Yes, and often, that veil of silence is deliberately drawn by those who have miscarried and their partners. It's not just a stigma imposed by the culture they live in.

Around a quarter of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Possible incidence climbs if a woman is over age 35. If the miscarriage occurred during a woman's first pregnancy, there is a 13% chance of it happening again. I can't even type those statistics without being astonished. On average, 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage. It's incredibly common, yet I would be willing to bet that most people don't know how common it is unless they've either experienced a miscarriage themselves, or someone close to them has.

We don't talk about it.

I worked with an infertility clinic for a number of years. Many, many people do not want to look too closely at their own failed pregnancies for a number of reasons, but one of the most prevalent is that emotionally, culturally and intellectually, many of us associate our ability to bear children with our femininity and masculinity. Powerful stigmas. Some may feel they've disappointed their spouse or partner by not being able to give them a child / start a family. They may feel there's something wrong with them. They may be conflicted and feel ashamed for many other reasons, including religious beliefs.

I don't want to derail my own post. But I do believe that those attitudes are directly related to political policies that shame women for having abortions. Two sides of the same coin.
posted by zarq at 1:01 PM on May 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

Great essay. Kind of reminded me of the PJ Harvey song When Under Ether.
posted by chortly at 1:37 PM on May 21, 2013

Yes, and often, that veil of silence is deliberately drawn by those who have miscarried and their partners. It's not just a stigma imposed by the culture they live in.

When I read this, it feels to me like there's an implicit "and you're bad people for behaving like this" attached (which may not be what you meant).

Here's the thing, though. I miscarried my first pregnancy at 13 weeks, right after I'd told people I was pregnant (and a couple weeks after it was obvious). I don't feel shame, just a vague "that was sucky"-ness. (But---I had two successful pregnancies after that to help.)

One comforting thing was that when I told friends I'd miscarried, how many of them (who currently had kids---I was at the late end of the baby boom in my crowd of acquaintances then) shared that they, too, had had a miscarriage. But on the other hand, you don't just talk about miscarriages (or pregnancy, or illness, etc.) randomly without a reason to be talking about it. If there were a reason that discussing miscarriages were relevant, then many people I know are quite open to discussing it. But on the other hand, discussing it without a reason (or even just thinking about it) brings up sad feelings, and why do that if it's not necessary?
posted by leahwrenn at 1:43 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

leahwrenn, my wife had a late miscarriage. My comment was an observation from personal experience which did not cast judgement against anyone. I would not judge anyone who had miscarried and didn't want to talk about it afterward, or who had an abortion.
posted by zarq at 2:18 PM on May 21, 2013

I think it was interesting that the writer also mentions wanting to wait to tell people before 12 weeks have passed.

The whole "don't tell anyone before the second trimester starts" is something I've encountered culturally and also followed. But pragmatically, the whole reason behind it is that it is so common to lose a child before those first twelve weeks are up. It's almost like this weird place where superstition (don't say anything because jinx!) meets science (don't talk about it because statistics!) are conspiring together to create this weird space for pregnant women where if you do lose a pregnancy, it becomes exponentially harder to talk about it.

I told almost no one about mine at the times I needed the most support, because I couldn't find a way to introduce the subject that I was pregnant in the first place - so many people do share their news nowadays from the first positive test results that I worried it would be attention-grabby for me to ask for support from people I "had a secret" from.

I'm starting to think that maybe we should be doing more to stop the stigma against sharing "too early" just because of the potential for loss - when the loss is that real, you should be allowed to experience it as a loss and not a hidden tragedy. And I long for a day when abortion can become accepted enough that women who have them can also mourn their losses publicly (should they feel loss) without it being seen as an attack on themselves or on the need for the procedure itself.
posted by Mchelly at 2:35 PM on May 21, 2013 [10 favorites]

Great essay. Kind of reminded me of the PJ Harvey song When Under Ether.

Which remains one of the only (and one of the bravest) songs about undergoing an abortion that I can think of in popular music.
posted by jokeefe at 2:49 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

The issue with sharing the news early with pregnancy is that for many women the pregnancy becomes the main topic of conversation (and eight months of that can be tiring). This means that after a miscarriage the news of the loss must be shared with every casual acquaintance that asks "how's baby?" when maybe the mother needed some time to process her grief before publicly sharing. I will never forget a co-worker that got pregnant the same week as me and has to have a D&c when the ultrasound discovered the baby had not developed past a couple of months. She took a few days off and her first day back at work we were talking quietly in the hall together when a chipper colleague that worked at a different location breezed between us, rubbed her tummy, and said "how's mama?" in a friendly way as she walked away. That colleague was devesated later to hear the baby was gone.
posted by saucysault at 6:25 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

This was hard to read. It was also very well written. I had a Medical Ethics class where we discussed abortion. For the Hell of it , I decided to research and share some non-Christian views on abortion and miscarriage.
A lot of my classmates appreciated having a different perspective.
It's hard when people either have to make these choices or experience a loss.
One doesn't think of workers in an abortion clinic as being pregnant, and how that might be.
This woman is so honest about all sides of her experience.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

That was an interesting and touching article about something most people don't or can't or are afraid to talk about.

I don't believe the kind of dignity implied by story is the everyday reality, though. In most areas, a D&C for miscarriage or incompatibility with life is a hospital procedure, even if you're poor, as long as you can get Medicaid. Even though she chose to have it done at the clinic, the author was exempted from the surgical cattle-call, being moved panty-less from room to room in the gown they gave her and the socks they reminded her three times to bring because it's cold in there. Her husband was not evicted from the waiting room (for security purposes) to the parking lot to wait. She was not lectured by one of her counterparts on how to not get pregnant again. She likely wasn't forced to acknowledge her ultrasound before the tech was allowed to take the wand away. She might have done her half-hour in the grotty recliner with the heating pad and the packet of Oreos, but nobody hovered over her to get moving, hungover-wasted on Nubain, to clear the chair for the next wave.

Abortion, for whatever reason and it should not matter, is not generally so gentle or kind an experience.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:03 PM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

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