Sarah and Connie’s names have been changed in this article to protect their privacy.
Sarah says she missed her period at the end of August, but attributed the delay to stress because she was in the process of moving, had just broken up with her boyfriend, and was short on cash. She says she put it out of her head for another month, but when the end of September came and went, she began to worry in earnest. She calculated and recalculated, but by Sunday, Oct. 1, doubt led her to a Peoples Drug where she bought a Clearblue Easy home pregnancy test.
When her drops of urine turned the test window as blue as the control window, she says she began to wail: “Oh shit, this can’t be happening. Oh no. No.”
She paced her Alexandria apartment, scattering her three cats in her wake. She re-examined the test-result stick a dozen times, but both sides stayed blue. A plan, she needed a plan, she thought, as she flipped open the Yellow Pages and skimmed the“abortion” heading.
“There it was in big letters,” says Sarah. “It said “free pregnancy test,’ so I figured that would determine it either way.” The ad promised “Results While You Wait,” Monday through Saturday.
Sarah needed to solve her problem on a budget, and the clinic that caught her eye was only a few miles from her apartment.The name of the clinic—A Woman’s Choice—appealed to Sarah. It seemed “diplomatic,” she says.
She wrote down its name and address on a scrap of paper and called her ex-boyfriend to tell him of her decision. When Sarah’s roommate Connie came home, the two huddled together; Sarah decided that a more precise test should be performed, but resolved to get an abortion if she were pregnant.
Sarah and Connie have known each other for about two years and lived together for two months. But the first three days of last week illustrated their different approaches to life’s complications. The 26-year-old Sarah hails from a rural town in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody and mistakes are not easily forgotten. Her primary concern over her pregnancy was her parents. She’d never been pregnant before, but knew how they would respond: “They would disown me, plain and simple.”
Connie had a pregnancy scare a decade ago, when she was 18; her mother took her to get tested. Her natural predilection to wrestle problems to the ground led her to service in the military. She lashes out where Sarah shuts down, and she assigns herself the role of protector, counselor, and spokesperson.
“I felt that my main job in this whole thing was to be as supportive as possible, and to make sure that everyone was supportive to Sarah,” Connie says.
Both women called in sick to their employers on Monday morning and phoned A Woman’s Choice for a 10 a.m. appointment. They drove out Leesburg Pike to the Falls Church address where the clinic is nestled in a medical complex.
Inside, docile prints adorned the walls of the waiting room; no crowds clamored for last-minute appointments. In fact, Sarah and Connie were the only patients waiting. Few Northern Virginia women, it seemed, were experiencing reproductive problems that day.
An elderly receptionist dressed in a pink knit top greeted the two women. Giving little eye contact, she rattled off questions, checking boxes on a clipboard-held form: name; age; date of last day of last period; what do you intend to do if you are pregnant? Sarah indicated she’d have an abortion. “Have a seat and please wait,” said the receptionist.
Sarah felt panicky, almost short of breath. “I didn’t want to be left alone. I was shaking, I was so scared,” she recalls.
Another woman, presumably a clinician, promptly came out to greet them. She was a bit more personable, but also dressed in street clothes. She steered them to a small room devoid of medical equipment—a TV/VCR unit resided against one wall. The clinician didn’t give her name, but asked Sarah the name of her ex-boyfriend “for conversational purposes.” Did Sarah have any strong religious beliefs? The three briefly discussed the abortion plan, with the clinician deferring specific questions about the procedure to a videotape she intended to show.
The clinician produced a circle chart—“just like the one obstetricians use,” she said—entering the day of Sarah’s last period to determine and announce the due date: May 2.
Connie thought that calculating the due date was inappropriate, but said nothing. “I thought: “Why is she giving the picture of Sarah having a baby? That’s not going to happen.’ ”
At the clinician’s request, Sarah left the room and supplied urine for another pregnancy test. Connie gazed at a wall chart depicting stages of fetal development and turned it against the wall, assuming that somebody had left it out by mistake. She asked the clinician if there was any point at which an abortion could not be performed.
“You can always find some doctor to do it, even after seven months,” the clinician snapped.
Sarah returned with the warm jar and gave it to the clinician, who said the test would take about 30 minutes. The clinician turned the TV towards the women; handing both a questionnaire on a clipboard, she rolled the tape, killed the lights, and closed the door.
The title appeared as cheery music played. “So you decided to get an abortion,” began the narrator. “Abortion is surgery and it can be very dangerous….” Then the voice ran down some possible complications: hemorrhaging, brain damage….
“Don’t worry, that’s in very rare circumstances,” Connie assured Sarah.
Sarah was not mollified. “Brain damage, how the heck can you get brain damage?” she said to Connie. “You may get mental problems—guilt—but they’re not going to suck your brain out.”
The video continued. “Future miscarriages, tubal pregnancies, birth defects.” As Sarah and Connie exchanged looks the video flashed another image: a woman in the stirrups, looking at the camera, smiling. “Pregnancy and childbirth are natural,” the narrator said. “However, abortion is a violent act against your body….”
Two clipboards hit the floor.
“We’re out of here!” said Sarah.
“Don’t listen! Don’t listen! Don’t listen!” shrieked Connie as she silenced the TV. Yelling, “We’re leaving! We’re leaving!” Connie led Sarah out into the waiting room.
The receptionist never looked up.
The clinician came running: “Sarah, are you sure you want to leave, or is that Connie talking? You can let her go.”
“No, that’s me talking,” said Sarah.
“I’m going to spray paint over the word “choice’ in your sign!” hollered Connie.
Connie, who had been the coolheaded one the night before, was shaking with anger as she apologized over and over to Sarah.
“I wish I had looked at the actual ad, maybe it would have clicked, maybe,” Connie says now. “I was aware of places like this, but I thought they were only in the South or someplace, I guess they are everywhere. I was stupid not to double-check.”
“I didn’t react in the violent way that Connie did. Man, her face turned red,” remembers Sarah. “I just tuned it out and wanted to get the hell out.”
Sarah had never heard of faux abortion clinics like A Woman’s Choice, and didn’t know that there is a difference between“abortion services” and “abortion alternatives.”
“I figured maybe they didn’t perform abortions, but they would give referrals. I feel stupid,” Sarah admits. “It feels like a bait-and-switch.”
“I never in a million years thought I would be driving my friend to a place like this,” says Connie.
As they left A Woman’s Choice, Sarah and Connie’s first priority was to find a phone book and a genuine abortion clinic. They pulled into an Arlington 7-Eleven, where they were surrounded by a group of about five men who started a chorus of catcalls, whistles, and groping motions.
“Of course it’s happened before, obviously it was random. It was just horrible timing on somebody’s part,” Connie says now. “I kind of snapped.”
Hand on hip, Connie aimed her index finger at the Hispanic men. “Listen, you shits, don’t you ever yell at an American woman as long as you are in this country!”
A few minutes later, they were a mile away at the Bailey’s Crossroads Planned Parenthood. Connie collared a clinic worker, related Sarah’s ordeal, and begged that she be seen right away. The counselor had never heard of A Woman’s Choice, but for $20 gave Sarah another urine test—this one took 10 minutes—talked to her about her options, and tried to put her at ease.
“And you know, she never mentioned brain damage,” Sarah says. After she expressed her decision to abort, the counselor put away her informational pamphlets on options.
“I was almost at the point of crying, I was so upset with the tension of possibly being pregnant, and everything that had just happened,” Sarah says. “[The counselor] called me in for the results, and said I was very definitely pregnant. But at that point, I knew. I wanted to get it over with.”
The counselor assured Sarah that she could get an abortion—the next day—at the D.C. Planned Parenthood clinic, so Sarah and Connie went home and pooled their money. Sarah talked to her ex again, who promised to pay her back. “He felt like he didn’t have any choice in the matter,” she says, “but he was supportive.”
“He’s a nice guy,” says Connie. “He’s just Sarah’s ex-boyfriend.”
Settling in Monday evening, Sarah took a shower around 7 p.m. and was doing her hair when the phone rang. Connie answered and a woman asked for Sarah.
Suspicious, Connie pretended to be her roommate.
“Hello, Sarah? This is Barbara from A Woman’s Choice,” the woman said. “I really hope you’ll give me a moment to talk to you. I know a lot more about childbirth, a lot more about raising children, than Connie. I’m sure she’s your friend, but I don’t think she’s giving you such good advice. I’ve been pregnant before—”
“But you’ve never had an abortion before,” Connie interrupted.
“No, but I know many people that have wanted to have them, hundreds of women,” Barbara said.
Finally, Connie ended the conversation. “I just told her, “Look, take me off your list and don’t ever call here again.’ ”
Tuesday morning, Connie and Sarah drove to the Planned Parenthood clinic on 16th Street NW, armed with a credit card for the $265 procedure. The waiting room was filled with women and assorted friends and partners. Sarah filled out consent and family medical history forms and was ushered into a small lab where she submitted to a blood test.
She returned to the waiting room, where one young man was causing a scene.
“A total homeboy, obviously wanted attention, just making jokes,” said Connie. “But he started pushing it, talking to his girlfriend, saying, “I can’t believe that you are going to go through with this. All you want to do is have sex, that’s what you get. Bang, bang, bang.’ ”
“Plus he made obnoxious remarks like, “Oooh baby, feels so good, do me again,’ ” said Sarah.
Ever the protector, Connie asked Sarah if she should intervene when the guy turned to his girlfriend and said, “I can’t believe you are going to commit murder.”
“Hey, listen,” Connie said to him. “Why don’t you have some respect for the women in this room?”
Nervous laughter and a why-don’t-you-make-me discussion ensued, but the guy retreated, muttering vague threats.
“I thought, “Oh great, do I have to protect us physically, too?’ This is Planned Parenthood where, you know, we like them, they like us. We thought everything would be perfect. It wasn’t perfect. Thank god the people behind the desk were great, but the people in the waiting room were not perfect,” says Connie. “A lot of them were handling it very strangely.”
“They looked really nervous, like it was an ordeal,” Sarah says quietly.
The half-dozen women waiting for their abortions shuffled into a room for a group counseling session. Connie accompanied her friend to the briefing: They were told what the procedure would feel like; how long it would take; and what the risks and side effects were.
Sent back to the waiting room, they lingered for another hour, talking and reading magazines before Sarah saw a counselor in a one-on-one for about 15 minutes.
The counselor pushed Sarah on why she wanted an abortion.
“My parents would never understand,” she said.
“Well, what if they find out?” the counselor responded.
“They won’t, they are in Pennsylvania, only four people know.”
“Well, what if it slips out one day?” the counselor persisted.
“If they ask me why I didn’t tell them, I’d tell them point-blank: “Because you would disown me.’ That’s exactly why they don’t know, and why I never intend to tell them,” Sarah said.
“OK,” said the counselor.
Meanwhile, Connie couldn’t help but eavesdrop in the waiting room, learning who was pregnant, who wasn’t, how their pregnancies had happened, how far along they were, and how they were going to pay.
“I was there for five hours,” she says, “I knew everybody’s story.”
The loudmouth didn’t have enough money for an abortion, so he and his girlfriend left.
Sarah felt faint because she hadn’t eaten all day, so she and Connie grabbed lunch at Au Bon Pain. On their way back, they saw the loudmouth and his girlfriend waiting for a bus.
After lunch, Sarah and two other women were called into another anteroom. One woman was told that she was too far along in her pregnancy for the 16th Street facility; she would have to go to the Silver Spring clinic for her abortion. Sarah was next. She lay on the medical platform, where her feet were placed in the stirrups. A needle bearing a local anesthetic was inserted into her vaginal canal and injected into her uterus. A nurse-in-training helped the doctor operate and monitor the suction machine at the end of the bed, while second nurse held Sarah’s hand.
“Take deep breaths,” the nurse said. “Try and relax.”
Sarah stared at the clock and watched the second hand. Ten minutes, they said.
Something happened and she felt a huge wave of cramping come over her.
She grew warmer and warmer as she watched the clock. Seven minutes to go.
“You’re doing a good job of relaxing, you’re doing fine,” the doctor said as he dilated the opening of her uterus. Sarah grew warmer, but could not sweat as a sickly hot flash rushed over her.
Five minutes to go, I can do this, she thought.
The doctor operated the suction device, moving it around her uterus.
“OK, now we have to scrape your uterus. It’s going to hurt, like a cramp—just about two minutes and we’re done,” said the nurse.
As the doctor used a spoon-shaped device, Sarah cried out in pain. It was far worse than the worst menstrual cramp of her life.
“Breath deeply, it’ll help the pain,” said the nurse.
Inhaling increased the cramp; the exhale brought some relief. Two minutes, its almost over, she thought.
“We’re almost done.”
Thank god its over, she thought.
Catherine Gaughran, director of A Woman’s Choice, defends the wording of the “clinic” ‘s Yellow Pages advertisement. She says that many of the 600-plus clients who come to the Falls Church address each year understand its philosophy. If people ask, they are told that abortion services are not provided. But for those that don’t know and don’t ask, Connie andSarah’s experience—including the follow-up call—is standard.
“We have a variety of films. Depending on the circumstances and what the person chooses—says that they plan to do—we try and pick something that will suit the situation. There are no locks on the doors. We don’t force anyone to stay here,” she says.
The purpose of A Woman’s Choice, which was established in 1985 and is privately funded, is to give “educational information,” Gaughran continues. Clients may come in to hear about adoption and other options but “also to find out what an abortion is. That’s what we were trying to show these young ladies.”
Sarah learned by herself that the cramps that go along with an abortion subside in the first day, and that the bleeding tapers off two days afterward. She returned to work on Friday, a day before she anticipated, because she was tired of sitting around her apartment.
“I’m so glad it is behind me. I feel like myself again, because those two days, we both felt like we were having an out-of-body experience. Everything was so alien—did we go and leap into someone else’s body?”
After a moment she adds, “I’m just glad to have my life back, my body back.”