What was I thinking? How does someone who has always loved children end up having an abortion? I’ve wrestled with that question for years, because that is my story, and it was my choice.

When I was a young woman in my early 20s, the media and messages in school were celebrating a woman’s right to choose. It was not a big deal; if you got pregnant, you could “take care of it,” and no one would have to know. And it wasn’t like an abortion hurt anyone; the fetus wasn’t a baby until some undetermined time later in its development — maybe not even until after birth. I remember believing that it was a lump of tissue, a mass of cells, and you could choose to abort it at any time. And anyone who thought you were doing something horrible was just narrow-minded, oppressive, ignorant, and dangerous. You had the right to control your body, your destiny.

This message made sense to me; my mother always told me that children were a trap. My parents’ marriage was rocky and violent, partly because my father was an unfaithful alcoholic, and partly because my mother had brain injuries that made her mentally unstable. She would sometimes rant that she was miserable because she hadn’t chosen to abort my siblings and me. She had given us life because she thought it would force my father into being committed to her, but it didn’t work. Instead, he continued to be unfaithful, and she wound up feeling trapped. It was twisted, wrong thinking. I knew with all my heart that I wanted to be nothing like her when I grew up. I loved children, and desperately wanted a family of my own.

Without realizing it, I was attracted to men who reminded me of my father. They looked different on the outside, so I didn’t notice at first. Sex was expected after you dated for a while, and I liked it, and I thought it would lead to commitment. But it never did. A couple of years after graduating college, while I was working as a reporter for a local newspaper, I became pregnant by my long-term boyfriend. I’d been using birth control, so I was shocked, scared, and secretly a little delighted to think that my fantasy family could be a reality. I remember being embarrassed that this had happened, ashamed that I’d failed to prevent the pregnancy. But I also remember wanting the baby, and hoped desperately that my boyfriend would be surprised and happy. But he was angry and upset. He revealed that he was cheating on me, but that he’d leave the other woman and choose me, if I had the abortion. My dreams crumbled as it became clear that I’d be on my own if I chose to have the baby.

Society said I had a choice; but really, I felt I only had one option. There was no support from my mother. It wasn’t socially accepted to be pregnant and unmarried, let alone to be a single mom. My employers were already difficult, and I figured they would find a way to fire me rather than allow an unmarried pregnant reporter to represent them. In our conservative community, I’d already had negative experiences with the religious sectors, so I expected nothing but judgment if I kept the baby. And adoption seemed unthinkable: how could I endure being obviously pregnant, and then give the baby to another family? Society said abortion was my choice, and yet I felt I had no choice.

I scheduled the appointment, feeling some relief that I had made a decision. I reassured myself that this was, after all, still a lump of tissue, so it wasn’t like I was hurting anything. No one told me any different. It seemed to me that if it was the wrong choice, something would happen to stop it. I thought of myself as a Christian, though I never went to church; I prayed to God that my appointment would be canceled, the machine would break, my boyfriend would change his mind, anything. But none of these things happened, so I moved forward to “take care of it,” to make the problem go away. I just wanted to get on with my life as though nothing had ever happened.

The Abortion

You would think that a college-educated woman would have known something about fetal development, but I’m not going to lie — I was ignorant. The counselor I visited, on the doctor’s recommendation, offered to show me a brochure showing fetal development, but I waved it away. That wasn’t the purpose of my visit; I wanted to talk about my relationship woes.

There were clues that this was more than a lump of tissue, but I didn’t want to see them. There was an unexplained rush to get this done quickly, even though I’d been taught that this wasn’t really a baby yet. My doctor said she would not do the abortion, but didn’t say why. She gave me information about the local abortion clinic, but also recommended I go to a crisis pregnancy center for counsel. I was offended, because I thought those places were for rape victims or teenagers, not for adult women who were independent and educated. Besides, my feminist and liberal friends, along with messages in the media, had always echoed my mom’s teaching that abortion was a positive choice.

At the pre-abortion appointment, I expected to get information to help me make my choice. I expected someone to ask me, “Is this what you really want?” But the appointment was brief, cold, and impersonal. There was no choice offered. A nurse — or maybe she was just a woman on staff — sat with me in an exam room and told me I would be awake for the procedure, how the area around the cervix would be numbed, and that a machine would be used to remove the “products of conception.” I asked her if I could wait a few weeks to think it over some more, and she physically recoiled, disapproving. “The longer you wait, the more difficult the procedure becomes,” she scolded me. “If you wait too long, we have to send you to another clinic.” Never in the appointment did she explain the fetal development stages. I was never offered an ultrasound, and there was very much a sense that I would be foolish to consider any other course of action.

So I did it. And I felt a mixture of relief, sadness, despair, and numbness. I moved on with life, but with a hardened heart. I dumped the boyfriend; I couldn’t forgive him for abandoning me to deal with the abortion by myself. And I defended my decision to myself, and promoted abortion to my friends as a smart option when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

Have you had an abortion? You're not alone.

Fast-forward about four years. I was now married to a man who is still my husband, and we excitedly discovered we were pregnant. I went to our doctor to have it confirmed, and together we rejoiced when the test came back positive, and the doctor told me I was about 10 weeks along. We were all so happy, my husband, my doctor and I… until the doctor said, “Hey, we could try to hear the heartbeat today!” My world tilted sideways. I don’t think I breathed. And while I pasted a smile on my face and consented, inside I was screaming and frozen.

That fetus — that first baby, the one I had aborted — was at least 12 weeks along.

I remember the rest of the appointment like it was a dream, in slow motion. The cool gel spread on my abdomen, the doppler device moving smoothly over my womb, and then the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of my baby’s heartbeat. There was no joy, only horror in my mind. I was awakened to the truth that I’d once allowed someone to open my cervix and scrape out my baby into a canister, probably filled with the parts of other babies. It was a baby, not a lump. It had a heartbeat, even if I’d never allowed myself to hear it. It was a living being up to the moment of the abortion, but there was no going back.

This began a dark journey for me. I rejoiced in the pregnancy and birth of my son, but always felt the shadow of that other child in my mind. I was certain that God would demand retribution for what I’d done, that I would be punished and maybe even lose this new baby. There was no support from my husband and the few friends I told, because they thought I should just “get over it.” They didn’t want to think about the first baby as, well, a baby. They felt I was over-reacting and being too emotional. They said I should celebrate motherhood, enjoy the child I had, and quit imagining bad things. But I couldn’t help it; I felt condemned, and definitely alone in my grief.

The Forgiveness

Ever since I’d heard my baby’s heartbeat, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that other baby, the one whose heartbeat I’d never heard, the one whose heartbeat I’d stopped when I’d had my abortion.

The due date of that first baby was in mid-March, and as that time had approached every year, I would withdraw and feel depressed and regretful. Those feelings had intensified. Sometimes, when I was alone and nursing my infant son, I would weep at the thought of what I had missed and what I had done. I was filled with remorse, and yet all around me people were telling me I should just get over it, as though that first baby hadn’t mattered, wasn’t real. My husband and I had started attending a little church to fulfill my husband’s sense of tradition. The pastor was very modern in her views, and told me that I needed to move on and not be so filled with condemnation over what had been my legitimate choice to make. I stopped talking about it, and kept my emotions inside; but I was always thinking that God would surely punish me for what I’d done, possibly even by taking the life of my now two-year-old son.

Then one day, I opened the newspaper to see an ad staring up at me, saying something like, “Do you regret your abortion?” No one had ever said it was OK to regret my abortion. I’d felt a lot of pressure and approval for supporting abortion. I’d been convinced that it was the best option for women who had been in my circumstances.  Even the experts said so: I’d read a library book on women’s health that claimed women with mental illnesses were the only ones who ever had any negative thoughts or regrets about their abortion. Talk about an incentive to keep my emotions underground! So I certainly wasn’t prepared to see an ad directed at women like that, women like me. I wanted to know more.

The ad was placed by one of those crisis pregnancy centers that I’d scoffed at years ago. It said they offered a Bible study for women who’d had an abortion, called “Forgiven and Set Free.” I think I sighed deeply when I read the title, because I wanted to be set free from the guilt and condemnation I felt. My husband looked incredulous when I brought it up. My pastor urgently warned me against going — “Those places will just make you feel bad about what you did.” But I couldn’t help thinking about it, and against their advice, I called about the study. The woman on the phone was warm and understanding. She told me she’d had an abortion, years before, and wanted to help other women navigate the grief and guilt that sometimes comes later. I signed up.

A well-meaning friend offered to drive me to the first class, and wait in the car to take me home in case I needed a quick getaway, but I decided to go alone. And when I did go, I did not want to make a quick getaway. I found acceptance and understanding from the leader, who had once been in my shoes. I learned to face the truth, forgive others who played a part in what happened, and forgive myself for what I’d done. And most importantly, I learned that God is rich in mercy, not the condemning, punishing God I’d imagined him to be. I learned about the power of owning my decision, admitting it was a sin, and yet finding God’s forgiveness on the other side. I was intrigued and relieved and set free from what had happened; I no longer felt like it was a weight on my heart, though I still regretted it and grieved for the little one I’d not saved. I still rationalized some of it, but I felt much better. My husband saw the change in me, and began to understand my need to heal. He changed his heart about abortion, and we processed what I was learning, together.

When the group ended, the leader recommended I attend another study. Our church’s offerings were pretty bland, so I randomly chose a class in our community: exploring the book of Romans. It was while in this challenging study that I was introduced to the stunning truth that it was OK to admit even the ugliest of truths, that we don’t need to hide or justify our mistakes, because God isn’t surprised by any of them. I found the key in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I was blown away by the truth that God loved me, even while I was making choices that broke his heart. I was captivated by the depth of that love. And I finally realized that I could accept that love, and return that love, and have the true family that I’d always longed for.

Photo Credit: Riccardo Fissore