'The Decision That Was Right for Me': Advocates and KQED Listeners Share Their Abortion Stories

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Nyajal Taylor, 21, marches from the Federal Building to Market Street in San Francisco on May 3, 2022, during a rally for abortion rights. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update Friday: The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was announced on June 24, overturning Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion.

California guarantees the right to abortion in statute and the state constitution. Our state’s abortion laws are the strongest in the United States. Both officials and abortion providers have made it very clear that abortion access in California will not change because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. Read more about the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Original story continues:

In early May, a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision signaled that the high court was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade — the 1973 decision that guarantees at least some degree of abortion access in the United States.

Now, in the coming weeks — sometime in June — the court will announce its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a case from Mississippi that weighs whether bans on abortion before fetal viability are constitutional. If a majority of justices support that proposition, as appears more than likely, the court will effectively reverse nearly 50 years of legal standing, giving individual states the power to ban any and all abortion procedures if they see fit.

Shortly after the leaked draft was published, KQED Forum host Marisa Lagos spoke with the following advocates and academics about the monumental implications of a post-Roe world:

  • Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of those who have abortions
  • Rana E. Barar, senior program manager at UCSF researching long-term effects on women who have had abortions
  • Carol King, longtime feminist advocate and former national board member, National Organization for Women (NOW), and former executive director, Michigan Abortion Rights Action League (now NARAL Pro-Choice America)

And because people seek abortions for a wide range of reasons, many Forum listeners also called into the show to share their thoughts and their own experiences. We're grateful to them for doing so. (Want to share your own story?)

Keep reading for highlights of the conversation, or jump to listener stories. You can also learn about ways to support abortion access, within California and further afield, in this guide from KQED Arts and Culture.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Building 'a culture of love and support'

Renee Bracey Sherman: [We Testify] was founded back in 2016, the summer right before the election — because we knew that no matter who became president, abortion access was still going to be under attack across the states, across the country.

We knew that we needed to change the conversation and really build a culture of love and support for people who have abortions — and particularly elevating the voices of people of color who've had abortions, queer folks, undocumented folks, formerly incarcerated folks [...] all of us who have abortions, to make sure that our voices were part of the conversation.

I had my abortion at age 19. I'm a biracial Black woman, and I actually didn't know any other Black women who had abortions other than the rapper Lil' Kim.

After sharing my story publicly, I met so many other people of color who've had abortions. And then, of course, so many other people in my family who shared their abortion stories. And four years after I shared my abortion story, my mother told me that she also had an abortion before me. And so her ability to access abortion care in the early 1980s made it so that my life was possible.

Thankfully, my parents would talk to me about all of my options, and I knew that abortion was a valid option. I'd heard my mom say it to one of my friends at one point, so I knew what I needed to do — and I wanted an abortion.

It was actually a really easy decision for me, because I knew I did not want to be pregnant, I did not want to parent, and that if I continued this pregnancy, I would be stuck in this relationship and not able to do all of the things that put me on the path.

Priyanka Patel holds a sign that says 'Abortion Is a Civil Right' during a rally for abortion rights outside the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on May 3, 2022, as part of a nationwide response against the leaked draft of the Supreme Court's decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

My abortion: I mean, I say it's some of the best health care I've ever had in my life, because the nurses, the clinic staff were so kind and welcoming.

And that was really amazing. And now not everybody's experience is that way, right? Because I work with some storytellers who've had not-so-great experiences — particularly if someone's pressuring them not to have an abortion. And so they don't feel supported. Or I've worked with storytellers who are trans and nonbinary, and maybe don't have their gender identity represented — or recognized and respected — at the clinic.

Whatever health care you get, you should be having a loving and supported and respected experience, and that should be the norm, not the exception.

When someone decides to share their abortion story with the world … it is the most beautiful thing. They are stepping into a space, into a culture, that tells them that everything about their experience, their voice, everything that they did, does not deserve to be heard.

It's just so beautiful to hear brave folks sharing their stories and saying, "Yeah, I did this and I don't want to feel alone any more."

'An act of love'

Rana E. Barar: I had an abortion when I was 40 and my kids were 10 and 14 at the time.

For me, it was really about my existing children and about the amount of attention I wanted to be able to give them as they entered their tween and teen years.

A colleague of mine at UCSF, Jen Kerns, said something really profound that resonated with me. She said, "You know, for many people seeking abortions, it's an act of love for themselves and for their existing children." And I think that's very much true for moms who have abortions. And it certainly was for me.

I spent more than a decade working on The Turnaway Study, where we followed a thousand women across the United States for five years. They either had abortions or were turned away because they were past the gestational limit of the clinic where they sought care. And we followed them for five years with interviews every six months.

We found that there were serious consequences for women and their children of being denied a wanted abortion. For example, people who are in violent relationships and seek abortion because they do not want to be tethered to that abusive partner are more likely to stay in violent relationships, or to stay and continue to have violence in their lives if they are turned away from a wanted abortion. People who are turned away are more likely to have to live in poverty for at least five years after the abortion.

I think women experience a range of emotions about abortion. Mine was a very uncomplicated decision for me and my partner. And I don't have regret about it, but I do have mixed feelings about it. I think just like any other life event, people experience a range of emotions — and that those emotions reduce the intensity over time.

But there are a range of feelings about all kinds of decisions ... legislating how people feel about things is impossible.

'I still remember how frightened I was'

Carol King: I was the first person in my family to go to college. [In 1968] my father had died the year before, and I got pregnant.

It was the most terrifying time of my life, and I still remember how frightened I was. I went to a doctor and had my very first gynecological examination when he told me I was pregnant. I left his office in shock and disbelief — and a little bit of denial.

The stigma attached to single motherhood and unplanned pregnancies and unwed motherhood at that time — well, we've lost some of that, thankfully. But at the time, in 1968, it was horrifying.

I started bleeding, and I was told that I should stay in bed and take it easy and that would help me save the pregnancy. Which I did the exact opposite. I was in the dormitory on the fifth floor, and I ran around from one staircase to the other ... I did that, hoping that that would sort of end the pregnancy for me. I begged my roommate to kick me in the stomach.

Nobody would do that. But fortunately for me, I had a spontaneous abortion.

These women on my [college dorm room] floor came and sat with me as I sat on the toilet in the dormitory and sat with me, talked to me, held my hand and hugged me when I start crying and supported me until I had a miscarriage.

I have never been so frightened in my life. I have never before or since thought of suicide. But it was what I considered to be an option at that time. Fortunately, I didn't need it.

A woman holds large sign saying 'you can't stop abortion' along with other protesters with supreme court building in background
Abortion-rights supporters rally in front of the US Supreme Court on May 2, 2022, after a draft opinion was released indicating that the court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed federal protections for abortion. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Washington Post via Getty Images)

'Women are the best placed to know the circumstances of their lives'

Renee Bracey Sherman: People tend to feel complicated feelings about, as Rana mentioned, everything that was surrounding their abortion decision.

Maybe not having wanted to be pregnant at all, or maybe having wanted to parent, but because our nation has no paid parental leave across the nation, no universal child care, no universal basic income. Diapers aren't even covered on WIC. They feel pressured to make a decision that if they had maybe more money, they would make a different decision.

And then also there are those of us who, no matter how much money we had, we simply didn't want to be pregnant. And all of that is OK. We need to make space for us to be able to talk about it and see that it is not the place of the government to make that decision for us.

Women are the best placed to know the circumstances of their lives. All the reasons that women give for wanting an abortion play out in the data.

I just think about how many families would be or not be in the way that they are, if abortion was not accessible. As The Turnaway Study shows, people who are denied abortions end up having children ... most go on to [be] parents and do go [on] to love their children. That is what is really important.

But also, it's still not the life that they would have chosen for themselves or for their children — especially in a country that does not have any sort of social safety nets to speak of for people.

Forum listeners share their stories

Listener comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Some listeners chose to remain anonymous.

I'm of Korean descent and got an abortion in September, around the time when the Texas law [that banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy] went in. And it was a very considered decision, the toughest decision of my life. But I made the decision that was right for me.

My period was late by one week and the abortion [was] a couple of weeks later. It was just a “yolk” at the time, and it was just suctioned out of me. And the doctor who did the procedure at a clinic, [did] it through UCSF, was just like, "This is one of the safest procedures in the world." The whole procedure took about a few hours because that also included time to take muscle relaxants, and really make a considered decision about it. They asked me several times, "Are you sure?" And I said yes. And my partner held my hand, and it was suctioned out of me, and it was way less painful than getting an IUD inserted.

So what this really tells me with this Roe v. Wade situation is that the vested effort to control women — they don't freaking care about women, or even the subsequent children that we could potentially have, because the country doesn't even support families. So it's just a form of legislative rape, in my opinion.

— Joyce, Oakland

This is actually not about me. This is about my mom in 1970 in Ohio, before Roe v. Wade was passed to begin with.

She was a 19-year-old college student who was with my dad and she got pregnant and needed to have an abortion. She reached out to a friend whose mother put her in touch with a "sympathetic psychiatrist" who she had to then present suicidal ideation [to] as a means to seek an abortion.

The only way ... was to convince a psychiatrist that it was in her best interest to end the pregnancy, and the psychiatrist put her in touch with an OB-GYN who did perform the procedure in a really safe way.

I think if Roe v. Wade is overturned, we're looking at an even worse outcome than that.

— Erin, Marin

A group of women marchers hold signs reading 'demand reproductive justice now' and 'women are not breeders' and 'my body my choice'
Demonstrators march on Market Street in San Francisco on May 3, 2022, during a rally for abortion rights following a leaked draft opinion suggesting the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Although I haven't had an abortion myself, I've had four miscarriages, and the one at 16 weeks was kind of unbearable for a few days. Because abortions are so restrictive, I couldn't access the medical care I wanted.

You can go to Planned Parenthood, but there's waiting lists and stuff. And they couldn't just get me in the next day. And that's not their fault. That's the way it is.

I think people think abortion is more convenient than it is. It's not convenient. It's not accessible. And even for people who want to have kids, it would be nice [for it] to be less restrictive so you can get [the procedure done at] any doctor's office.

— Emily, Fairfield

As a woman who's had two abortions when I was very young, let's make this about what it's really about: body sovereignty.

I really implore you to fight back against this crazy narrative that this is about having an abortion or not having an abortion. It is unequivocally not.

Make the discussion about what it really is: body sovereignty and the right to choose. By buying into this other narrative, you're simply strengthening the anti-choice movement.

— Anonymous

We need to keep talking about abortion openly to end the shame. The anti-abortion movement thrives on secrecy, stigma and making you feel alone.

— Noelle

In 1972, weeks prior to my 18th birthday and high school graduation, I was unknowingly drugged by a fellow classmate while on a first date. He drove me to a familiar field near a winery and took advantage of my inability to move.

Nearly eight weeks later, via the county health department, I was able to secure an abortion. But due to the political climate of blaming the victim, I refused to name my assailant. As a result, I found the female staff who were able to explain that I'd been drugged more compassionate than the male doctors who treated me with disdain.

There were stories shared by other women in the post-surgery room that still stick with [me] — including several with large families who did not have the ability to support another child. I chose to have children after I was in a secure and loving relationship 20 years later, and I have no regrets.

— Anonymous

Demonstrators hold a sign that says 'There's Blood on Your Gavels' during a rally for abortion rights outside the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco on May 3, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When I was 15 years old — this was way before Roe versus Wade — I got pregnant. My mother — and she was so supportive and loving — knew what this meant to me as a 15-year-old. Of course, there were no safe legal abortions in the United States.

She had a friend — God love her friend, who just passed away about a month ago — who knew a doctor in Juarez, Mexico. So, I flew there with her friend. Her friend was so kind and loving with me and took me to this doctor that she knew ... in a dark back alley at about 10:30 at night. And she took me into this small little clinic. The lights, it was dark, but they were shining right on the bed. And this doctor had on a white coat, and he performed an abortion. And I lived. And that was terrifying for me. It was traumatic.

I don't want anybody to have to go through what I went through: having an unsafe, illegal abortion.

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When I was 24, I was a fundamentalist Christian missionary and I was told I couldn't have sex until I was married. And that was very hard at 24. I didn't want to admit, though, that I was going to have sex, because that would have sinned against God. So instead of using contraceptives, we just went ahead and had sex. And of course I got pregnant.

I [was] determined to have an abortion. I'm still childless. I really wanted to have kids in my life, and yet I don't for a second — one second — feel badly about this abortion.

It was absolutely the right choice for me, for the guy I was with, for my family in the background. Like, what would they have done to deal with it? It just was not a good time to have a baby. It would have been horrible for that child.

Removing the guilt is so crucial, which is why I'm so glad we're telling our stories.

— Elizabeth, Oakland

I had an abortion at the age of 26. I was a practicing drug addict and alcoholic. There was no way I could have taken care of a baby. I couldn't take care of myself.

I did go on to change my life and completely turn it around and eventually have a family. But I never regretted that decision at all. And I have been able to counsel my son, who just became 20. He just became physically, intimately active last year. I was able to counsel him with his girlfriend on protection, and we’re very open about that.

And I just imagine that so many of those stories would change, if this right that we currently have is taken away.

— Hunter, Sebastopol

An illustration showing four figures, three of which are embracing each other. Their faces show a range of emotions. A large lily flower is in the foreground.

Share your voice with us

If you're looking for a space to share your thoughts, or tell your own story about abortion, KQED Public Radio's Perspectives series — our morning series that lets listeners have their say in their own words — wants to hear from you:

How do you feel about living in a nation without Roe v. Wade?

Share your thoughts in the form below, and we may be in touch to talk about featuring your story, told by you in your own voice, on air. You can also email mtrautwein@kqed.org or call (415) 553-2108 and leave us a message.

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