By Lauren Conaway
I am a coward.
When the doctor told me I was pregnant, I was dumbfounded. The room was cold. I was vulnerable in my little robe, and his words echoed for what seemed like hours.
How could this be? I was on the pill. Every month, I called Planned Parenthood. I made sure to pick up that prescription, and I took that tiny, politicized pill religiously. 4:00 p.m. on the dot, every day. I later came to find out that I’m what’s called a “fast metabolizer,” a concept I didn’t even know existed until it was too late.
I was almost two months along. I was almost 20 years old.
My periods had always been a bit irregular so the first tip-off was the constant vomiting. I was so, so sick. From the moment I woke up to the moment I put my exhausted head on the pillow, I felt like an absolute trainwreck. Unable to keep food or even water down, I lost almost 20 pounds over the course of a month. Later, as I watched Kate Middleton grapple with hyperemesis gravidarum during her first pregnancy, I felt a pang of recognition. Is that what I was experiencing so many years ago? I’ll probably never know.
At the time, I was 3 months past a PTSD-fueled nervous breakdown and the subsequent ending of my brief and dramatic college career.
I was two months out from a rape that would bring me to the brink of destruction. That still destroys me every once in a while in surprising ways.
I was in the early throes of a vicious drug addiction that a few years later, would nearly take my life—ultimately resulting in a life-saving 60-day rehab stint that would come to define a very fragile, emotionally-compromised me for years to come.
I was broke and alone, with no real options, healthy coping mechanisms, or paths forward—and I was making some truly heinous choices. Unable to maintain anything resembling a life, I had no business being anyone’s mother. How could I take care of someone else when I couldn’t even do the most basic things for myself?
I had a choice to make.
To my dying day, I will believe I made the correct one. Never burdened with an abundance of faith, God wasn’t a stumbling block for me. As a firm believer in science, I took a clinical view. This was a medical procedure. This was somehow also hope. I was sad, but I wasn’t ashamed about this abortion because I truly didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong. I still don’t, in fact. Abortion is healthcare. But the shame came after, anyway.
I made the appointment.
A big, burly security guard had to escort me from my car into the center. That’s a scary thing, to need protection as you make your way to do something so very sad, scary, and achingly lonely.
I could see the hate in the faces of the protestors congregated outside, hear it in their voices as they screamed at me. That particular brand of Christianity is one of the most dangerous forces in the world, and they put a hurt in my heart that I cannot describe. It took a very long time to heal. Even today, with the benefit of years and perspective, I would spit on them if I could. How dare they?
I had a friend with me, a person still dear to me to this day. She held my hand in the waiting room as I stared at the wall, until I was called in for pre-procedure counseling.
Did I know all of my options? Yes. Was I doing this under duress? No. Would I take some pamphlets? Sure. They’ll make a nice addition to my recycling bin once I get home and away from all of this.
The nurse asked if I wanted to take a drug that would make me forget what was about to happen. I desperately did but it would cost extra and I had struggled to scrape together the $200ish for the procedure itself. My friend offered to pay the $50 upcharge. I was grateful.
The fucking pill they gave me didn’t work. I still remember everything.
Anyone who has ever had a Pap smear knows the drill. Here’s your robe. Feet in the stirrups. Scootch down a little? A little more? Fuck, that’s cold. It was actually a bit comforting, knowing I had done a variation of this many times before. I remember that my doctor was bald and all I could really see was the shine reflected off his head as he bobbed and weaved between my knees. Pressure. Discomfort. A light sucking sound.
A nurse stroked my hair and told me I was going to be okay. I couldn’t see her face, only her warm brown eyes over her mask. I will never know her name. I will always love her.
Then it was over. My friend drove me home, where I would spend the next three days eating ice cream and changing pads as I “lightly spotted.” I was uncomfortable, but I was free.
These days, what I do in my day-to-day tends to be public. I live out loud. Some would (and have) said too much so. But here’s the thing. I learned in rehab and after much, much therapy, it’s crucial for me and my recovery that I be honest with myself about who I am, the choices I make, and the why behind them.
I can’t hide pieces of me away. When I do that, I teach myself to hate myself and I engage in self-destructive behaviors. No one wants that. So I feel my feelings and then I tell people about them, as a form of accountability.
Except for this one thing.
I have come out very publicly in support of Planned Parenthood. I am on the record as being a fervent believer in a woman’s right to choose. But I have never actually said in a public forum that I have had an abortion. It’s a very scary thing— to be held hostage at the altar of public opinion. To know that there are people that hate something you have done so virulently that they would seek to hurt you, take away your livelihood, even kill you to right that perceived wrong. So I abstained.
A few people have asked me if I might run for office someday and I’ll say to you what I say to them: to quote John Mulaney, “I’m never gonna be president, not unless everyone gets really cool about a lot of stuff really quickly.”
I’m aware I will probably lose friends over this. I might lose family. That vague idea of running for public office has died before it was really even born. Am I happy about this? No. Am I prepared? Absolutely. Am I resolute? You have no idea how much.
I went to a Women’s March the other weekend, where speakers talked about the importance of choice and the power of people. I have been to many marches over the years, where women give testimony by telling their truths. I have been inspired. And I have been ashamed.
For me, standing for something without owning my personal stake in it is the antithesis of integrity and courage is walking in my choices. I can’t do the former anymore, no matter the cost. It’s time I sacrifice my so-called “professionalism,” pieces of my potential, and my anonymity at the altar of truth. I ask this transparency of myself, aware that my ability to talk about this—hell, even my ability to have an abortion in the first place—comes from a place of enormous privilege. This is a very personal decision and one I wouldn’t ask of anyone else. But it is necessary for me.
There’s this conception out there that individuals who have had abortions are dirty, tainted. That we have no self-control. There are some who think that we use abortion as birth control, or that we laugh our way into the clinic. It’s shaming. It’s embarrassing. It’s why so many of us silence ourselves. It will not stand.
So I’m writing this because we have to erase this stigma around abortion. We have to empower women to make the choices that work for them without saddling them with a lifetime of shame and silence. And if it takes someone like me and so many others who came way before me to bravely share their stories to do that, then who am I to stand in the way of progress? I’m late to the game, but I’m here.
Fuck the hypocrisy. Fuck the systems that would deny us autonomy over our own bodies. Fuck the “rape exceptions” and the forced ultrasounds and the waiting periods. Fuck anything that would impede a person’s fundamental right to choose what is right for them.
I’m one of the “nearly one in four.” And I have been a coward. But I won’t be anymore.
Lauren Conaway is the founder & CEO of a 4,700+ member leadership community serving women and individuals from marginalized communities in Kansas City, MO. She is actively involved in social justice initiatives designed to empower women and democratize access to resources, support, and championship for all. She is also staunchly pro-choice.