Susan's Story

On January 22, 1973, abortion became legal in the United States. In my completely nonpolitical state of mind, I was barely aware that this change had occurred; let alone had any realization of the difference it would make in my life. In late February of 1973 - barely one month later - I suddenly found myself at age 21, filing for divorce, unemployed, no job skills, and about 12 weeks pregnant.

In those days, people who oppose abortion had not yet organized. Or maybe they had and I was just oblivious to them. At any rate, I was too involved in my own dilemma to worry about someone other than my immediate family members. My situation, in short, was that I had no source of income, I had no place to live, and I was facing the idea of raising a child on my own. It was a time of great soul-searching and of giving myself permission to be selfish and believing that it was okay. In the end, I realized that I was not ready to have a child. I really did not want to be pregnant, and I certainly did not want to be tied to a man I was divorcing for the next 18 years because of a child I did not want! This man was rapidly becoming abusive and I knew that I would never be safe with him, let alone trusting him with a small child.

With the help of my parents, we obtained information about where to get an abortion. Since the law had so recently changed, most facilities were not yet set up for abortion services. We lived in conservative Orange County, California and while there was a Feminist Women’s Health Center there, I was unaware of it’s existence or of it’s significance. My parents offered to help pay for the abortion, but I was very proud. I decided that rather than borrow money from my family, I would go to the Welfare office and apply for Medi-Cal to pay for the procedure. Maybe that was my self inflicted penance for being in this position. It was truly one of the more humbling experiences of my life.

We were referred to a hospital somewhere in Los Angeles not far from the ocean. A Catholic hospital; Saint Somebody-or-other’s. At the time, I did not appreciate the irony. I remember getting up very early in the morning. I think we had to be there at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m., and it was an hour or so drive just to get there. It was a very cold morning and I was scared to death. I remember trembling inside from a combination of those two factors. We parked the car and my dad, mom and I walked into the side entrance of the hospital.

We found ourselves in a waiting area with just a few chairs and packed from wall to wall with terrified young women with their family and friends trying to be supportive. In actuality, there were probably about 35 of us there for abortions. I waded through the mass of people to stand in the first of many lines. In this line, each woman was given a cup and told to produce a urine sample. Once we returned with the urine sample, we would be given paperwork to complete before we could go on to the next step. I took my cup to the bathroom and nothing happened. I couldn’t go! I had gone just before we left home and now I just couldn’t! All I could think of was that this meant that I would lose my place in the process and get further and further behind. I started to panic. I was just sure that they wouldn’t see me if I couldn’t come up with a sample. It seemed like forever; I tried running water in the bathroom, but that didn‘t help. I stood outside where it was cold, but that didn’t work either. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally squeezed out a couple of drops of urine and returned to the window to claim my paperwork.

To this day, I have no idea what I signed. I remember lots and lots of paper. And I remember that I didn’t read it. It was handed to me, I signed it. The one thing that sticks out in my mind, however, was that at this point in the process, with no information whatsoever, I had to decide on what method of birth control I would leave with. No birth control method, no abortion. Let’s see... I choose..... I choose... yeah, okay, I’ll have an IUD. Here, sign this. Done. NEXT!

Steps one and two were over with. The woman at the counter hollered instructions in my direction so she could be heard over the crowd. "Go through the door over there and get your blood drawn". This meant I had to leave this room where my parents were. Of course, it was also the room where everyone else was! And even though my parents were there for support, I still felt very afraid and very much alone. I remember going through that door and closing it behind me. Ahh. Quiet.

In front of me was a line of about 7 or 8 young women, waiting to get their blood drawn. I went and waited in line. What next? I wondered. No one had told any of us what to expect. I could be lining up for the gas chamber for all I knew. I remember a young black woman in line in front of me. I also remember the disgust of the nurse who drew our blood. She deliberately made it as painful as possible when she stuck the needle in that black woman’s arm. I wondered if she was a bigot or was she passing judgment on the fact that we were having abortions? In 1973, abortion was a concern of women’s morals. "Nice" girls didn’t get pregnant unless they were married. Only "cheap sluts" found themselves in our position.

Once I survived having my blood drawn, I was instructed to go into another hallway to wait. By then, we had all been waiting for quite a while and the line of women waiting for the next step was sitting on the cold floor. Very few of us spoke, and when we did, it was only to find out that none of us knew what was going on. The next step was a pelvic. As a group, we each waited alone for our turn to go into a tiny exam room, change into a hospital gown, climb up on the exam table, put our feet into the stirrups and have a pelvic to determine how far pregnant we were. A pronouncement was made of each woman’s gestation, and then it was off to the next step.

A nurse appeared from somewhere. At last! Someone who might be able to tell me what was happening! I asked what was going to happen and was told that I would be given something to put me to sleep before the abortion. Period. End of discussion. I was then taken into a wing of the hospital to wait my turn. I was taken into a room and I remember an old man sleeping in the other bed. The nurse gave me a pill to take. I concluded that this was the pill that would put me to sleep. She said they’d come and get me in a little while.

I laid in that hospital bed for what seemed like hours. I stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep to overtake me. I wanted to relax. I wanted to cry. I wondered where my parents were and what they were doing. I never occurred to me to wonder what I was doing in a room with an old man! After a while, I forgot he was even there. I focused more and more on that fact that I wasn’t falling asleep. The more I thought about it, the more panicky I became. Oh my God! What if I didn’t fall asleep? What would happen?

At last, a nurse came to the room and had me get on a gurney. I was relieved to see her, but still afraid of what would happen if I didn’t fall asleep. She wheeled me out of the room, around a couple of corners and into a hallway. I was just getting up enough nerve to ask some questions when she walked away! There I was, in a hospital gown with a silly hospital net on my head, laying on a gurney alongside the wall in a hallway of some hospital, wearing an IV in my hand with a drip line attached, waiting to fall asleep. I leaned my head over the side of the gurney and looked down the hallway. The picture is indelibly etched in my mind. It was like seeing a mirror image of a mirror image of a mirror image... As far as I could see down the hallway, were women laying on gurneys in gowns, with nets, IV bags swinging from poles, one after the next, after the next. Cattle. Humiliated, dehumanized, processed cattle headed for the slaughter.

And on top of it all, I still wasn’t asleep! It was all too much for me. I finally started to cry. I can’t remember ever feeling so alone, so helpless and so scared. It wasn’t too long before someone in a white uniform walked by and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I was still awake and I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t fall asleep. She took just a moment to reassure me and to tell me that the pill I had been given was only to help me relax. I would be put to sleep in the surgery room before I had the abortion. Thank God! At last I at least had a little bit of information. It was a tidbit, but it was enough to calm me down. I finally started to relax a little as the gurneys slowly worked their way into the surgery room, one by one. I had no idea what to expect, but at least I felt confident and comforted by the knowledge that I would be asleep for whatever happened.

At last it was my turn to be wheeled into the operating room. The lights were glaring and the room was incredibly cold, green, and sterile-looking. Someone wheeled me in. Someone positioned the gurney. Someone took hold of my legs and put them into what felt like two cradles- one under each thigh. Then someone pulled my drape up onto my stomach and pulled my legs apart. Bright lights were shining on me as I lay there completely exposed to the world. People walked by, having conversations about vacations, their kids, all kinds of things, as preparations were made. No one but me seemed to be aware that I was lying there, in position, crotch up, cold and naked, waiting for whatever was coming next. It was the most horrible feeling... to be totally vulnerable and humiliated in a brightly lit room full of people who were too busy to notice. Finally, I was relieved when someone sat down beside my head and placed the anesthesia mask over my mouth. Someone pulled up a stool between my legs and pushed them even farther apart. Escape had come at last. I fell asleep staring at the bright lights above me.

They say there is a reason for everything in this Universe. Many years later, in 1984, I found myself in the position of helping my 16 year old stepdaughter obtain an abortion. We were living in Northern California at the time. After a pregnancy test at a local clinic, she was referred to the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Chico, California. There had been a Feminist Women’s Health Center in the town in which we lived, but it had been closed for six months now, due to antiabortion activity causing them to lose their lease. The round trip was 150 miles, but well worth the ride.

My husband, myself, and my stepdaughter drove to Chico on a Saturday. I tried to reassure her, but I had very little information from my own abortion experience to share. I realized that I never really knew what it was all about... I had signed the papers, gone through the system, and the abortion had been done. I had gone on with my life and not looked back. More than anything, I tried to be supportive and talk about anything BUT the details of her impending abortion.

I was in for the surprise of my life. I was able to be with my stepdaughter through the entire process of her abortion experience. What an incredible difference! People were nice. No one was placing judgment. Things were explained to her every single step of the way. She was given the reason for and the results of every test that was performed. Her questions were answered. She was treated with respect and dignity. A complete explanation of what to expect every step of the way was given... not just about the abortion, but about her entire visit. The abortion explanation was given to a group of us who sat on couches in a "60’s free clinic style" room. As a group, we asked questions and discussed our own women experiences and how they related to us being there. The doctor was late, so there was lots of time to share information with and be supportive of each other. The counselors answered questions and clarified things for us. And while my step daughter was still scared, she had information and she knew what was coming and what to expect. At least she knew what it was she was afraid of! She was afraid of the pain... I had been terrified by the unknown. What a blessing! Knowledge really is power! With the information she had, she was able to participate in the process from a place of strength and get through it.

About a year later, I ran across an ad in the paper for a clinic manager at the Feminist Women’s Health Center. They had found a location in Redding again, and were about to reopen the Redding clinic. I knew that I had to apply. I wanted so badly to be a part of those women who made the abortion experience respectful. I wanted to be able to give that to other women, so they would not have to experience the terror, agony and humiliation I had experienced back in 1973. I wanted to help teach, support, listen, and empower the women who came into my clinic, so that they could respect themselves and have the information and strength to put their lives back on track and become healthy, successful, empowered, knowledgeable women.

The Feminist Women’s Health Centers change women’s lives every day. Not just the women who come through our doors for abortion and well woman services, but also the women who work here. I know that I am not the same woman who first applied for that clinic manager position. I am who I am because of being a part of this organization, and I watch young women come to work here and change their lives forever. The ideals and philosophies of the Feminist Women’s Health Centers are given freely to any woman who walks through our doors for whatever reason. It is a wonderful gift, there for the taking.


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"The Feminist Women’s Health Centers change women’s lives every day."