Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Being There

(Note: It didn't actually look like this because I was there in the room; I think only fancy hospitals have real observation rooms.)

For once there's an article in Newsweek that doesn't make me want to put on my asshole cap and critique the hell out of it. In Watching My First Abortion, Sarah Kliff writes about a visit to Dr. Carhart's clinic* in Nebraska that culminated in her accepting the opportunity to view an abortion procedure.

The author writes that she had expected the observation experience to be gruesome, or uncomfortable, or difficult in some other way. But, it turns out, she doesn't get queasy, either physically or morally; the procedure isn't violent or brutal, even less so compared to many other routine surgeries (tooth extractions come to mind); and it's over in a matter of minutes.

My first time watching a first-trimester abortion was much the same. In my case, the patient had opted to receive a sedative medication, so she was asleep during the aspiration. But it is such a short procedure -- indeed, I recall three minutes of soft whirring, with soft-rock radio playing in the background like in any other O.R. -- that the dose of sedation required is quite small, so she was awake ten minutes later in the recovery room, feeling the giddy/dizzy medication aftereffect and some post-aspiration cramps. For women who don't receive sedation, there is more to remember, and certainly it can be intimidating if you've never had an abortion before -- yes you are in a gown in a sterile room with several people attending to you, and yes there is cramping or strong pressure on your uterus -- but they overwhelmingly report it is uncomfortable, but bearable. In short, the procedure itself, 99.xx% of the time, is extremely non-monumental. (A doctor once told me that one of her trainees was hesitant to offer abortion services because he'd never seen a complication in an abortion procedure, and thus doubted his own background in complications-management!)

The interesting thing: the simplicity of the medical aspect of abortion, and how little the author needs to "process" it, allows subtle complexities of abortion's personal aspect to shine through. She seems to become aware that even in the operating room, every patient remains an individual woman with distinct reasons and reactions, circumstances and emotions, in relation to this experience she now shares in common with 50 million other individual women.

I know that not everyone's experience with the first (or fiftieth) observation is necessarily the same as mine or as Sarah Kliff's. Maybe there was that rare complication; maybe the patient was in pain; maybe she had a bicornuate uterus which made the procedure more complex; maybe you were shocked to learn that you faint at the mere sight of someone else's blood (that's a story for another time). If you're an abortioneer who'd like to share a first-abortion experience, I'd love for you to do so in the comments!

*IMPORTANT NEWS: By the way, the past two weeks Dr. Carhart's clinic has come under siege by an influx of protesters and harrassers, who have responded to a call by anti-choice spokespeople to travel to Nebraska and make Carhart the next Dr. Tiller. By saying this I don't mean to imply a gruesome comparison -- I admit that none of the "big names" in the anti-abortion have explicitly called for violence against Carhart -- but they have asked their supporters to refocus efforts onto Carhart because he has been public about his plans to open a practice in Kansas after George Tiller's murder. And yes, that does make me worry.

So if you are or can be in Bellevue, please go out to the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska and join Kansas NOW's effort to support the clinic's patients and staff -- be an escort, a counter-protester, or whatever else they may need you to be in this moment. (If you're curious, the Kansas chapter of NOW is organizing this because Dr. Carhart and Dr. Tiller used to work together, and Operation Rescue has explicitly talked about "moving the fight to Nebraska" or some such nonsense. OR targeted Dr. Tiller for many years and became a local foe of Kansan pro-choicers when they moved their HQ to Kansas for that purpose.)


  1. I'll admit, the first time I saw an abortion I got a little queasy. Luckily for me, my role was "up top" with the patient, holding her hand and telling her everything was going to be ok and that (truthfully) the procedure was incredibly quick.

    For a lot of women, it was the anticipation that was so difficult, not the procedure itself. I wish women didn't have to sit for so long beforehand.

  2. My first observation came a year or so after I began working in a women's health center; the physician, old as dirt, invited me in to observe because he felt that everyone who worked there needed to really have a clear picture of what an abortion procedure looked like. Patient was sedated and pretty early (10wks?) so I stood next to the physician and watched all the tubes and rods and etc, then he called me over to do the first check of contents while the patient was still out and before everything got sent to the lab. I remember being pretty awed by the care he was taking on such a "routine" procedure and what a change this was making in the patient's life, since I had walked with her all the way through the process. The procedure itself was medically interesting, but the real emotional impact for me came from the other parts of her visit--the ultrasound, the education, and the waiting and waiting and waiting.


This is not a debate forum -- there are hundreds of other sites for that. This is a safe space for abortion care providers and one that respects the full spectrum of reproductive choices; comments that are not in that spirit will either wind up in the spam filter or languish in the moderation queue.