Thursday, September 3, 2009

Turn around, bright eyes

Sometimes, I counsel a client who is less certain than others--a lot less certain.  It's the way she shifts her body on the couch and the way she toys with her necklace.  It's the way she focuses on the Exhale poster behind me instead of on me.  It's the way she says, "Let's just get it over with."  That client doesn't want to have a choice.  She doesn't see the beauty in the fact that she has complete freedom to have a baby or have an abortion, and she wants me to tell her she has to have an abortion.  She made it into the clinic and she wants to believe that the people who run the facility want her to give us money and get on the operating table.  

The client might have a partner whose life depends on this abortion--a guy who already has a family, whose family life is falling apart, but they can't have this physical reminder of who's really having sex with whom.  A guy who will pay the clinic's fee and then some--he'll pay the client to have an abortion.   The client might have had an abortion a year ago, her one abortion, the one that she used a Get Out of Jail Free card for.  She probably prayed and mourned and found herself pregnant again, and this time, the decision cannot possibly be hers.  It took too much before.  The client might be thirteen years old, going into eighth grade, looking forward to joining the track team.  She told her mother about the pregnancy, just like a good girl should, and her mother, confusing self  versus daughter, brought the girl to the clinic.  The daughter also looks forward to a baby.  And because the mother-daughter dynamic is all she knows, the only thing she knows for sure right now is that you do what your mama says.  

These women, as beautiful and good as any others I see, sit in front of me on the black vinyl couch, asking me what to do.  I tell them they should do what's in their heart, not what's in his or her or their hearts.  I ask about regret and the future and pros and cons.  I offer worksheets, feeling like the dorky adult assigning homework to a 35-year-old.  One time, I left the room, telling the client to work on the decision-making exercises.  In truth, I left the room to cry because understood what she was going through to a scary degree.  Sometimes, I meet the client during her second counseling session, the one that she has after she's stopped the doctor just before she inserts the speculum.  She says, "Stop," or sometimes simply, "I...don't know about this," and the clinic world stops for her.  We lower the table and help her down and give her her clothes and bring her to a counselor.  The reality is sometimes the only way for a woman to really know what's in her heart.  And I do my best to help her work through everything that's going through her head.  Sometimes, she knows, deep down, what her decision will be, and that decision is abortion.  But she hasn't gotten there yet.  She hasn't gone through the heart-wrenching honesty with herself.  Sometimes, she just needs to come back in 48 hours.  

But sometimes, she doesn't want that.  She doesn't know what she wants.  She sees this day and this day only because life has taught her that thinking ahead is just too hard.  Yet her worksheets score high on regret and she knows she won't be able to forgive herself if she has an abortion.  And in cases like that, it's up to my fellow counselors and me to gently declare, "I don't think today is the day for you to have this procedure.  I know that's not what you want to hear, and I support women in all of their choices, but I don't want you to regret anything.  You can be sad about it, but you must be able to eventually forgive yourself.  You can come back here for the abortion or you can call back for prenatal care referrals.  Please just take care of yourself and give yourself some time."  And the client gets angry.  I probably would, too.  And we refund her money and we give her some phone numbers.  And I know I've helped to empower someone, but without fail, I also spend the rest of the day struggling with the fact that I've had to take the position of authority when it comes to body autonomy--a body that isn't mine.  As feminist and egalitarian as I am, I've taken what's perceived as a position of power.  It's so foreign to me.  I never doubt myself when I turn someone away, but I hope with all my heart that the client knows where I'm coming from.  And when she comes back for an abortion, stating with confidence, "I'm ready.  Thank you for suggesting that I wait," or when she calls back saying, "I don't know if you remember me [I always do], but I was wondering if you can recommend some OB/gyns in the area?" I know that not only does she understand where I'm coming from, but she also understands where she is coming from.  And that's the most empowering of all.


  1. Oh wow, thank you for writing this! You said it all, so much better than I could have. But I think about it a lot. Especially the tension between trying to do what's best for a client, and yet not wanting her to feel like I think I know her better than she knows herself.

  2. <3 <3

    At the end of the day though, regardless of somewhat-arbitrary worksheet results, patients need to know that they way they feel after is indicative of the way they felt before. It's not quite that simple in real life, but at the same time it is.

  3. Brought tears to my eyes.

    I see signs all the time these days that say, "I chose life." I just hope they understand how empowering it is to have the ability to choose life, instead of having it be demanded of you. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Great post. When I worked as an abortion counselor several years ago, I had a two week period where I felt like every client I saw was horribly conflicted. Of course, it wasn't every client, but I sent many, many women home those two weeks. It was so hard. There was one patient who came back three times and I must have spent four hours with her over the course of those visits while she tried to wrestle with her conflicting emotions. She ended up having the abortion eventually and thank god she took her time. I think in the end she felt really good about her decision. For many of the women I saw, especially the young ones, this was the first real, serious, life decision they'd ever had to make ultimately on their own. That's huge. It was an honor to get to assist women through that process or just to be able to acknowledge it for the majority of women who got to me with their mind already made up. I'm so glad you took the time to share this with all the people out there who believe in the myth of the "abortion mill".

  5. Ironically, I found this site through an anti-choice blog I read for fun sometimes, and I'm now going back and reading every post here.

    My 12-year old daughter just got her period. In the coming years, if she ever faces an unwanted pregnancy and I am not around (or if she chooses not to tell me about it), I pray she finds her way to counselors like this.


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