“I hope this is the right thing to do,” my patient – let’s call her Nicole – said right off the bat, instantly setting off warning bells. I asked her to elaborate, and her next sentence did nothing to alleviate my concerns: “Well, I’m basically being forced to do this.”
Those two sentences told me all I thought I needed to know, and I was sure that Nicole was not going to be seen today. But I pressed further, asking her all the standard questions to get a better picture of her situation. How had she felt when she first found out she was pregnant? Who had she told? Who was forcing her to be there, and in what way? Had she talked to anyone who was supportive? Had she considered continuing the pregnancy? How did she think she would feel after an abortion?
My role as an abortion counselor has two distinct parts: providing informed consent for abortion procedures, risks, aftercare instructions and contraceptive options; and discussing patients’ decisions to terminate their pregnancies, ensuring that they are confident it is the right choice for them and that they are not being coerced. I have the awe-inspiring right to turn patients away if I feel the latter criteria are unfulfilled, and it is that right that I struggle with when faced with patients like Nicole.
Her story came out in bits and pieces as we continued to talk: like so many of my patients, she had always considered herself to be against abortion and never imagined that she would wind up across from me in this counseling room. She did not think she would cope well after the procedure and she was struggling with whether it was the “right” thing for her to do. At twenty-one, she was a few years removed from legal childhood yet still dependent on her parents, and she said that they were the ones making her terminate the pregnancy. “My parents will kick me out if I have a baby,” she told me. “I’ll be homeless. I won’t have anywhere to go.”
What would you do if your parents were supportive of you either way?
“Honestly,” she said wearily, “I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Nicole was not going to have a procedure that day. I was sure of it. But when I brought up the idea of her leaving, her tune changed.
“No,” she said urgently. “I have to do this.”
You told me you’re being forced. You told me you don’t want to have an abortion. We can’t see you when you’ve told me those things.
“I’m being forced, but I have to do this. I don’t WANT to do this, but I HAVE to. You don’t understand! It’s my decision too. I came here for an abortion, and I have to have an abortion.”
Nicole, what you’ve told me worries me. We find that women cope best after an abortion when they’ve been able to come to terms with it as their decision. Take some more time. The procedure, the cost won’t change between now and next week. Come back next week if you decide this is the right thing for you. We’ll still be here.
“NO!” she exclaimed. “I planned for this today. I can’t come back next week. Nothing’s going to change! You don’t understand, I don’t HAVE a choice. Yeah, I’m going to feel awful afterwards, and yeah, I’ll probably regret it in a way, but it’ll be worse otherwise – I have to have an abortion today!”
I spent a very long time with Nicole gathering the pieces of her story, asking the same questions, asking different questions, offering her resources to be able to continue the pregnancy, alternately trying to convince her to reschedule her appointment and feeling terribly conflicted about whether that was the right thing to do. I had little doubt that she would end up having an abortion, but maybe she could be in a better place with more time to own the decision. Or maybe another week would only create additional obstacles and difficulty, needlessly complicating her life further.
Where does the patient’s constitutional right to choose an abortion intersect with the counselor’s responsibility to screen and refuse service due to perceived ambivalence or coercion? What do ambivalence and coercion mean for women who lack the emotional or financial support to continue a pregnancy they may otherwise have welcomed? I came to feel that Nicole’s claim of being forced to be there was her way of coping with needing an abortion so that she didn’t lose her family and her home. She may have made a different decision if her family supported her either way, but the reality was that they didn’t, and she wanted to keep them in her life more than she wanted to continue the pregnancy. Many women are “forced” to have an abortion by various life circumstances; does it matter whether those circumstances are other people or faceless considerations like financial constraints, age, or health problems?
I’ve turned abortion patients away who have returned a week or two later, grateful for the extra time to think about the decision and better equipped to cope afterwards. I know that sometimes, it truly is better to wait when ambivalence is detected; patients can’t change their mind after the procedure. But I struggle with exercising my right to turn patients away when they protest. How do I know which patients will truly benefit from it? Doesn’t the patient ultimately know what’s best for her? Why should it be my right to deny a patient the service she insists on accessing?
Nicole had her procedure that day. Like many of my patients, I imagine no pregnancy outcome would have been positive for her. Many patients will never feel 100% confident or at peace with the decision to have an abortion. But no one would have subjected her to an assessment of ambivalence or coercion in order to continue the pregnancy, and that’s one thing that makes abortioneering such a uniquely challenging kind of work. In the counseling room, it’s often a delicate balancing act: trusting the patient to know what’s best for her, and stepping in when I judge that she is simply not ready to take the step that day.