I live in the most conservative state in the west and grew up in a Mormon, fundamentalist, conservative home. I was raised to believe all the “expected” messages about abortion and was taught to be very judgmental towards women who chose to be sexual, free and unapologetic. I believed I was Pro Life because of all of the terrible things I had heard about abortion and the types of women that had abortions.
It wasn’t until I myself became sexually active when I was almost 18 yrs old that I began to understand the impact of sex and sexuality for a woman. Women, by design, face choices that are extremely individual, private and dare I say-sacred. We do bear an enormous responsibility when it comes to decisions that are made regarding birth control, pregnancy, family and parenthood. Boom-I suddenly became Pro Choice because I knew that if my birth control ever failed that I would be kicked out of my home, sent to live with a Mormon “foster” family for pregnant girls and forced to have a baby that would be placed for adoption whether I wanted to be a mother or not.
I was 25 years old when my step mother told me about the abortion she had when she was 17 in 1963. Abortion was illegal. Luckily for her she comes from a wealthy family and her uncle was a Dr that provided documentation that she had been exposed to small pox during her first trimester which would allow her (if she could find a provider) an abortion-hopefully. She and my grandmother flew from Louisiana to Sacramento, California to see a Dr they have never spoken to in hopes that he would refer them to someone that could help them. When they got to his office he was angry and adamant that he knew NOTHING about abortion or providers and to leave his office immediately. They went back to the hotel, stunned and devastated. Then the phone rang. It was the Dr they just met and he was calling from a pay phone. He apologized for the way he treated them and explained that his office was bugged and under FBI surveillance and that he DID know where they could go but that they would have to leave now. He directed them to a tiny motel on the California/Mexico border. He told them that when they checked in to ask for a specific person that would give them a bag of clothing and instructions on what to do next. They drove all night and arrived at the dirty, cheap motel early that morning. They checked in and received the bag of clothing with the instructions to get dressed and that a car would be there shortly to pick them up. The clothes were old, scrappy rags and included a handkerchief that my step mother was to use to cover her hair-she was disguised as a young, Hispanic migrant farm worker. A station wagon arrived and picked up at least 10 young girls, all dressed in disguise and they were driven across the border into Mexico to a medical complex. She was approximately 25 weeks pregnant and the procedure was agonizing. None of the girls were given anesthesia because if something were to go “wrong” or if the office was raided, they couldn’t risk having a room full of white girls knocked out and unable to run out. My step mother hemorrhaged and had to undergo a rudimentary D&C-again, with no anesthesia or sedatives. The cost of the abortion was almost $5,000 which by today’s standards is like $20,000. The station wagon came back that evening and picked up the girls, drove back to the motel and dropped everyone off. No medical care was provided, no medications were offered and no follow up was available. She had no idea if she would ever stop bleeding or if she might get an infection and die. This was abortion before Roe.
When I became a divorced, single mom I went back to school and ended up serving an internship with Planned Parenthood. This led to a job offer and I spent 5 years as a reproductive health counselor, community educator and staff training coordinator. During my time with PP I encountered nearly every possible client situation. This led me to the realization that while I considered myself a pro-choice woman, the only experience I had with abortion was from the shock pictures and videos on the internet and my step mother’s experience nearly 3 decades earlier. I decided to volunteer at one of the local abortion clinics in Salt Lake City.
As I entered the clinic I understood that there was a very real possibility that what I saw that day may cause me to change my mind as to whether or not I supported abortion rights and believe it or not, I was ok with the possibility that I may change my mind. I have always been open minded re. both sides of the abortion issue. I was nervous but I firmly believed that I owed it to my clients to know, without a shadow of a doubt, where I stood. I needed to know that I was honest and trustworthy when I said that I supported her right to choose. I believe my clients deserved that. As I entered the clinic in my scrubs I was immediately told that they next time I came, PLEASE don’t wear scrubs because it easily identified the medical professionals that worked at the clinic and thus provided an easy target for anti-choicers that may want to hurt or kill us. I was stunned. It never occurred to me that I could be killed for supporting reproductive choice. It sent a chill up my spine.
What I experienced in clinic that day was heart wrenching. The clients were scared and nervous but also grateful. The “shock” media images I had seen in the past never entered my mind. I was focused on serving the client-serving her future, supporting her very personal decision. I encountered a woman whose birth control pills failed, another whose EC failed and a young couple that had found out (yet again) that their planned and wanted pregnancy was doomed with life threatening genetic anomalies that were not compatible with life. She had already spontaneously miscarried a pregnancy at 6 months due to the same genetic issues and they decided together that they could not emotionally deal with another tragedy like this. After spending the day with clients I left even MORE resolved in my support for choice. I returned several more times to volunteer as a recovery room support person…..talking with women before their abortion, holding their hand during the abortion, wiping away their tears and attending to their needs after the abortion. One of the clients actually came to see me at my Planned Parenthood clinic and brought me a gift. She said my support and kindness had made all the difference for her. She was grateful I took the time to just be with her.
I just recently moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and have spend some time at a clinic owned and operated by Dr Curtis Boyd; a peer of Dr. Tiller’s. I will continue to work for women and for choice. I am raising my daughter to understand and respect herself and other women. She will never be taught the bigoted and hateful things I was taught. She knows what abortion is and why it is something that has to be protected. I am proud to be raising a daughter that will carry the mission of reproductive choice.
We are Dr. Tiller.