They had abortions, some in secret, now, as high court weighs a ruling, want their stories heard

Fifty years after Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court is weighing rolling back access to abortion. Nine people from around Chicago who had abortions talk about what’s at stake.

SHARE They had abortions, some in secret, now, as high court weighs a ruling, want their stories heard
SHARE They had abortions, some in secret, now, as high court weighs a ruling, want their stories heard

Each of them had an abortion. Many kept that secret for years or within only a small circle of family and friends.

Now, as the Supreme Court is weighing a ruling that, 50 years after Roe v. Wade, could roll back access to abortion, these nine people from around Chicago want their stories to be heard.

Though each is different, together they help illuminate the divisive debate raging across the country.

Some agreed to speak but asked not to be named or that only a first name be used.

One woman remembers the decision as “terrifying.”

Another says she’s “terrified” at the prospect of people not having the options they’ve had for half a century.

One woman says she was called a murderer by a co-worker even though she had an abortion after being raped in her teens.

Some went on to counsel others, helping them get an abortion or find an alternative path.

One talked about meeting their unborn children in heaven.

All expressed hope that others would escape the stigma they felt.

‘I just never thought it would be me.’ Jaclyn, 32

When doctors discovered that the internal organs of her baby were developing outside the body of the fetus, Jaclyn dove into research and reached out to support groups to prepare for what the baby might need.

She was excited to expand her family. But, as the weeks went by, the news from her doctors about the prospects for her pregnancy grew worse. She, her husband and their son drove to Florida to be close to her parents.

The doctors told her she had a partial molar pregnancy — a condition in which the embryo can’t survive — and the baby had a chromosomal abnormality called triploidy. She also had ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.

They urged her to return to Illinois, mapping out hospitals along the way because her health could have quickly taken a turn.

“Every second, we were nervous that something was going to happen,” Jaclyn said. “I could end up in the emergency room. I mean, I could die.”

The baby wouldn’t survive outside the womb, the doctors said.

Still, Jaclyn says she felt guilty even thinking about an abortion, which her doctors said was the best option.

“I kept thinking about my son, who needed me as his mom,” Jaclyn said, referring to her firstborn child. “And my parents needed me as their daughter, and my husband needed me as a wife.”

Jaclyn had never felt strongly about abortion, figuring she would never be in a position to even think about it.

“Every day, I was just hoping that I would wake up bleeding,” she said. “I just wanted the baby to pass naturally so that I didn’t have to make the decision.”

She had the abortion early on in the coronavirus pandemic. So she was alone for the procedure, holding onto a cross that a friend of her mother had given her.

She says she likes to think the baby is now with her brother, who died a few years ago.

Jaclyn went on to have another baby, a healthy boy. But she says her experience solidified her support for abortion.

“I just never thought it would be me,” she said. “If someone needs to have an abortion — for whatever the reason is — because that’s what’s best for them, what’s best for their baby, I feel like they should be able to do that.”

‘They’re still going to happen. They are just going to be less safe.’ Candice Choo-Kang, 32

When Candice Choo-Kang’s friend got pregnant as a teenager in Indiana, she didn’t know where to turn for help getting an abortion.

Now 32, Choo-Kang remembers there was a sense of shame back then in going to a clinic like Planned Parenthood. So her friend bought pills from someone to end the pregnancy on her own. She remembers checking on her friend to make sure she didn’t get too sick because they weren’t sure what kind of pills they were.

“I had never been anti-abortion, but I think that experience, in particular, made me think about the safety and the fact that abortions are going to happen whether or not it’s legal or accessible,” Choo-Kang said. “They’re still going to happen. They are just going to be less safe.”

In 2016, when Choo-Kang was 26, she got pregnant and knew she didn’t want to have a child then because she had plans to return to school. She also didn’t want a long-term relationship with her partner at the time.

Choo-Kang confided in her sister and learned that she had had an abortion.

“She immediately just hugged me and told me that she loved me, and she supported me no matter what,” she said.

Choo-Kang found a clinic in Chicago. But she had to wait three to four weeks to get an abortion.

“The resources are already constrained,” she said of what might happen if the Supreme Court restricts access to abortion. “So it’s just going to put an even greater strain on resources. So I think that we are going to see more unsafe abortions.”

Choo-Kang went on to graduate school. She now does public health research and has spoken about her abortion at recent protests in Chicago.

“I think it’s talked about sometimes as being a very serious procedure, and it’s not,” Choo-Kang said. She said she went to work the day after her abortion. “Abortions can be very safe if you are given the resources for it.”

‘There’s no one type of person who has an abortion.’ Mary Bowman, 36

Soon after getting an abortion during senior year in college, Mary Bowman started to consider a career in health care.

Bowman learned about the fatal shooting of Dr. George Tiller — an abortion provider in Kansas — and became concerned about abortion restrictions increasingly being imposed across the country.

“I felt an obligation to go into sexual reproductive health care as a person who had no judgment for anyone receiving any type of sexual reproductive health care, no moral qualms about any of it,” Bowman said.

Bowman had an abortion in 2008 while living on student loans and a part-time job as a lifeguard.

“I just told her I can’t be pregnant,” Bowman recalled saying to the doctor. “I knew, as a 23-year-old, that I never wanted to be pregnant or give birth. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a parent in the future.”

They received medication from a clinic that ended the pregnancy. While taking it, a neighbor’s apartment caught fire, displacing Bowman, who had to finish the process at a stranger’s home.

The experience guided their career of providing abortion access through telemedicine. Bowman, 36, is now with a different partner, and they’re raising a toddler they adopted.

“I give abortions to everyone,” Bowman said. “I’ve done an abortion for someone who thought she was post-menopause in her late 50s. I’ve done abortions for 14-year-olds. I’ve done abortions for people who are married, people who have multiple partners and were unmarried, for people who have kids, for people who didn’t have kids, for people who are incarcerated, for people who are CEOs. There’s no one type of person who has an abortion.”

‘I’m not a murderer.’ Devetta, 40

During a heated discussion about abortion, a coworker once called Devetta a murderer for having had one after a sexual assault.

“It made me feel small because this happened to me — I didn’t choose to be raped,” Devetta said. “I don’t think she understood what it felt like to be violated and the emotions that come along with it afterwards. I don’t think she truly understood how a part of me died that day.”

Devetta, now 40, says she was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school when she was raped by an Army recruiter. She had thought about a career in the military, but that changed after she was assaulted. Weeks later, she learned she was pregnant. She remembers feeling angry and sad.

“I just decided that I didn’t want to carry the child, even have the baby, because I just wasn’t in the right emotional state to have a child,” Devetta said. “I know that this baby came from a rape. At that time, I just thought that I was not emotionally ready for that.”

Her mother told her about Planned Parenthood, and one day in 1997 they went to a clinic for her to have an abortion.

“I grew up in a world where Roe v. Wade — I never thought about it not being on the table,” Devetta said. “And that’s why it’s so important for me to fight for it now because I don’t want future generations to not know what it’s like not to have an option.”

‘I will never, ever stop regretting that decision.’ Michelle Gerken, 51

Michelle Gerken says that, for a long time, it felt like she had buried a part of herself.

“I always felt like I had this sleeping dragon under there waiting to be woken up,” Gerken, 51, said. “I always would suppress it and not really think about it. And the only way I felt like I could really get the healing I needed was to wake the dragon up and slay them once and for all. Deal with it. Talk about it.”

In 1994, when she was 24, she was a single mother of a 5-month-old son and learned she was again pregnant. Her grandmother told her she couldn’t take care of any more children, and her mother simply told her, “Take care of that.”

She didn’t tell the father at first because it wasn’t a serious relationship. After talking with a friend, she went to a doctor in Aurora for an abortion. She remembers becoming so overwhelmed there that a nurse asked if she was sure about going through with it.

She cried for weeks after.

“I do regret what I did,” Gerken said. “I don’t live with guilt anymore as much as, I think, regret. Of course, I’ll always regret it. I will never, ever stop regretting that decision.”

It took her years to open up about her experience. She started working with a group through her church that offered help to pregnant women.

“If Roe had not been legal, I would not have done it,” she said. “I just wouldn’t have.”

‘I would have probably taken my life.’ Anonymous, 61

In the 1980s, in her 20s, she was raising a child while struggling with drug addiction and the sexual abuse she had suffered when she was young.

When she found herself pregnant again, she and her friends traveled to a public health office in Englewood and were referred to Planned Parenthood.

“It made all the difference,” said the woman, now 61, who agreed to speak but did not want her name published. “I would have probably taken my life. It was overwhelming enough. And to not have had that as an option, I’m certain I would have.”

Her friends, who were like sisters, helped her through the abortion.

“I was contemplating whether or not I was going to let anyone else know, and then I would fall silent,” she said. “And [my friend] would make jokes, hold my hand.”

She later had two more abortions in the 1980s.

When she was about 31, she started on a path to sobriety and eventually to have a larger family. She credits substance-abuse treatment, therapy and her spirituality with helping get her through everything.

She’s written about her experiences and supports organizations like Planned Parenthood.

“There’s still a small voice that said that there would be a lot of pain in my life,” she said. “But I was to treat it like an ocean wave, rising up behind me and threatening to crash over. And to know that when it does, all I have to do is relax into it. Don’t stiffen. Don’t let it break you. Relax, and go with the flow. And they’ll never be able to change you.

“And that’s what I did. I took my bouts and my bruises. I did that. And I think I’m better for it.”

‘I know I’ll see my children in heaven, so that gives me great hope.’ Catherine Walker, 72

About 10 years after having her last abortion, Catherine Walker froze when she heard her church was planning a service about abortions.

“This is my deep, dark secret,” Walker, 72, remembers telling another woman on the day of the service.

She had her first abortion in 1979, and she would have three more. Walker was living in Chicago at the time, working and facing the prospect of being a single mother.

“I felt very much like it was a condition,” Walker said. “It was not a child. It was a condition. So I very quickly make a decision that an abortion was what I was going to do. And so I did. I went on with my life, met another gentleman and found myself in a similar situation.”

In each instance, Walker went to health clinics to have the abortions.

After her second abortion, Walker said she felt numb and depressed. She went through two recovery programs through her church as she started what she calls a healing process.

Now, decades later, Walker opposes abortion and shares her views by doing sidewalk counseling once a week outside clinics that perform abortions.

She has written a letter to the four children she would have had, naming them and apologizing for robbing them of “earthly joys, pleasures and knowing the love of God in this world.”

“I don’t have children to love on,” Walker said. “That void is tremendous, tremendous, tremendous. But I know I’ll see my children in heaven, so that gives me great hope. As Christian women, we know how the end is.”

‘If men could get pregnant, there is no way we would have restrictive laws about abortion.’ Amy, 64

Amy turned to her friends after learning she was pregnant the summer after her freshman year in college. It was 1977, and they planned a camping trip to Maryland, where they would take a detour to a clinic Amy’s friends knew performed abortions.

She was 19 and remembers feeling scared. A nurse held her hand during the procedure, which she remembers being painful.

She slept in a tent for the rest of the trip while her friends checked in on her.

“I never looked back,” said Amy, now 64. “I never regretted it. It was the right thing to do. I was 19, I was in no way prepared to have a baby, take care of a child, raise a child, feed a child, house a child. I was pretty much a child myself, and I knew enough to know that that was not a smart thing for me to be doing.”

The person she was dating was supportive and paid for the abortion, but Amy says she knew it wasn’t a long-term relationship.

She didn’t fully understand the women’s rights movement then, but now she’s increasingly angry as she sees abortion rights being rolled back. She attends protests in the Chicago area. One of the signs she carries reads: “Number of laws that control male bodies? Zero.”

As she waits for the birth of her granddaughter, she worries about her future.

“I certainly took it for granted most of my adult life and didn’t think about it,” Amy said of abortion access. “I didn’t worry. Now, I’m terrified. I’m terrified for these young people who are going to — I don’t know how they are going to manage.”

‘Life is unpredictable. Bad things happen. Mistakes happen. Problems occur, birth control fails. It’s not anybody’s fault.’ Anonymous, 70

The woman was starting her sophomore year in college when she learned she was pregnant. It was the fall of 1970 — more than two years before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — and abortion was still criminalized across much of the country.

“It was terrifying,” said the woman, 70, asking for anonymity, saying she fears facing harassment for sharing her story. “I was panicking.”

She wasn’t confident she could handle becoming a mother. Her boyfriend was supportive but wasn’t ready to get married.

Her mother was angry she had gotten pregnant but days later drove her from Ohio to New York, which had just legalized abortions. She remembers the male doctor was gruff, and the nurses talked her through it and held her hand.

“The atmosphere in those days was — it’s kind of hard to even talk about now because it’s so different than the way it is now — but there was a real stigma against abortion,” she said. “But there was also a stigma around people having sex who weren’t married.

“My mother told me, ‘You can’t ever tell anyone about this, ever, because it will ruin your life if you do.’ And I didn’t tell anyone for a long time.”

Eventually, she opened up about her experience to other women. But she says her relationship with her mother was never the same. Her parents made her pay them back for the cost of the abortion.

“Life is unpredictable,” she said. “Bad things happen. Mistakes happen. Problems occur, birth control fails. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just something that has to be dealt with. And it’s not a reason to be ashamed or humiliated.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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