She Thought She Knew What Pro-Choice Meant. Then She Volunteered at a Clinic.

I held a lot of judgmental views and internalized stigma about abortion. As a reverend I'm now working to dismantle the shame within myself—and the church.

Photo of protesters outside NYC Catholic church holding sign that reads Free Abortion on Demand!
A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice by Rev. Katey Zeh is being released today. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

On a steamy June morning in 2007, I made the one-mile drive from my apartment to the abortion clinic where I’d scheduled my appointment. As I turned off the main road and onto the side street where the facility was located, I felt a prickling surge of adrenaline course through my body like an alarm system that had been triggered. Just outside the clinic entrance, a group of protesters, all of them gray-headed and white-presenting, took up most of the length of the sidewalk. One was an older man who wore a clerical collar and held up a Bible in his right hand. They were holding signs bearing gruesome, bloody images and condemning words in bold block lettering I did my best to ignore.

Approaching the parking lot, I had no choice but to bring my car to a near stop as I pulled up into the steep driveway. That momentary pause in my speed was their opportunity, one they had practiced and perfected. Two of the protesters approached my car, thrusting their hands toward the driver’s side window, only a thin pane of glass separating us. They held pamphlets too small for me to read, but I didn’t need to see them to know exactly what they said. You don’t have to kill your baby. I kept my focus on the road, averted my eyes from theirs, and parked as far away from the sidewalk as possible.

I’d arrived at the clinic with time to spare. I’m habitually early, especially when nervous. My appointment wasn’t for a few more minutes, and I wanted the chance to collect myself. I didn’t want the people on the sidewalk to see just how shaken I felt. I dabbed at the beads of sweat on my forehead and estimated how long I thought the walk to the clinic entrance would take me. OK, I thought to myself. This will take less than ten seconds. I can do anything for ten seconds. Then I will be inside, and I won’t have to see them again until I leave. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prayed for peace. Then I stepped out of my car.

With my gaze toward the ground, I hurried across the pavement to the locked clinic door and buzzed the front desk to let them know I was there. After giving them my name, I waited a few seconds, though it felt like minutes, before being let in. That was when I realized that the group of protesters had begun screaming at me from the sidewalk. Their vicious shouts carried as I made my way inside.

“God doesn’t want you to kill your baby!”

“You’ll regret your abortion!”

“You don’t have to do this. We can help you!”

Not that it mattered, but what the protesters didn’t know was that I was not at the clinic to get an abortion that day. I was there to help care for the people who were.

While I am not among the one in four U.S. women who has needed an abortion in her lifetime, I recognize that I could be. I’ve used emergency contraception. I’ve had late periods. I’ve feared that my birth control method had failed. I’ve prayed for a pregnancy test to be negative, and as I’ve waited, I’ve had racing thoughts about what I would do if that pink line appeared. I always imagined that I would become a parent one day, but not when I was a full-time student living with roommates, or while I was working an entry-level job that barely covered my monthly rent and student loan payments, or in the midst of leaving an unstable relationship with an emotionally absent and unemployed partner. To my great relief, the only time that a pink line appeared on a test was when I hoped and prayed it would.

When I walked into the clinic that day, I had thought about what I would encounter inside, but I had not prepared for what it would feel like to be on the outside as a target of the protesters’ rage and shame tactics. I felt all alone, vulnerable, and completely exposed, and yet what I experienced was only a small fraction of the relentless and cruel harassment, shame, and stigma that people face every day as they try to access critical reproductive health care. That experience was jarring, not only because I had been yelled at, but also because I’d been mistaken for an abortion patient. Part of me wanted to scream back, But I’m not here to have an abortion! I’m not even pregnant. The fact that I cared about what these people thought of me and my reason for being there gave me pause.

Until that moment I might have felt firm in my staunchly pro-choice convictions, but being perceived as someone in need of an abortion was deeply unsettling, and I needed to unpack exactly why. In retrospect, I can see clearly that despite my beliefs that abortion should be legal and accessible, I also held a lot of judgmental views and internalized stigma about who actually gets them. In that way, I wasn’t all that different from the protesters. Sure, I supported abortion in the abstract sense as a political and moral issue, but I also bought into false narratives about the people who decide to end their pregnancies—and they were not people like me. I had fallen into the trap of a common narrative shaped by patriarchy and white supremacy that while abortion should be available for others, it was not for people like me. I was convinced that I would never have one myself because I was white and middle class and had access to education.

Thanks to a whole host of unearned privileges, including affordable health care, economic resources, and a bit of good luck, I have not been in the position of making a difficult decision about a pregnancy, but I easily could have been. Had I been confronted with an unplanned pregnancy, I would have had every tool and resource available to make the best decision at the time. Tragically, that is not true for everyone—not even close. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and all other forms of oppression perpetuate systems of reproductive injustice that not only deny marginalized people access to abortion care but also deny their basic human dignity and freedom.

The summer I spent volunteering in an abortion clinic was transformative for me. Since that morning when I first entered the clinic doors, I have had the enormous honor of walking alongside many people through their reproductive journeys. While I never expected to receive a call to ministry inside that clinic, I am grateful each day that I did.

On my first day of volunteering, I was set up to shadow the clinic staff as they guided patients through the entire abortion process from intake to being discharged. I was sitting in a small office with the first patient who had agreed to let me observe her appointment. The staff member had to leave the room for a moment to get a form, and I decided to strike up a conversation with her. We had a lot in common. We were roughly the same age, both full-time students (I was studying theology and she was a criminal justice major), and in serious relationships with boyfriends we were crazy about. But of course, there was one obvious difference: she was pregnant, and I was not. I accompanied her first to her ultrasound, then to the waiting area where she changed into a medical gown, and finally to the procedure room. Patients had the option to have twilight anesthesia, a mild sedative, but she had decided against it. She had come to the clinic alone and had to drive herself home. I wondered why her boyfriend wasn’t there, but I didn’t pry.

As the doctor began the procedure, two tears formed at the corners of her eyes, but she did not make a sound. It sounds cliché to say, but it felt like what was happening to her body was happening to mine too. My face began to flush, my breathing got more shallow, and I broke into a sweat. Much to my embarrassment, one of the nurses had to find me a place to sit down while she fanned me with a file folder so that I wouldn’t pass out. It didn’t help that she was visibly annoyed while doing this. Eventually, my body calmed down, and after a quick mea culpa to the nurse, I walked over to the recovery room to check on the patient whom I’d befriended. To my astonishment, when I walked in the door, she asked me with concern in her eyes, “Are you OK?” before I could ask her the same thing. Her compassion for me, this brand-new volunteer who was clearly green around the ears, was remarkable. At the same time, she shouldn’t have had to care for me in that moment. Looking back, I think my reaction was a combination of my lifelong phobia of doctors, my tendency to feel others’ pain, and if I’m honest, some discomfort I had with the reality of abortion.

The week after my first volunteer shift, I attended a clinic training to learn more about the mechanics of abortion procedures and work through my own feelings about it so that the next time I was with a patient, I was equipped and prepared to center their needs, not my own. I spent most of my weekly shifts holding the hands of patients through their abortions and helping them make their way to the recovery room afterward. It was awkward and holy at the same time, being invited into these vulnerable few minutes of a person’s life. One patient, a woman in her midthirties, had to return to the clinic after her medication abortion had failed to remove all of the fetal tissue from her uterus. As I helped her onto the table and offered her my hand, she locked her eyes on mine and asked me, “Could I look at you until it’s over?” I saw that what I had to offer were not the perfect words of comfort or reassurance but my steadfast presence. It was profoundly simple. In those short, intense minutes, I was fully available to care for her. This is what ministry is, I thought to myself.

I encountered so many different kinds of people in the clinic: teenagers, women in their forties, mothers, students, Black women, Latinx women, white women, those who were fearful, those who were relieved, first-time patients and returning patients, and all of the clinic staff who cared for them with compassion and without judgment. Meanwhile, I was confronting my own biases as I came face-to-face with the realities of people’s lives that my privilege and access had shielded me from.

I remember when one patient asked if she could have a copy of her ultrasound photo because she wanted to add it to her child’s baby book. It wasn’t my place to ask her why, but there are so many reasons she would’ve wanted to memorialize this lost pregnancy alongside the milestones of her child. Perhaps she had miscarried an earlier wanted pregnancy. What I didn’t understand at the time was that for some people, the experience of abortion is a significant reproductive event that they need to process, grieve, and integrate into the larger story of their lives.

Each person I met that summer and every story I have heard since calls me toward greater compassion for those who access abortion care and urges me to confront the systemic injustices that prevent people from truly flourishing and experiencing the lives of abundance that Christ intends for every single person. Bearing witness to these moments and stories has freed me from trying to prove that I am “right” in the public abortion debate. I am no longer interested in circular conversations regarding the moral absolutes of abortion. What I am fully invested in is working to dismantle abortion stigma within myself, in the church, and in the world so that we can start showing up fully and lovingly for the people in our communities who have abortions.

As abortion storyteller and activist Renee Bracey Sherman says, “Everyone loves someone who had an abortion.” We just don’t always know it. This book will introduce you to some amazing people willing to share their abortion stories. I ask that you receive them with open hearts and abundant love.

From A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement by Katey Zeh, copyright 2022 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced with permission.