How Having an Abortion in Texas Strengthened My Fight for Reproductive Rights

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Commentary Abortion

How Having an Abortion in Texas Strengthened My Fight for Reproductive Rights

Emily Rooke-Ley

When I decided to come to Austin for a summer internship with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, I knew I was signing up for an interesting few months. What I didn't know is that at 20 years old, entirely alone in a new city, I would have an abortion myself.

When I decided to come to Austin for a summer internship with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, I knew I was signing up for an interesting few months. Although I had been working in the field of reproductive rights throughout high school and college, I was raised in Oregon—the only state in our nation that has yet to pass abortion restrictions in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. And I attend college in New York, a state where there are no abortion restrictions prior to the 24th week of pregnancy. Before June, I had never been to Texas, let alone to the South.

I had read about the shaky state of reproductive rights in Texas, but I did not anticipate that I would be fighting tooth and nail with anti-choice legislators attempting to hastily and unfairly pass some of the most extreme and draconian abortion bills in the country during a special session, with the two-thirds rule conveniently suspended. I did not anticipate having to beg privileged legislators through my public testimony not to violate my privacy in their attempts to “help” me by doing what they think is best for me. (These legislators ultimately cut off my microphone and walked out on my testimony mid-sentence.)

And at 20 years old, entirely alone in a new city, I certainly did not anticipate having an abortion myself.

I found out I was pregnant on the first day of my internship. Contrary to common rhetoric, my choice to terminate my pregnancy was not the most difficult decision I have ever made, although don’t mistake this for carelessness. I had thought through this scenario before and was sure of my choice before I ever needed to be. Nevertheless, the process of having an abortion was, indeed, quite difficult—Texas law made sure of that. I knew Texas’ abortion restrictions: a 24-hour waiting period, a medically unnecessary sonogram, and a slew of propagandized literature lacking medical evidence. With the follow-up exam, that’s three visits to the clinic. These were all things I would have avoided in Oregon or New York, but doable for me, only because I had some money and my family’s support.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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As I entered the clinic parking lot, I was greeted by a few protesters—all white, male, with Bibles in hand—attempting to shame and scare me in a moment when I most valued my privacy. I recall sitting in the NARAL office on the day before my procedure—the day after I’d sat through hours of heated public testimony on SB 5—when our office received a call from the very clinic where I had my appointment, alerting us to the aggressive presence of anti-choice protesters and the desperate need for clinic escorts. I had to excuse myself and went into the parking lot, where I sat behind a car and cried. I was terrified. I had previously thought about what it would be like to have an abortion, and I knew that, for me, it would be difficult. But, naturally, I had expected it would happen in Oregon or New York and, thus, be difficult because of whatever personal reasons, not because I would have to run the gauntlet of aggressive protesters.

Lying on the reclining chair in the clinic office as the sonographer prepared me for my ultrasound, cold jelly on my belly, I felt tears silently running down my face. I kept thinking to myself, I am the victim of a political game. My body is the victim of a political game. There was absolutely no medical reason for this ultrasound. It was lawful intimidation. I chuckled through tears when the doctor told me, as per Texas law, that an abortion could increase my risk of breast cancer and/or infertility. I knew this was anti-choice politics at play—but what about the other scared young women who came in and didn’t know this? What a terrifying thing to hear. I couldn’t imagine that fear being added to the already difficult situation. As the sonographer rubbed the transducer over my slimy belly, I prayed that she would see the image; if she did not, Texas law would require that I be penetrated, against my will, with a transvaginal ultrasound—which is also medically unnecessary. I was horrified at this prospect, but committed nonetheless to terminating this pregnancy no matter what. Thanks to the excellent care of my doctor and the clinic staff, I was able to do so safely.

Indeed, it has been difficult for me to put into words how violated I felt, trying to process this very personal and emotional event, while simultaneously distracted by the privileged anti-choice legislators on the house and senate floors preaching about a topic they so clearly knew very little about. Each time a legislator began his or her spiel on the need to “improve the standard of care,” I so desperately wanted to scream, “It is fine! I am fine! If it was not fine, we would be asking you to do this!” But I knew nothing I said would matter, because, of course, SB 5 and HB 2 were not at all about improving standards of care. It felt so completely wrong to see state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) sit in his big comfy leather chair on the senate floor, feet up, texting (!), passing judgment on the very process I was going through. He is a lucky man to never have to be put in that position; he is a cruel man for violating me. Yes, it was offensive to the core, and never have I taken politics quite so personally.

Yet, while I was deeply anguished by the legislative intrusion into what was for me the most private of matters, I felt understood and supported. For every anti-choice man who stuck his cross in my face, for every woman who waved a sign reading “I regret my abortion,” and for every parent who told a child that we are murderers, there were ten more of us publicly sharing our most private stories with the hope that maybe, just maybe, an anti-choice legislator would understand.

Never have I seen, even in my very progressive home state, such an incredible outpouring of genuine activism from men and women, young and old. Texas, I am in awe. Texas is where Roe began. It’s the home of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Gov. Ann Richards, famed author and commentator Molly Ivins, lawyer Sarah Weddington who prevailed in Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood President and CEO Cecile Richards. Texas has spirit and pride and a history of activism; it only makes sense that pro-choice Texans would develop an unparalleled Texas-size movement.

Just as the people of the pro-choice movement kept my spirits alive, the pro-choice legislators who so strategically and intelligently maneuvered these bills and the rules of the house and senate inspired me like I have never been before. During the first reading of SB 5, as state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) questioned Sen. Hegar with incredible vigor and fortitude, I wrote in my journal, “Hearing the senate debate is encouraging. The ‘cross-examinations’ by our pro-choice legislators of the bill’s author (who is left stuttering and speechless time and time again) gives me a real sense of hope.” I went home that night and, for the first time, thought about attending law school.

Never have I been more committed in the fight for reproductive rights or more certain that this will be my life’s work. Thank you, Rick Perry! Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber couldn’t do it, nor could New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As Sarah Slamen so eloquently observed, you, Gov. Perry, have succeeded in energizing thousands of men and women against anti-choice legislation, not only in your state, but across our nation.