I Couldn’t Tell My Family About My Abortion. Texas's Ban Targets The Support System I Relied On.

The law seeks to prevent abortions by imposing one of the cruelest restrictions of all: isolating pregnant people from support systems at a time when they need them more than ever.

A collage of abstracted scenes from an abortion procedure

The most Texas thing about the abortion I had is probably the fact that, beyond my boyfriend, no one else knows I ever had one.

Most of my family is passionately anti-abortion, and I grew up hearing that women who get abortions will be sent to hell. I know firsthand how complex it can be — not only the decision to abort, but whether to tell your loved ones or anyone else.

I never planned on talking about it publicly.

But my abortion has been front of mind since Sept. 1, when Senate Bill 8 went into effect. It is the most restrictive abortion law in the country. It outlaws abortions past six weeks — before many women even realize they’re pregnant — and allows no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. As a legal loophole to keep it from being struck down in court, the bill allows private citizens, rather than the state, to file lawsuits against anyone they suspect of aiding in illegal abortions.

In 2018, the support, care, and streamlined professionalism I encountered in the lead-up to my abortion relieved my anxiety and undermined the harrowing images I’d grown up to expect. I’d imagined leering faces and medieval tools. Instead, I received compassion and open arms.

The experience I had is no longer possible in my state. Now, people who can get pregnant in Texas face a nightmare that threatens to be far more traumatic and dangerous than my own — whether that means scrambling to travel to another state or opting for an at-home abortion, potentially without the guidance of a medical professional.

The way in which the new law aims to separate pregnant people from the care they need is one of the most insidious things about it. Instead of directly targeting those seeking abortions, it targets the support systems they rely on during the process, such as doctors, volunteers, and even the rideshare drivers who take women to appointments.

In a state where many people facing unwanted pregnancy might not have family to turn to, a law that sabotages the only support systems that remain just makes their journey that much more merciless.

Since I couldn’t confide in my family, the doctor and other clinic staff were the only source of support I had leading up to my abortion — and even with them on my side, it was a lonely, exhausting experience. In a state where many people facing unwanted pregnancy might not have family to turn to, a law that sabotages the only support systems that remain just makes their journey that much more merciless.

That journey doesn’t always end with the abortion. Even years later, I still can’t tell my family. I would lose — or at the very least, seriously fracture — my relationship with my mother, who is the only parent I have left. I would not be welcome in my relatives’ homes. So I can’t sign my full name to this piece.

The beliefs that led to the Texas abortion ban fuel a stigma strong enough to cut me off from people I love. But that's the point. This law seeks to prevent abortions by imposing one of the cruelest restrictions of all: isolating pregnant people from every last support system they have, at a time when they need them more than ever.

Three years ago, my period was late. I blamed stress: I’d just started a new job. My boyfriend had just moved to Texas to be with me and we were living with my mom (in separate bedrooms, with random nightly checks to make sure one of us hadn’t snuck into the other’s room), so the adjustment was taking a toll.

When there was still no sign of it a few days later, I left early for work the next morning to grab some tests.

Just in case, I repeated to myself. You aren’t. But just in case.

Trying to stay calm in the car, I counted back to my last period. I estimated that If I Was — I didn’t want to even say it, in case that would catalyze some kind of immaculate conception, but If I Was — I was about six weeks along.

In the drugstore, I tried to draw as little attention as possible. I picked the box closest to hand level and plucked it from the shelf without breaking stride. It was a Monday morning, and I could guess what some people might say to a twentysomething woman without a wedding ring buying a pregnancy test.

The woman in front of me in the checkout line was buying the morning-after pill from a scoffing cashier. When I came up and handed her the box, I saw her lip curl.

If this thing came out positive, I knew side glances at CVS would be just the beginning. A haughty cashier was one thing. What if I decided to weigh my options at a clinic, where volunteers in orange vests might have to hustle me through a crowd of jeering protesters?

Part of me didn’t want to take the test at all. Maybe if I ignored it, I wouldn’t have to deal with it, and I could spare myself from any other judgmental strangers I might come across.

But I knew waiting would just make things worse. Before I could come up with an excuse, I found myself peeing on a plastic stick in my office bathroom. I sat with my pants around my ankles and stared at the test awaiting the verdict. Beyond my stall, toilets flushed and hand dryers roared and coworkers chatted at the sinks.

When I saw “pregnant” on the tiny screen, I laughed, because I was desperate to believe it couldn’t happen this way. Yeah, sure, pregnant. At 24, making $33,000 a year, college degree half-done, finding out in the bathroom at work while their coworkers fart in the next stall. Sure. This isn’t how people find out they’re pregnant, I reasoned with myself. People find out they’re pregnant at home, with their spouses anxiously but politely waiting outside the door.

Reality sunk in over the course of the day. When the screen still hadn’t budged after the tenth time I checked, my heart dropped. I figured it was time to text my boyfriend.

What are you gonna do? he asked.

My parents are both one of seven children. They met at their Catholic high school and both came from big Midwestern Catholic families where weekly mass was nonnegotiable and the local priests had a standing invitation to Sunday pot roast. With the Vatican staunchly anti-contraception, my grandmothers’ full-time jobs were bearing and raising children.

In sixth grade, when I learned about birth control for the first time, I was stunned to realize that women didn’t necessarily have to have children. It was still on my mind that summer when my mom took me and my siblings for our yearly visit to Nebraska, where both her family and my dad’s lived. Our first night there, sitting at my grandparents’ dinner table — barely long enough to accommodate the four or five sets of aunts and uncles who’d come for supper and the roughly 20 kids they all had between them — I examined the rows of smiling, June-tanned faces all around me. This wasn’t inevitable? I wondered.

I decided to get answers straight from the source.

My Grandma Dot was a smart woman who’d grown up in a one-street Tennessee town. She’d earned a nursing degree and converted to Catholicism in the ’50s to marry my grandfather, who made a good living as a banker. The first of their seven children was born nine months after the wedding.

A few days into that summer trip, when my cousins had emptied out of the house for a backyard water balloon fight, I sat beside her on the couch, where she was reading. I was too young and my curiosity burned far too hot for me to preface my question or work up to it.

“Did you want to have seven kids?” I asked, before she’d even looked at me.

Grandma Dot used one small, wrinkled forefinger to keep her place in the pages of her daily devotional.

Patiently, she explained she’d left it up to God, and that she’d happily accepted the children she’d been sent.

This was informative, but not entirely satisfying. It was the same thing I’d heard from my own mom and from the teachers at the Catholic school I attended.

A few weeks later, it was time to stay with my dad’s parents. They loved each other, but they were an odd match. My grandpa was a taciturn man who wrote for a local newspaper. He’d enlisted in the military during the Korean War, but his passive nature frustrated my grandma. She was self-reliant and blunt. When he still hadn’t proposed long after they’d first started dating, she was the one to finally suggest they marry.

A writer’s salary between nine people meant money was usually tight in my dad’s family. My grandpa worked long hours, and the bulk of the pressure of raising seven kids fell to Grandma Maria.

“Honey, no one asked me what I wanted.” 

The first morning of our visit that summer, I joined Grandma Maria in the kitchen. The house was still quiet. She was leaning against the counter, doing the daily crossword in her pastel-striped nightgown. I climbed onto a stool on the other side of the bar.

Grandma Maria always talked to me with the same gravity and consideration adults usually only reserve for other adults. I could count on her for another perspective.

“Grandma, did you want seven kids?”

There was silence for a moment. She set down the crossword and looked at me over her glasses.

“Honey, no one asked me what I wanted.”

Her voice held no anger or self-pity. It was just a matter of fact.

I didn’t share these exchanges with my parents, and definitely not my mother. While my dad’s experience growing up with little and the inequity he’d seen as a poor student at an expensive Catholic school later informed his own more liberal views, my mom was outspoken about her conservative beliefs, especially those regarding abortion.

When my teenage cousin gave birth while I was in middle school, my mom told me, “If that ever happens to you, you’re giving the baby up for adoption.”

She was telling, not asking. That was her teaching style when it came to issues like sex. My mom is a kind, intelligent woman and a good parent. I have overwhelmingly happy childhood memories. But when it came to sex, we had few give-and-take conversations and lots of moral-based lectures. There was little discussion about my own developing opinions. But I find it hard to resent her for that now. It was probably how she’d been raised too.

Babies were blessings, she always said, and nothing else mattered. If you had made the irresponsible decision to have sex before marriage and got pregnant, there was no question — you were having that baby.

My mom’s side of the family echoed these beliefs. Politics was a go-to after-dinner topic for my brash Irish relatives — or at least the men, who relaxed around the table while my aunts and female cousins and I cleared plates and prepared dessert.

I heard my grandpa say he could never vote for any politician who supported abortion, or knowingly have anything to do with someone who’d had one. It was a sin on par with murder — maybe even worse, the consensus was, since you were killing an innocent baby.

Maybe at first it was my form of adolescent rebellion against such force-fed ideas, but even as early as junior high, I didn’t share my family’s vehement disapproval of abortion. The concept of not being able to do with your own body as you saw fit didn’t reconcile with my vision of womanhood. My parents always told me that if I used my head and trusted my instincts, I would grow up to be smart and capable and independent. If that were true, I reasoned, then why should I ever have to buy into what others were pressuring me to — that abortion would send me to hell?

As I got older, I did my best to hold my own against my relatives. It’s not a sin to want to be in charge of your own body, I argued. Women weren’t created only to make babies, and we definitely weren’t obligated to have them just because we could.

I got the impression that some of my relatives pitied me for what they saw as my underdeveloped moral compass. I was 16 when, after one of these debates, my grandpa put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re a smart girl, Alex. But on some of these things, your head is just full of holes.”

My dad, a writer like his father, was a refuge for me. He never told me he didn’t have time for me, and he never dismissed my teenage interests (Phantom of the Opera and Batman chief among them) as silly or unworthy of his attention. We never discussed abortion, so I don’t know my dad’s thoughts on the issue, but I am certain that, even if we disagreed, he wouldn’t have tried to shame me or tell me I was wrong. When I was a teenager who was still figuring out what I believed, his patience and enthusiasm meant the world.

I had just finished high school when my dad died unexpectedly. It devastated me. The one person I felt was on my side no matter what was gone.

My mom went out of her way to show she would support me while I tried to get myself back on track. She found me a therapist, let me move back home, and did her best to help me adjust to life without my dad — even though she was deep in grief herself.

Her support knew one limit, however — and a couple years later, when I came home from work with a positive test in my bag, I’d reached it. I knew I couldn’t tell her I was pregnant. It wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t ready to be a parent, or that I was just starting to put my life back together. It wouldn’t matter that I was still figuring out how to take care of myself, nevermind a child.

It would probably break her heart to know I didn’t feel safe going to her when I needed her. It broke mine, too.

I wore baggy shirts to hide my growing breasts. When morning sickness hit, I puked in my bathroom as quietly as possible, with the bathtub faucet on to drown out the sound.

I began researching nearby abortion clinics. Being in the Bible Belt, I knew I had to be extra careful; it isn't uncommon here for faith-based "crisis centers" to pose as reproductive health advocates in order to scare or guilt pregnant women out of seeking an abortion. I did hours of research on each clinic I found, scouring online reviews and forums for feedback from women who’d been to them.

I ended up making exploratory calls to two places from the privacy of my car before work. The woman who answered the phone for the second one sounded nicer. With no one but my boyfriend on this journey with me, I clung to the sound of her reassuring voice.

She asked if I knew how far along I was. I told her about six weeks.

"Women who are a little further along are higher priority,” she said. “I'll schedule your first appointment for a week from now."

So for the next week, I had to be pregnant. The looming cost — not to mention the nausea — kept me up at night. Even with both of us working full time, my boyfriend and I didn’t make enough to comfortably afford an unexpected thousand-dollar medical bill. Plus, I had images in my head of angry protestors screaming at me as I walked up to the clinic. I wasn’t getting cold feet, but as the appointment drew nearer, I was getting nervous.

On my lunch breaks, I looked up ways to induce a miscarriage naturally. I found a list of over-the-counter supplements that had supposedly worked for other women and stopped at Walmart after work to stock up.

But the regimen was intense — a combination of five different supplements, in multiple doses every hour for days. After choking down the first round, I decided it wasn’t worth it and dumped the bottles in a trash can at work, where my mom wouldn't accidentally find them and ask what I was doing.

With that avenue abandoned and nothing to do but wait for the intake appointment, I figured that if I had to be pregnant for the next week, then I might as well let myself appreciate it. I indulged my cravings for chocolate shakes with late-night Whataburger runs with my boyfriend. I downloaded a pregnancy tracker app to get daily updates about what was going on in my uterus. “The embryo is the size of a pomegranate seed,” it said the day I downloaded it. “The embryo is the size of a blueberry,” it said the morning of my intake appointment.

The clinic didn’t look any different from the other buildings around. There were flowerbeds in front of the sign. There was no violent crowd of protesters, only a gray-haired woman holding faded posters and sitting in a camping chair far from the front doors.

In the examination room, the nurse warmed up some jelly while I unbuttoned my jeans. She made small circles on my stomach with the ultrasound wand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the image on the monitor flash and warp as my uterus — still tiny at this stage and easily obscured by the bladder — came in and out of focus.

I watched her while she watched the screen. Would she force me to look at the embryo or hear the heartbeat? Both were required by Texas’s informed consent law — even though doctors have emphasized that fetal cardiac activity is not the same as a heartbeat, which is not always detectable as early as six weeks. Still, anti-abortion groups claim these measures increase the chance of a woman changing her mind about abortion. Similar laws are in place in Georgia and Louisiana.

After a minute, she told me she’d found the embryo and offered to play the “heartbeat.” I declined.

There was a polite knock on the door, and the doctor let himself in. The “abortion doctor” I’d imagined after years of my family’s anti-abortion rhetoric was gaunt and gnarled with glinting, opaque glasses — like DC’s deranged Dr. Hugo Strange. But this one looked more like the next-door neighbor who brings in your mail when you’re out of town. He was smiling and gray-haired, slightly round under his polo shirt. He introduced himself cheerfully.

He took the ultrasound wand from the nurse and examined the monitor for himself. “There are a few things Texas law requires me to tell you,” he said. He explained the alternatives to abortion and the availability of social services like adoption counseling and Medicaid to assist women who can’t otherwise afford prenatal care. His voice was monotone; it sounded like he’d recited this a thousand times.

“With that out of the way,” he said, his voice merry again as he handed me a wipe for my stomach, “here are some things I want you to know: The majority of partners who are required to pay child support in Texas do not pay or do not pay their court-mandated amount. A woman is more likely to experience complications and die in childbirth than from an abortion. Abortion does not increase your chances of breast cancer. Abortion will not affect your fertility.”

Then, he leaned forward on his stool. “Most importantly,” he said, gently, “this is your choice.”

I felt my breath catch in my throat. I’d wanted to hear those words for years. The fact that I was finally hearing them, not from my family, but from a stranger who provided abortions — someone relatives always said would pressure me and make me feel I had no other option — was surreal.

I finally looked at the monitor, where the black-and-white image of my uterus and the tiny bubble inside it still glowed. On my way out of the clinic, I made an appointment for an abortion the following week.

It was storming on the day of my abortion. My boyfriend drove me to the clinic on rain-slick roads. The gray-haired woman was outside in her camping chair again, sheltering under her wilting signs.

On procedure days, patients arrived before regular business hours. We paid at the front desk — about $1,000 total; the phone and car insurance bills would have to wait — and then my boyfriend and I were shown to a waiting room toward the back of the building. Everyone inside was here for the same thing.

I’d imagined what this day would be like over and over for two weeks. I thought there would be sunglasses on and hoodies pulled down over faces. I thought we’d all be too embarrassed to acknowledge one another, too scared to talk or laugh. I had imagined stillness, silence, shame, and dread.

But there was life in this room. No one hid their faces. One woman got up for water and asked the woman next to her if she wanted some too. Another was giggling with her husband in the corner. Among the pen-scratching and pamphlet-leafing and Snapchat-checking, we were all here to be cared for — and, if needed, to care for one another. I felt a sense of protectiveness among these strangers in a Texas abortion clinic.

Every time the nurse called a name, we all looked up from our phones and magazines and watched her go, as if our gazes could follow her out and afford her one last layer of comfort and security.

Around nine, they called my name. I passed the only other woman left waiting. Our eyes met for an instant until the door swung closed behind me.

Lying on the exam table in a hospital gown and with my legs in stirrups, I tried to memorize the way my body felt. The swollen feeling between my hips, like period bloating; the heaviness of my breasts; the shallowness of my breathing. The lights were dimmed to a soothing glow, but my nerves made the shadows jump. How would I feel when this was done?

A counselor named Carrie sat in a chair beside me. She broke the silence by telling me about herself. It turned out we'd both gone to the same college one or two years apart. I told her I’d studied music, and she told me how one semester she’d signed up for a keyboarding class because she’d thought it meant piano, but turned out to be computers. I laughed. The knot in my stomach eased.

Carrie told me that if I needed to during the procedure, I could hold her hand.

I thought about all the kind hands offered to pregnant women over millennia of childbirth and abortion — warm, gentle links through time.

The way she said it — casually, but so full of love and compassion for me, a stranger — made my throat tight. In this cold, empty, sterile room, here was a tiny offer of comfort. I thought about all the kind hands offered to pregnant women over millennia of childbirth and abortion — warm, gentle links through time.

I also thought about all the women with no comforting hands around them, the women who had to lie on their backs just like this, but frightened and feeling alone.

The doctor arrived not long after. In a calm, even voice, he explained each thing he did — that I would feel a pinch as he dilated my cervix and pressure as he removed the contents of my uterus with a small vacuum.

The small dose of fentanyl entering me through an IV reduced but didn’t eliminate the pain. It felt like sharp period cramps. When I started gripping the railing with one hand to keep from squirming, I reached without thinking for Carrie with the other. She took my palm between both of hers and let me squeeze as hard as I needed while she made soft little circles against my skin with her thumb. It did more for me than another dose of fentanyl would have.

The abortion itself took no more than 15 minutes.

Carrie wheeled me to the recovery area and my head buzzed as the painkillers worked their way through my system. But a small sticker on the wall caught my eye. It was faded and tearing at the corners, placed carefully next to the swinging doors we were about to go through, eye level so women being wheeled away to recover wouldn’t miss it. It said:

Every day, good women have abortions.

I stared at the words until we passed them, and then I could no longer see anything clearly. A rush of tears flooded my eyes. I wept into the blanket on my lap.

These weren’t tears of regret or guilt or shame, but of total relief. I knew having an abortion didn’t make me a bad woman, but it was something I’d never heard affirmed before. The fact that such a pivotal message had come from a simple sticker, something that probably thousands of women before me had seen following their own abortions, comforted me even more.

Over time, I slowly began to forget little details of my abortion. I deleted the pregnancy tracker app from my phone. I stopped keeping track of how many weeks had passed since the procedure. I no longer appreciated how it felt to wake up without nausea. Soon other thoughts took up the space in the front of my mind — moving out of my mom’s place, graduating college, getting a new job, celebrating anniversaries, mundane routines pulling me ever more distant from the memory of that October.

...Until this year, when there was another unplanned pregnancy in my immediate family. This time, it was my brother and his girlfriend. They were around the same age my boyfriend and I had been when I’d gotten pregnant. But unlike us, they decided they were ready to be parents.

My brother told me on the phone. I warned him to be prepared for our mom’s reaction about his child being born out of wedlock. They were going to tell her the next evening.

With my brother’s announcement so soon, I flirted with the idea of telling my mom a secret of my own. I wanted so badly to confide in her about my abortion. Maybe this would pave the way to some kind of closure.

The night after my brother told her the news, I stopped by her house. We sat down at her kitchen table with a pitcher of iced tea between us.

“So, your brother told you?”

I made a noncommittal noise into my tea. “What do you think about it?”

My mom sighed. “Well, they’re not married, it’s not ideal. But it’s a blessing. Thank God they decided to keep the baby.” She glanced at me. “That’s the most important thing.”

My heart sank, but I just nodded. For a moment, I watched condensation bead and drip down the pitcher. Any desire I’d felt to tell her about my abortion evaporated into thin air. My chance at closure had never really existed in the first place.

My brother’s baby is a few months old now. If there were ever a time to tell my mom about my abortion, it’s long past. The fact that she so cherishes her only grandchild — playing guitar to him, rocking him to sleep, fawning over gurgles and smiles — would only make my decision to abort seem even uglier.

For the most part, I’ve made peace with keeping this secret forever.

My grandmothers didn’t have much choice in the size of their own families. My mom probably wasn’t told when she was growing up that she could choose what to believe for herself. My brother and his girlfriend chose to go through with their unplanned pregnancy. I chose to have an abortion.

But when it comes to telling my family, my choice is difficult. Do I tell them about my abortion and risk losing them? Or do I hide it forever?

Maybe someday things will change, and I’ll decide the risk is worth taking. For now, though, I choose not to tell them. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer