Three Abortion Stories for a Post-Dobbs America

By Public Discourse, originally published June 17, 2024

Dear reader, as you step away from my story, I have two requests: first, believe women when they tell you about sexual violence. And second, recognize that abortion coercion is real. 

Editors’ Note: Yesterday, we published a Manifesto for a post-Dobbs pro-life America which argued for a new focus on unwanted and coerced abortion. Today, we are sharing three narrative stories from women that illustrate some of what was described in the Manifesto. The first story was written by the victim herself. The other two were recorded and transcribed. They have not been edited, except to correct minor grammatical and spelling errors. 

Please be advised that these stories contain information about sexual violence, pregnancy loss, prenatal diagnosis, and coerced abortion.

Aimee’s Story: Surviving Sexual Violence and Abortion Coercion

Aimee Murphy is the founder of Rehumanize International, a non-partisan, secular organization dedicated to bringing an end to all aggressive violence against human beings through education, discourse, and action. She has a B.A. in Ethics, History, and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

Imagine me as a high school sophomore: somehow both gangly and pudgy, with five-feet nine-and-a-half inches of freckled Latina skin, chocolate brown eyes, and mid-length, almost black hair, all topped with a shy smile. I had the requisite acne and braces. I was on the volleyball and basketball teams but was also a grade-A nerd who played three instruments and went to band camp.

I also had crippling self-doubt and body dysmorphia common to teen girls of my era. I was out as bisexual and was (unknowingly) dealing with undiagnosed autism and ADHD. I’d long been bullied.

In part because of these issues, I cared passionately about human rights—but I didn’t know what that looked like in practice. Of course, I was pro-choice: if you were a feminist in California, you were pro-choice. At the time, it was a nice-sounding ideal, but vague. After all, they don’t offer ethics classes in standard public school curricula.

So there I was, a queer, atheist, feminist pro-choicer. And at sixteen years old, I found myself entangled in an on-again, off-again relationship with a guy a year my senior. After months of sexual encounters where I caved in trying to win his affection, I eventually told him that I wasn’t comfortable having sex anymore. He promptly broke up with me.

Not even a month later, on Valentine’s Day, he called me weeping. He said he was “so lonely.” I rolled my eyes, but part of me also really missed him. I grudgingly agreed he could come over to talk, but I emphasized it would be just to talk.

At that time, my parents had a strict rule: no members of the opposite sex in the house while they were out. I told him we’d have to sit on the porch. In retrospect, I think my saying that alerted him to the fact that my parents weren’t home, and he took advantage of it.

I sat on the stoop to wait for him. He pulled into the driveway and slammed his car door. I stood to welcome him, which triggered my postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), and I whited out. (POTS involves ringing in the ears, dizziness, no vision, and confusion.) When I regained awareness of my surroundings, he was on top of me, and I was pushing against him, whimpering “no.” He unzipped my pants, and I froze and dissociated: my brain went somewhere else.

I used to blame myself for not crying out. I later learned that “freezing” and dissociation are common trauma responses in times of immense pain and terror. I don’t blame myself anymore. I just try to have compassion for that scared, hurt teenage girl.

That experience of violence wrecked me in many ways, but I finally recognized his manipulation and abuse. Our relationship was over.

I tried to warn our mutual friends (particularly the other girls my age and younger) that he wasn’t a safe person—that he had treated me horribly and hurt and raped me. They wouldn’t believe me. “He’s such a nice guy, he would never do something like that!”

My peers assumed I was just a spurned lover, lying to spare my reputation. They called me “slut” and “whore.” I tried to keep up with classes, sports, and music, but my grades and my life felt like they’d dropped off a cliff. Within weeks, I lost most of my friends. And their responses convinced me not to report the rape to the authorities. I was sure that if my own (former) friends wouldn’t believe me, neither would the cops.

March passed and April came, and I still hadn’t had a period. I was panicked at the possibility I could be pregnant by my rapist. I was a straight-A student, a starter on the JV basketball team just pulled up to Varsity for playoffs, an honor band musician preparing for All-State, predicted by many of my teachers to go to an Ivy League school. I feared having a kid would ruin my life. I thought of nothing but abortion.

I told one of my remaining friends that I thought I might be pregnant and I didn’t know what to do. She recommended calling Planned Parenthood, but I told her I was confident that my very Catholic parents would find out (they tracked my call and text records meticulously). Again, I felt trapped.

I had told only the one friend, but of course, word got around school that I thought I was pregnant. Soon my ex-boyfriend/rapist heard about it. One day he came and pulled me out of my architectural drafting class.

“What do you want?” I asked contemptuously.

“I heard you might be pregnant,” he said.

I nodded. “I haven’t had a period since January. I’m nauseated all the time. I’m gaining weight.”

He looked at me, serious: “Aimee, you need to get an abortion. I’ll drive you and I’ll pay for it, but you need to get it taken care of.”

I scoffed and crossed my arms, indignant he would try to demand anything of me after violating me so horribly. But at the same time, abortion had been the only thing on my mind for days, weeks even. I think part of me was relieved at the suggestion.

“Why is this important to you?” I asked.

He replied, “I can’t let my mom find out about what happened. Honestly, if you don’t get an abortion, I’m thinking that I might kill you.”

My body froze in fear. I told him he needed to leave.

That conversation was transformative. My rapist was essentially saying, “You are a problem for me and my future, therefore I am going to kill you.” I don’t know that I could have coherently explained it at the time, but a part of me realized that if I were to have an abortion, I’d be saying the same. And in that instant, I understood what so many pregnant people endure as they are pressured or coerced by partners, parents, employers, and institutions.

A week or so later, my parents learned I suspected I was pregnant and took me to get a pregnancy test. It was negative. Shortly thereafter, I had what was probably the worst period of my life. I’ve since learned more about HCG testing and miscarriage, and to this day I still wonder. Did I just experience irregular periods coinciding with assault? Or had it been a miscarriage?

I had told my parents my fear I might be pregnant, but at the time I did not tell them about my ex’s threats. My social circles hadn’t believed me when I said he raped me. I had no reason to think they or anyone else would believe me if I said he threatened to kill me. Their disbelief and ostracization left me with so much shame. It wasn’t until I was twenty-seven years old that I told my family about the violence my ex-boyfriend had inflicted.

So, dear reader, as you step away from my story, I have two requests: first, believe women when they tell you about sexual violence. And second, recognize that abortion coercion is real. 

Mary’s Story: The Devastation of Prenatal Diagnosis 

The introduction and postscript were written by Tracy Winsor, the co-founder of Be Not Afraid (BNA), a case management support service for parents carrying to term following a prenatal diagnosis. 

Prenatal testing is treated as a routine part of pregnancy in the Western world; this routinization impedes informed consent and obscures the fact that the test results can be life-changing for parents. During the crisis of a prenatal diagnosis, the decision to abort may have little to do with choice. 

Upwards of 80 percent of parents who receive a prenatal diagnosis indicating that their baby has a medical or intellectual disability experience that news as a traumatic event. Most describe the diagnosis as “sudden” and “unexpected,” and 100 percent of traumatized mothers report feeling “fearful,” “helpless,” and in some cases, “numb with fright.”

Trauma has very specific impacts on individuals. Parents may experience fight, flight, or freeze responses when a diagnosis is given, and generally executive functioning is negatively affected. Parents may have difficulty focusing during conversations, understanding and processing new information, recalling details, and problem-solving. It should be noted that these traumatized parents are also expected to make decisions immediately following a diagnosis regarding additional testing and/or abortion. The impact of trauma, coupled with the rush to determine next steps, complicates the provision of informed consent and makes parents vulnerable to directive counseling, which most often encourages abortion.

In Mary’s story below, we see how the decision to abort following a prenatal diagnosis can be coerced when a parent is advised to end the pregnancy. Inaccurate and incomplete information is provided with the insistence that the decision to end the pregnancy should be or must be made quickly. This management of information and sense of urgency deny traumatized parents their autonomy. They experience the prenatal diagnosis as a medical crisis that they are told requires a medical solution, and the only solution offered is to terminate the pregnancy quickly.

Mary’s Story

My name is Mary, and I received a prenatal diagnosis when I was pregnant with my second child.

I was seventeen weeks pregnant and was scheduled to have a routine sonogram. During my sonogram, as soon as the wand (transducer) touched my pregnant belly, the sonographer gasped loudly. When I asked what was wrong, she would not tell me, but I knew from the look on her face that something was wrong with my baby. I was told that my doctor would call me ASAP to discuss. 

My doctor called and told me that the sonogram revealed a potential birth defect. He said I needed to have a second ultrasound and bloodwork to confirm or rule out a diagnosis and his office had scheduled both tests for the next morning. At that point, fear set in. My husband and I were trying to stay calm, but we didn’t sleep a wink that night. 

The next morning, we had the ultrasound and blood work, and we had an appointment to meet the doctor in his office late that afternoon. At that appointment, he told us our baby had Edwards Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 18, and that it was a chromosome defect. He said it’s very rare, and it wasn’t anything I did that caused this to happen. I remember shaking while he was speaking. 

He continued and told us our baby, if born alive, would only live for twenty-four hours. He told me the best course of action was to have an induction of birth and terminate the pregnancy. He could arrange the induction for the next day as the baby could die in my womb and that would be an “even worse operation.”  He said I needed to let him know immediately if I wanted the induction done because he had “a doctor” who would do it, despite my being seventeen weeks pregnant. I had no idea what that meant. He also said that my life was at risk, that “I could die” if I continued with the pregnancy. 

My husband and I panicked at this point, and we felt an urgency to get the induction over with. We had a one-year-old at home, and we immediately agreed to have the induction the next day. I believe I was in shock; I remember calling my mom and I could not even explain what was happening. I told her “the pregnancy was ending,” that it had to, “that I could die and the baby is dying.”  

The grief and shock were overwhelming, that in just three days our little baby was gone, and I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I didn’t know how to explain what had to happen to our family, to friends, the neighbors, the deli guy, the dry-cleaning lady. I can still see in my mind the puzzled looks on their faces. I went through the motions for days in a fog, my husband went to work, and we eventually got on with our lives. 

It wasn’t until twenty years later, when I was taking a class, that I came upon the word “induction” again. I thought I knew that word, but attached to that word was the word abortion, an “induction abortion.” I thought wait a minute; I had an abortion? I killed my baby. You may be thinking that I was stupid, I mean the doctor used the word termination, but it did not register, and I cannot explain why, and I now feel very stupid as I write these words. The only thing I can say is that we were shocked, heartbroken, frantic, very scared, and we were pushed to move at a fast pace before it all registered. 

I immediately started searching the internet for any information I could get on Trisomy 18. I could not believe that some Trisomy 18 babies lived beyond twenty-four hours. Some even lived for years. Yes, some have severe health conditions and multiple birth defects, but they were living! I also searched frantically for any information about whether a mom who was carrying a Trisomy 18 baby was at risk for death. I found nothing suggesting that. 

That’s when the grief, the anger, and the shame surfaced. How could this have happened? I don’t know, and I still question it to this day. If my husband and I had taken a time out, if someone had explained that there was a chance our baby would live and what that would look like, we might have taken a different course of action. We might have had a second child to love, for as long as we could love it, but we don’t know, we never got that chance.

A Concluding Note from Tracy

Having supported more than 300 mothers and/or couples carrying to term following a prenatal diagnosis in my work with Be Not Afraid, I wish I could say that Mary’s story is unique. However, for a number of reasons, abortion is often presented to parents as their best option, and sometimes even their only option.

It is also likely that the risks to mothers who don’t abort may be overstated, when in fact research indicates that there is an emotional benefit to moms who carry to term. Similarly, little discussion may be offered regarding the emotional, physical, and moral risks of the abortion being recommended. Mothers in this situation are at high risk of moral injury, a specific type of trauma that occurs when one transgresses her own moral or ethical beliefs.

In addition, like Mary, the majority of parents with a prenatal diagnosis of Trisomy 18 are told that their baby will die shortly before or after birth. The assurance of lethality may be made mistakenly by doctors who believe it to be true. It is also true that in many cases lethal language is used to make abortion an easier option. This passive coercion denies parents the right to make meaningful decisions regarding the care of their child based on a pervasive judgment that the life of their child with a significant-to-severe physical and intellectual disability isn’t worth living. The use of lethal language is one of the most egregious ways in which parents are denied autonomy.

At diagnosis, parents need supportive care that helps them sort through their feelings of loss and trauma while helping them make sense of what they have been told regarding test results and the prenatal diagnosis they have been given. Parents experiencing a prenatal diagnosis have the right to something more than directive care that sacrifices their autonomy and choice in order to promote abortion. 

To be responsive in the immediacy of a prenatal diagnosis, this support must be trauma-informed and parent-centered, and in this way protect autonomy. Trauma-informed care for parents with atypical prenatal testing results provides connection, supports them in navigating the uncharted path ahead of them, facilitates parent experiences of agency, and communicates belonging for the baby. With this type of comprehensive support, parents are able to regain the sense of safety and control necessary to participate fully in decisions about their care and the care of their child. Most parents will carry to term if offered supportive space in which to make that choice.

Kay’s Story

Kay is an eighty-six-year-old retired nurse, widow, and former religious sister.  She has lived through a period of great social and moral change from 1937 to the present. She is a beloved member of a neighborhood and church in New Orleans. She dictated her story below as the memories flooded back to her.

I was raised in a devout Catholic family in New Orleans and entered a religious community of sisters in 1951 at the very young age of fourteen. For eighteen years, I lived a simple and sheltered life in a cloistered monastery. But by the 1960s, we began to attend conferences and hear speakers that exposed us to new ideas in the areas of psychology and theology.  

I attended college for a year in Minnesota and was exposed to art, music, and the liberal arts. I told one of my professors who was a religious sister, “I want to walk down every road in the world.” I wanted to know what the real world was like and had become restless and unhappy with my life in the monastery. So I left in my early thirties and lived in a boarding house in a city in Kentucky and worked as a nurse’s aide.  

I began to feel an inner loneliness. I returned to the monastery in New Orleans for another two years, after which I left for good. I lived with my brother’s family in Kentucky for awhile and later moved in with my parents back in New Orleans. 

Throughout this time I dated several men. I eventually became very depressed. I began to explore other areas of spirituality, Eastern philosophy, meditation, reincarnation. I attended lectures on metaphysics. At one lecture I met an older man named Frank, a retired minister who lectured on mystical experiences. It was love at first sight. After I attended a couple of his talks, we started dating. He traveled extensively and lectured around the country.

I was thirty-four years old and it was 1971. We had only been dating for about four months. I thought that I might be pregnant but did not go to the doctor at first. I called Frank instead. He flew in to spend time with me. At first, he said, “If you are pregnant, then we really ought to get married.” I took that as a proposal. I was thrilled and wanted to have the baby with him as a married couple. 

I went to the doctor while Frank was in town. The doctor confirmed that I was pregnant. But after Frank had a few days to think more about it, he changed his mind. He said, “I have been thinking about this and I don’t think your family would ever forgive you for being pregnant without being married.” He told me he thought that I should get an abortion. 

I was very surprised. I knew my family would have accepted it. We talked it over for several days, and Frank would not back down. He was very insistent. At that point, I realized he was probably trying to protect his reputation. I was so disappointed because I was so in love with him. I loved him enough to help protect him. I was also afraid Frank would leave me and never come back. I believed in reincarnation and thought the baby would go back to Heaven.

He gave me some money and I had to borrow the rest from the bank. I bought a ticket and flew by myself to New York. I took a cab to the hospital. There was a married couple in the waiting room. They told me they already had three children and couldn’t afford another one. They were there for an abortion too. I had the procedure and it was very painful. They kept me at the hospital for only a few hours. Then I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I was in so much pain I could not go to work for a week. I kept it a secret from my parents even though I lived with them. 

After a few days, I called Frank to tell him how much pain I was in. It was several months before I would see him again. At the time I had the abortion, I believed in reincarnation. I believed I had done what was good for my baby, sending the little child back to God, so that he could come back again in a better life. His father didn’t really want him and was traveling all the time. I thought it would not have been a good life for my baby.

We continued our relationship and we married a year later. A few years later I completed nursing school and began my career as a nurse. I would eventually take care of Frank, who developed Alzheimer’s, until he passed away. After that, I became somewhat of an agnostic, but I was always longing for God. 

Years passed. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, my mother needed care and we began to live together. I loved my mother very much and she was a devout Catholic. We lived together for about four years until she passed away. Two weeks after she died, I walked down to the Catholic church in my neighborhood. I walked into the church. I thought to myself, “What am I doing in here?” I saw there was a light on in the confessional. I entered and said to the priest, “Mass is in ten minutes and you don’t have time for forty years of sin.” I got up to leave and he asked me to stay. Then he said, “Tell me your top three.” Just like that, after forty years, I was back in the Church.

Within a year I confessed the abortion again, to a different priest. I told him that at the time, I thought I did the best for my baby, sending this little child back to God. The priest said, “But that was not your call.” That’s when I got it. It was not my call. 

A few months later, I confessed sins that I thought I had forgotten to a different priest at the Jesuit church. He said, “Were you truly sorry for all of the sins of your past when you came back to the church and made that confession?” “Yes,” I said. “Those sins are all forgiven, never confess those again.” I felt totally free and forgiven.

I called my cousin, Father Michael, one night and told him I had had an abortion. He told me, “Your child is in Heaven waiting for the mother to give him his name.” So I named my baby Michael Joseph, for my great grandfather. I had heard all my life what a holy man my great-grandfather was. The day he died he had been shaving in front of the mirror. He said, “How beautiful a man’s face when he accepts the will of God.” And just as he died, he whispered the name of Jesus. He was the saint of our family. I have a relationship with my baby, Michael Joseph. I pray to him, ask him for help, I know he hears me, I feel the peace.

Looking back, I don’t know how people make it without faith. I’m so grateful the Lord had mercy and took me back.

I don’t approve of abortion but I never judge anyone else, because I did it. I would advise anybody, please don’t. It’s not our call.