One day in the summer of 2012 I got a call from my editor at Reuters asking me to do a story on abortion. It was in the middle of the Todd Akin drama, and states around the country were attempting to enact laws that would make it harder for women to obtain safe and legal abortions. Creatively, it was up to me to decide how to tell the story and I spent weeks of late nights sitting in the Times Square office on my laptop watching documentaries and doing research into the issue. Nothing about the story was easy to tell in photos. There were a lot of things that didn’t pan out. I thought maybe I could find a woman to document throughout her pregnancy and abortion, which didn’t work out. I met with New York’s “Abortion Doulas“, but that didn’t pan out either. I made a lot of phone calls, sent a lot of emails. The thing that surprised me most though was when I started talking very openly about the project with my friends, co workers, family and even strangers, how many women told me that they themselves had had an abortion. I’d never really talked about the subject with people before outside of the political realm, maybe because of the stigma, maybe because it just didn’t come up. During my research I had come across the shocking statistic that 1 in 3 American women will have had at least 1 abortion in their lifetime. That’s when I decided to take portraits of women who had had an abortion and talk to them about their stories, the before, during and after, and see how it had affected their life and relationships. I sent out dozens of emails and facebook messages to all my female friends, asking them if they or anyone they knew might be interested in participating. I posted hundreds of ads on craigslist and college message boards. Things were further complicated by us needing to see the medical documentation from the procedure. And yes, there were a lot of shady replies to my postings from right wingers that just didn’t sound real. In the end I talked to 5 women, in 3 states over the course of a year. We released the project in September of 2013 and I wrote a short blog on the Reuters photo blog. The multimedia teams did a fantastic job layering the audio over the photos. Here’s the post and multimedia on Reuters
Jennifer, a 23-year-old nurse, poses for a portrait in her home in New York January 5, 2013. Jennifer says she was 17 when she became pregnant and had an abortion. “I don’t really think about it as much. It’s not hard to talk about… I don’t regret anything. I’m still against abortion. If it’s the one time (and) you made a mistake, you’ll never do it again thing, it’s ok. But if you keep on doing it (without) birth control, it’s so not cool. Because I don’t think that I would be where I am today. Like, 23, a nurse – I wouldn’t have made it here because I would be a little bit behind or I would have to make ends meet by grabbing this. I was able to go straight into school without having to think about anything, and finish. So it was definitely the best decision I ever made,” Jennifer said. “I was against abortion. I really was – I was against it. My mom has gone through so many troubles with pregnancies that I wouldn’t want to do that… But at the same time, at the time I only had one parent there. My father was incarcerated, so I knew he’d be super duper disappointed in me. And then my mom was just like, “You know if you get pregnant you’re out of here because you’re grown.” After that, I made my decision in about two months. After the procedure, I was crying. As soon as I woke up from the bed, I was crying. Crying, crying. And a woman next to me asked me how old I was, and I said ‘17’. She said ‘You did the right thing girl. You did the right thing because you’re too young. You have your whole life ahead of you.’ And, I still think I did the right thing because he’s still a terrible person,” Jennifer said. “He’s not father material… When I went to the clinic and I told him, he wasn’t surprised… He knew he made an accident, but he didn’t tell me he made an accident so I could go get a Plan B… We didn’t wear a condom… He pissed me off and he was trying to convince me to keep it, not keep it, keep it – and I was just confused,” “He’s still a terrible person and I would have had a terrible life with him. I wouldn’t want to be one of those women that have different baby fathers. I would just try to work it out with him. And he’s a terrible person. I’d much rather have a baby with someone I love and am going to marry,” Jennifer said.
Lisa, a 45-year-old writer, poses for a portrait in her home in, Massachusetts on October 13, 2012. Lisa says she became pregnant and had two abortions when she was in her 30′s. “His immediate response was ‘Well you can’t have it!’ It was such a fast and such a visceral response that he had. I asked him why and he said ‘Well you just have to get an abortion… you can’t have this baby and there’s no way around it,” Lisa said. “All I kept hearing was, ‘I will never love you and I will never love this baby.’ … When I looked down the road five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, I didn’t see any happiness in this child’s life. I wanted the baby. I knew that I could love it and I could give it certain things, but hate is a powerful emotion to overcome in a child’s life. Not being wanted is a very powerful emotion in a child’s life. You can do a lot of damage to a child with that feeling. I couldn’t inflict that kind of pain on a child – knowing what that felt like… So I agreed to terminate the pregnancy… After some while… I said ‘Look, if you didn’t want children you should have controlled your – fully controlled – your reproduction.’ And that’s what upsets me so much about when I hear the abortion debate now, is that I don’t hear any part of that at all – there’s nothing about men needing to control their reproduction. Because it’s almost like women enjoy having abortions. It’s like it’s a cavalier decision,” Lisa said. “We’ve been conditioned that there’s a certain kind of woman that has an abortion. You know, that it’s poor women who have abortions, who just don’t want to control their reproductive rights and that those women who have abortions – it’s not the more common thing where it’s women who do control their reproductive rights. But, things happen. Nothing is 100%. And when nothing is 100% you will have an unplanned pregnancy. I’ve been in there with married couples, who had too many children and were deciding to terminate because they had four kids or something. And they thought the fifth was too many. It’s not what you think it is… We’re conditioned that it’s bad and we’re conditioned that if – how could you let yourself be so stupid to get in that position. What is wrong with you? And, how could you do that?… There was another person there who shares 50% of it and somehow they walk away scott-free… I will always regret not having children… I think when I was pregnant that was probably the right time to have kids. Because children bring a certain clarity to your life. There’s a sense of humor and there’s a wisdom to kids that most adults lack… I regret the choices that I made with regard to the men I was with… that’s time that I can’t get back. But, I do not regret the decision to terminate those pregnancies. That was the right decision for each one of those pregnancies that was tied to each one of those men,” Lisa said. Lisa says she became pregnant and had two abortions when she was in her 30′s. The second time Lisa was pregnant, it was with a man who had two daughters and was in the process of getting a divorce with his wife. Lisa says she was off birth control for medical reasons. “I said ‘you can’t support what you have financially.’ He couldn’t support what he had. I ended up finding out I was pregnant and I said it to him. And he looked at me and he goes ‘Well you know I don’t know what to tell you, but I can’t have another child. I don’t want another child.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be really damaging to the girls.’ We had a fight in this house that I think they can still hear. … I was mad at myself for allowing it to happen. I just remember feeling disgusted and used and just hating him so much. … In that case I decided to have an abortion. He wasn’t somebody that I wanted to be tied to. I felt like it was one of the stupidest things that I ever could have done. … I had put my reproductive future in his hands. And I trusted him with that. And he violated that trust.. It was almost unforgivable to me that I would get pregnant – that I would be so stupid to put myself in that same situation that I had just two years previously with someone else who couldn’t commit, with someone else who was pathetic. And I was right back in that same situation. But I didn’t want to be tied to him. And it was terrible and I hated myself for it, I hated myself for it. I hated how quickly I made the decision,” Lisa said.
Leigh, a 26-year-old bartender, poses for a portrait in her home in Pennsylvania September 24, 2012. Leigh says she was 21 years old when she became pregnant and had an abortion. “Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to really forget any detail about any of it, down to the one decision that made it actually end up becoming that… It happens. All of a sudden it’s a month and a half and getting nauseous with beer and you know.. (the) test came back positive and everything. We sat out and we talked about it and he was a sweetheart about everything for the most part. He made it very clear that it was my choice. But at the same time, he was also very honest about what would happen, going this way or that way, with the decision. …If we were to have the kid, we would get married and be together for the rest of our lives. If we didn’t work out and we broke up for some reason, he would fight for full custody of the kid and make sure I never saw them again,” Leigh said. “I was still in college. I was a year away from graduating and I was having a hard enough time making ends meet, between a part-time job, work, study, full class load. …Trying to keep him happy being home all the time. I knew as much as I cared about him (and I thought I was in love with him), I knew we weren’t destined to be together forever. It was a really hard decision. I really did consider going through with everything. But it just was one of those, you just have to do what’s right at the time. He was a sweetheart and totally understood and you know, was completely supportive. He paid for it. He went with me and held my hand… It actually really hit my body hard. It took me a good three days before I could actually get out of bed. It was not an easy experience. It was very painful. The relationship took a natural course south. We ended up breaking up eventually… For the important part of the story, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The support and the care and tenderness that he showed made a really difficult experience as painless, I guess, as possible,” Said Leigh. “I didn’t take it lightly… It took every inch of strength inside of me to be able to do it, but I knew it was the right decision to make… I know it was the right decision to make. I’ve never doubted that… I don’t regret it but I don’t think I could ever stomach being able to do it again. I think I was just about to turn 22… I would have had a 4 and a half year-old right now,” She said. “It’s five years later. It’s still something that I think about every day. It changes you. Before that I swore I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have kids. All of a sudden this thing woke up inside of me. Now it’s like I want 2.5 kids and to eventually get married and I want the white picket fence. I don’t know what happened but in that experience, this thing woke up inside of me. And it hasn’t gone away. Obviously I’m not rushing into anything or whatever but… It changes you. And honestly, if I were to be faced with the decision now, I don’t know if I could go through it again. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Leigh said.
Lisa, a 27-year-old restaurant manager, poses for a portrait in her home in, Massachusetts October 11, 2012. Lisa says she was 24 when she became pregnant and had an abortion. “I told my husband at the time – we weren’t divorced yet but… I was leaving him, and he was really supportive and (it was) surprising because it was not a great relationship anyway… I didn’t have to think about it. It wasn’t like, “will I, won’t I.” It was like, this is happening. I think I was kind of fortunate in a really sad way that it wasn’t a difficult decision… I was alone. I didn’t have any family and I didn’t have any friends really. I had one friend but she was not a very good friend. So I kind of went through it all alone,” Lisa said. You can always look back in retrospect and say ‘this is what it would have been like’ but you never know… I’m happy. I’m very happy. I was leaving. I was trying to cope with moving out, having no money, no support. I had two jobs. I was working like a maniac just trying to cope… So it was like, all these things are happening at the same time. I was like, “Ok now I’m pregnant. Ok, I have no money.” And when I left my husband and divorced him, I didn’t take a cent or a dime from him. I didn’t want anything… I just felt completely alone. They have doctors at the clinic and they ask you what your life situation is like right now to see if… I think they are trying to see if you’re psychologically fit to do that, because it’s a really painful thing emotionally to go through. And some people maybe need extra psychological care if they’re going to do it or ‘are you going to be ok if you do this.’ She was asking me a list of questions and she’s like, ‘So you’re getting divorced.’ And then I had to move a few times, because I didn’t like where I was living and I didn’t have money and I did and I didn’t and then, she’s like, ‘Oh, the most stressful things in this country are divorce and moving.” And I was like, ‘I just got divorced and I’ve moved twice. And now I’m doing this.’ And it’s like – ugh,” Lisa said. “I had a boyfriend after I got married and I wrote down what that decision would be if I found myself pregnant again. Ultimately I think I would go through with the pregnancy even if it didn’t work out, just because, I don’t know… I would know I was in a better place and the person that I was with… they would support me and a child and whatever I wanted to do. And I think it’s just crazy… the worse my situation was with him the easier the decision to do it was, and the better the situation would be, the harder the decision would be. And I just thought it was a weird dichotomy… After I had it I got an IUD right away. I was like, ‘I’m not ever getting pregnant again unless I’m sure.’ So I’m taking extreme measures – not extreme, but as much as I possibly can to never have that happen again,” Lisa said. “No regrets. You never think about how you’re going to feel when you do it. And when I did it, it was pretty straight-forward… The decision to do it wasn’t hard and afterwards it hasn’t been hard in that area. I mean, I’ve had struggles but – no. And I thought I would maybe think about what it would be like if I went through with the pregnancy and having a child and… I don’t think about it. I don’t try to think about it. I don’t try not to, I just – I don’t,”
Aiyana, a 22-year-old artist, poses for a portrait in her home in New York September 21, 2012. Aiyana says she was 20 years old when she became pregnant and had an abortion. “He ended up not being as supportive as I thought he would be (at the immediate time). He did everything he could, aside from paying for it. I initially paid for everything out of pocket. Although I was reimbursed for it – but to cover the initial costs, I took care of all of that. After it happened, when I did feel like I needed a lot of emotional support, he didn’t really provide that. So that was a contributing factor to us breaking up,” Aiyana said. “The clinic I got it done at, they allow men to be in the room. Which most clinics don’t allow. So I set the date for when my boyfriend would be back from tour because I wanted him to have to experience it with me, I guess. You know because as a male I felt that even though he was undoubtedly affected by it I sort of wanted him to in some part experience the physicality of everything that was happening. I think he was kind of freaked out but he was very supportive of me. I’m glad he was there,” Aiyana said. “It definitely has been really rewarding in some ways… at least I know I can give friends or acquaintances of mine somebody to talk to, who can give them advice or give them resources that they might not otherwise be aware of… Obviously it’s something private. But if it’s something that you feel ok talking about, I think that vocalization is important. I think it can help remove the stigma that’s attached to having an abortion,” Aiyana said.