Some people will talk for the record about private matters if you get a chance to earn their trust.
That was the big lesson for me from one of the most memorable stories of my career, telling the personal stories, on the record, of six women who experienced troubled pregnancies and their decisions of whether to have an abortion or give birth.
If I were doing this story today, I would certainly add crowdsourcing to the techniques I used to find women who would be sources for this story. Finding sources was the biggest challenge in doing the story and was, of course, the key to the story.
It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do this story by itself. I had developed good relationships with people on both sides of the issue and they played intermediary by hooking me up with potential sources (and by vouching for me to those sources).
Of course, physicians and counselors who connected me with sources wouldn’t and shouldn’t (even before tougher federal health-privacy laws) give me names and phone numbers of patients or clients. They gave my name and phone number to women they thought might talk to me (or perhaps to women whose stories they thought would portray their own views sympathetically). I have no idea how many women got my name and phone number but never called, but eventually, I connected with enough women.
An abortion provider connected me with one of the sources. Other abortion providers connected me with other potential sources. One abortion provider connected me with a woman who eventually decided not to be a source, though she connected me with a friend who was a great source. A Catholic women’s health clinic connected me with another. Pro-life counselors connected me with more.
If I were working this story today, I would certainly use social media to invite women who had faced difficult pregnancy situations to contact me. I’d use my own Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as my newsroom’s branded accounts. I might post my request on some Nebraska and Iowa pro-choice or pro-life Facebook groups or pages (in a quick search, I just found several groups that would be worth trying).
I wouldn’t count on much response to those crowdsourcing pitches, but my other efforts produced mixed results. Even one or two responses to crowdsourcing efforts would have been helpful.
With my editors’ approval, I used a technique I’d never used before and only used once or twice since in reporting: I told sources that they could decide after the interviews whether I could use their names for publication. I realized I was asking a lot, and I doubted that I would get many women agreeing in advance to use of their names. My editors and I were willing to do the story without full names, but we wanted to do it with actual names and faces. The goal was to give this intensely private decision names and faces. I suggested, and my editors agreed, that I could win the women’s trust during the interviews and persuade them to go on the record.
I ended up interviewing 11 women and persuading six of them to go on the record. One (who had had five abortions, two of them illegally before the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion) told me before the interview that there was no way she’d let me use her name. I decided I’d take my chances. I’d been told she’d have a good story (she did) and I wanted to hear it either way. And I hoped I could persuade her to go on the record. I couldn’t, but it was still a good interview.
I lost two others who seemed willing to go on the record when they told a mother and a husband about the interviews, and their loved ones insisted that they not be identified. In a couple of other cases, I think I just failed to win the women’s trust.
Though the women agreed to let me use their names in 1996 when I wrote this story, I have decided not to use their names here. Our agreement in 1996 was made before Google, in the early days of the World Wide Web. I don’t recall whether World-Herald stories even were published online then (the World-Herald was painfully slow and reluctant about going online). But when the women decided to trust me with their stories, they were agreeing to one day (or a few) of discomfort when their personal stories were published, not to repeated discomfort as the story shows up in Google searches by their friends, employers, children or anyone else who might search for them.
Instead, I will identify each woman by her initials (at the time; I don’t know who might have changed names through marriage, divorce or for another reason). For those with children, I use the children’s first or middle names, but not the last names.
Here’s the story, published Nov. 17, 1996. The first section ran on Page 1A, reefering to the individual stories inside the newspaper. I regard it as a single story, but that was a common technique then to avoid jumping stories off the front page. My notes are interspersed in boldface. Here’s my lead:
The choice can be excruciating, testing the will of a woman who believes it’s a moral wrong and tormenting the conscience of a woman who believes it’s a basic right.
I’ve long believed in starting a story with strong words and getting to the point immediately. I think I did that well here. The story was about the choice, so I got to the point in the first two words. I deliberately used the word choice here, despite its use by only one side in the abortion dispute. In the next paragraph, I used a word favored by the other side: child.
I don’t believe in faux balance, but I thought balance was essential to this story. I deliberately talked to three who favored keeping abortion legal and three who think it should be outlawed. I thought it was essential to reflect the range of views and emotions of the women I talked to. The lead deliberately noted that whichever position a woman takes on the issue, and however firmly she holds that position, the personal decision can be excruciating.
Abortion has been a matter of heated public debate for much of the past quarter century. But at its most basic level, it remains a personal debate – one woman or girl at a time tugged in various directions by family, friends, lovers, counselors, doctors, church, laws, society. She weighs her own dreams, values and trials. She weighs her child’s future.
She tries to decide whether she believes it is a child yet.
OK, maybe this is overthinking, since I never used the words together, but I liked the alliteration of using choice and child as the heart of this story.
“I just went through hell and back before I got that abortion,” said BH, who was raped and ended the resulting pregnancy in the summer of 1994, after her junior year at an Omaha Catholic high school.
KB also decided to have an abortion. As a pregnant high school senior, she visited an abortion clinic, and then another when she learned the first one wasn’t performing abortions that day. Today she thanks God she changed her mind and walked away still pregnant.
KB has explained abortion in simple terms to her 8-year-old daughter, telling her she was a chosen child. “I said, ‘I wanted you very badly.’ ” Miss H and Mrs. B and four other women tell the stories of their choices and consequences here. Each tells her own story of a decision considered by thousands of Nebraska and Iowa women and girls each year.
I left in the courtesy titles I had to use at the World-Herald way too long. Courtesy titles are strange enough when you use them for everyone, like the New York Times, but the World-Herald clung to a sexist use of courtesy titles for way too long.
The next few paragraphs are kind of boring but necessary context, probably made longer by the need to make this a lead story for page one, without jumping.
Nearly 5,000 women chose last year to abort pregnancies in Nebraska.
Iowa law does not require reporting of abortions, so the state does not keep abortion statistics. Unofficial statistics show Iowa, which has more women and more abortion providers, has about 25 percent more abortions than Nebraska.
More than 23,000 women and girls chose to give birth last year in Nebraska, more than 36,000 in Iowa. No one can know how many of those women considered abortion, but thousands faced some of the situations that lead other women to have abortions: single parenthood, family problems, financial stress, birth defects, medical difficulties, immaturity, middle age, sexual assault.
The number of Nebraska women choosing adoption is not clear from state statistics, but it appears to be somewhere between 200 and 1,000.
The choice these women weighed, and their right to choose abortion, has been argued for years by interest groups and politicians.
The controversy continued this year in the presidential race, in the congressional battle over “partial-birth” abortions and in the recent tentative approval of a pill that induces abortion.
While this public debate rages on the front pages and air waves, the private debate takes place in the homes and hearts of hundreds of Midlands women and girls each week. The stories presented here are the women’s own.
When BH went to have an abortion, her Catholic upbringing exerted a powerful pull. “My understanding was that I was going to kill my child.” Miss H said she was raped June 2, 1994, by an acquaintance whose advances she had spurned. She was 17, just finishing her junior year at an Omaha Catholic high school.
At first she didn’t think she could be pregnant, because she thought she had been given a “morning-after” pill when she went to the emergency room after being raped. In her emotional state, she had confused an antibiotic with the morning-after pill, which flushes the uterus before a fertilized egg can implant.
She didn’t believe the first pregnancy test or the second. She asked her doctor for a blood test. “I just did not believe it,” she said. Miss H, now 20, talked at length about her experience, showing anger frequently and laughing occasionally. She drew her knees to her chest as she spoke. “Through our past we see our future,” proclaimed her sweatshirt, a memento of her senior class trip.
Details help tell a story. If you’re able to shoot video, you don’t necessarily need details like the sweatshirt or the knees drawn up as she speaks. But I’ve seldom interviewed someone with body language as strong as BH’s, and I think the gesture of her knees drawn up to her chest helps the reader picture her and understand how uncomfortable she was telling the story.
Growing up Catholic, Miss H had opposed abortion, though in high school she became ambivalent.
When the matter moved from religious dogma to personal trauma, she was torn. “Regardless of how it was conceived, I still felt like it was a part of me. And that really got to me. At the same time I hated it. And that’s what I called it – ‘it,’ not a baby.” She drank to excess and rode a JetSki, though companions questioned whether she should. “I tried to make myself miscarry, and I couldn’t.” Miss H asked a teacher what would happen if she had an abortion.
She was told she would be expelled.
When she discussed adoption with a counselor, she learned that, because the rapist had not been convicted, his agreement would be needed. (Miss H reported the assault to Omaha police, but police did not arrest the assailant, saying the case would be difficult to prove.) (I did check the police report.) “He would make my life a living hell by refusing to sign those papers,” Miss H said. She could not raise the child herself, she was sure, and she wouldn’t let her attacker have custody. “I didn’t want the guy who raped me to continue controlling my life by making me have this child.” As July turned into August, she had to decide. “I remember the night I decided to have an abortion. I started to cry. I said I was sorry. I guess I knew deep down that was what I was going to do.” She made and canceled an appointment three times before finally going to the Women’s Medical Center of Nebraska at 4930 L St. Miss H praised the medical care she received but said the experience was intensely emotional.
“I was angry I was there. I was angry at what happened to me. I was angry at being forced into this decision. I was pissed off that I had to get into the stirrups and (the rapist) didn’t. (I can’t recall here whether she used his name or cursed in the parentheses.) I was angry at everything.” Miss H was awake during the abortion. “I remember the whole thing.
I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through.” Counselors tried to help by holding her hands. “I didn’t want them touching me.” She looked up at birds hanging from a mobile on the ceiling.
“I remember feeling it being taken out of me and screaming at the loss – not at the pain, at the loss.” She added: “I never screamed, ‘Stop! ‘ I wanted it over.” But it wasn’t over. “My whole life fell apart.” Back at school, “I lied and told everyone I had a miscarriage.” After abortion came up repeatedly in her religion class, Miss H started arguing. She told the class, “You people have no idea what you’re talking about.” She knew a classmate, who was being silent, had had an abortion. “I felt like I had to stand up for her, too.” A guidance counselor asked Miss H why she was so angry and asked whether she had aborted her pregnancy. Eventually, Miss H admitted she had, resulting in a meeting with school administrators that she recalls bitterly.
“They told me I should have given that child a chance,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘What about my future? What about my life?'” Miss H continued at the school, but her emotional and physical health deteriorated. She became anorexic, her weight dropping from 120 pounds to 95. She had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, fearing she would die.
Though still obsessed with her weight, she’s been able to eat, is back up to 118 pounds and feels like she’s regained control of her life.
The day after graduation, Miss H started volunteering as an escort at Women’s Medical Center, shielding patients from sidewalk protesters.
Last August, a year after the abortion, she started working at the clinic. She counsels patients who have been raped and assists Dr. Winston Crabb of Lincoln, the physician who ended her pregnancy.
“I have more respect for that man than anyone else in the world,” she said.
She has left the Catholic Church, is taking classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and plans to start nursing school next fall.
“I’m more than happy about the decision I made,” Miss H said. “It’s made me what I am today. It’s shown me who cares about me and who doesn’t.”
The interview with BH affirmed to me that I had taken the right approach by interviewing women before they decided whether to agree to speak for the record.
As I recall, an abortion clinic I had contacted in my initial reporting on the story had connected me with another woman who was willing to be interviewed. The woman showed up for the interview accompanied by a friend. That didn’t surprise me at all. I had interviewed a lot of victims of sexual assault and they often brought along a friend or family member for moral support.
But BH’s attention focused much more on me than on her friend, who didn’t seem to need the moral support. I could tell pretty early in the interview with the friend that I was auditioning for a second interview. As we were wrapping up the interview, I was pondering whether to invite BH to tell her story, too. But she went first. As I explained to the friend, I was going to interview several other women before we’d publish the story (she was my second interview, as I recall). “So you’re looking for other women to interview?” BH asked. I answered yes and she asked if I wanted to interview her. I did, and the friend provided more moral support during that interview than BH had.
I went one step further with BH in allowing her to decide after the fact whether to talk on the record. She wanted to read the story. I agreed to read a draft to her of the part about her, telling her that she could not change at all how it was written, other than correcting any errors I had made (she didn’t make any corrections). She could only decide whether I could use her name (and if I didn’t, we probably wouldn’t publish). I did read her a draft over the phone. After a long silence, she said, “That’s good” and agreed that I could publish it with her name.
If I were doing this story today, I suspect that I might have found some Facebook posts or tweets from BH expressing her views on abortion and her disdain for the abortion protesters outside her clinic, and would have been able to embed or quote them in the story.
As the pregnant teen-ager approached the abortion clinic, four words from a woman on the sidewalk gave her pause: “Jesus loves your baby.” “I thought, ‘I already know that, and I have no idea what I’m doing here,'” recalled KB.
The young woman from Fontanelle, Neb., knew lots of reasons to have an abortion: Having a child might hurt her chances for a college scholarship.
If pregnant, she might not be allowed to speak as valedictorian at her graduation that spring.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to pursue her plans of studying medicine while raising a child.
At 18, she was too young to take on the responsibilities of parenthood.
Her boyfriend wanted her to end the pregnancy.
Together the reasons had overcome her long-held opposition to abortion.
“I was intending to have one,” said Mrs. B, now 26.
An interview in her Fremont home was conducted around interruptions by children awakening from naps. Mrs. B hesitated and glanced down at times when discussing her teen-age pregnancy and her effort to get an abortion. When talking about her Christian faith, she comfortably maintained eye contact and spoke in a strong, clear voice.
Mrs. B’s decision to seek an abortion contradicted her faith. As a member of the Christian Missionary Alliance, “I believed God doesn’t create anything by accident,” she said. “I believed if he lets a baby come into existence, no human being has the right to argue with God.” It wasn’t the first time she’d been tempted to act against her beliefs.
While dating her boyfriend for three years, she had not practiced birth control, because she believed in waiting until marriage to have sex. But they didn’t wait. They weren’t having sex regularly, but more than once she yielded to temptation.
“I wasn’t following through with what I believed in that area,” Mrs. B said.
A home pregnancy test revealed her condition, but she still wasn’t sure.
She confided in a school counselor, who took her to the Planned Parenthood of Omaha-Council Bluffs clinic at 4610 Dodge St. in March 1988.
While she awaited the results of another test, a counselor asked what she would do if she was pregnant. “I said I assumed I would have the baby and keep it,” Mrs. B said. The counselor, she said, asked whether she realized how much a baby cost and whether she had told her parents and whether they would kick her out if she was pregnant.
“She was giving me the distinct impression,” Mrs. B said, “that it would be stupid for me to continue with the pregnancy if I was the responsible person she thought I was.” The anxious teen wasn’t sure how to respond. “I was feeling kind of numb because I wanted to know if I was pregnant.” The test confirmed that she was, and the counselor gave her a card for Womens Services, the abortion clinic a few blocks away at 201 S. 46th St. Her boyfriend, already in college, and the boyfriend’s mother urged her to have an abortion.
“Her view was that I was going to ruin his life if I continued with the pregnancy,” Mrs. B said. “It was hurtful. I felt the attention was focusing on me, that somehow I had gotten pregnant by myself, that I was being selfish for doing the right thing.” She was, though, considering abortion. “I can’t say that the thought wasn’t running through my head – how much more convenient it would be if I continued with my life without that responsibility.” About seven weeks into the pregnancy, she went to Womens Services to have an abortion. An escort met her at her car, telling her to ignore what she would hear. A few people were on the sidewalk outside the clinic, three of them kneeling in prayer. One told her that Jesus loved her baby.
She pressed ahead, though the statement began to gnaw at her conscience.
She learned Womens Services was not performing abortions that day. She was referred to Women’s Medical Center of Nebraska.
There a counselor asked about her views. “I said I was a Christian and I didn’t believe in abortion.” The counselor, using models that illustrate fetal development, “tried to convince me that until it looked like a baby it wasn’t really a baby. . . . I knew there was no way I could have an abortion.” She walked out.
“I wasn’t confused about what I believed,” Mrs. B said. “I was confused about what I was going to do.” She and her boyfriend faced family pressure to marry, but their future together effectively ended with her decision to continue the pregnancy.
Adoption wasn’t a consideration. This was now her baby, her future.
She told the school superintendent she was pregnant, and he told her she had earned her status as valedictorian and would deliver the address. “I talked about God giving us strength as we were getting ready to start our futures,” Mrs. B said.
She knew her condition would become obvious in the weeks ahead and “people would be laughing about the fact that the valedictorian was pregnant,” and remembering her as outspoken in her views on sex outside marriage.
“I wasn’t really worried about being pregnant,” Mrs. B said. “I was worried about the hypocrisy, that I hadn’t been living what I had said.” The pregnancy provided plenty of worries later. She has two rods in her spine to correct severe scoliosis and developed a blood clot in her leg from her difficulty in carrying the baby. Twice a day, she had to inject heparin, a blood thinner, into her abdomen.
“I just remember especially my peers saying, ‘Why are you going through all this? ‘ ” Mrs. B said.
She began school that fall at Wayne State College. Six weeks early, labor began. Leah Justine was born Sept. 24, 1988, weighing 5 1/2 pounds.
After transferring to Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, she met BB, and they married June 22, 1990, the summer after her junior year.
She quit college to have another child. They have four, including Leah, whom her husband adopted.
Mrs. B, who works part time at the Dodge County immunization clinic, has participated in anti-abortion activities. She has spoken about her experience before Christian organizations and church youth groups.
“God has forgiven me,” she said, “and he’s used it as an opportunity to bring glory back to him.”
I contacted KB through an anti-abortion group (can’t remember which one). Her daughter’s birth record confirmed the timing of her birth. If I were doing the story today, I doubt that social media posts from her would have been likely to be useful, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find posts expressing either her faith or her opposition to abortion.
On the other hand, if she had posted at the time about leaving the abortion clinic, that would have been powerful documentation of her story.
The baby stopped moving.
GB’s fourth pregnancy had appeared to be advancing smoothly in its early stages. The pregnancy had not been planned. She was 40 years old, with three sons already grown or in school. At first she was apprehensive about being pregnant again, but then she became excited.
“It was the possibility of being that girl I always wanted.”
With their youngest son 9 years old, the Bs had few hand-me-downs for another child. They started buying baby things in anticipation, including a bright yellow blanket.
The first ultrasound examination, early in her pregnancy, showed no signs of trouble. “We could see it, and we could see it move,” Mrs. B said. “They said everything was wonderful and my age was no problem.”
Shortly afterward, the baby stopped moving. Her doctor ordered amniocentesis, a procedure in which amniotic fluid from the uterus is analyzed. The test showed multiple defects, including Down syndrome.
The test also showed the baby was another boy. They named him Joseph Michael.
Another ultrasound showed the head had stopped growing.
Mrs. B and her husband, P, a retired Air Force missile mechanic, feared the worst. “We tried to listen to it with a stethoscope at home,” she said.
Though the parents couldn’t pick up the heartbeat, Joseph Michael was alive. But his chances of surviving to birth were grim. Mrs. B, who initially had been going to Offutt Air Force Base’s Ehrling Bergquist Hospital, was referred to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The medical center generally cannot perform abortions unless physicians certify that the fetus has no prospect of surviving outside the womb. Despite the bleak prognosis, they could not say that Joseph Michael had no chance of survival.
Mrs. B, 18 weeks into her pregnancy, could not bear the prospect of continuing a pregnancy with a dying or dead baby. “It was so devastating,” she said. “There’s no way I could have physically or mentally dealt with it if I had to deliver a dead baby.”
She was referred to Dr. LeRoy Carhart of Bellevue, who runs one of Nebraska’s four abortion clinics. She asked Dr. Carhart to abort the pregnancy. “It was the hardest choice I had to make in my life.”
Though Mrs. B had opinions about abortion, it had always been an abstract political issue. “I always felt a woman should have a choice,” she said. “I never in my wildest imagination felt I would come to anything like that.”
Among the four bracelets that jangled as she moved her hands during an interview was one honoring a man missing in action in the Vietnam War. Popular a generation ago during and immediately after the war, the bracelets are seldom seen now. Mrs. B’s bears the name of Sgt. Raymond Crow Jr., missing in Cambodia since March 17, 1972. “My husband came back. This guy didn’t.”
As I said before, details matter in a story like this. People stereotype both those who agree with them and those who disagree with them. In this caricaturing, we tend to think of people who would wear a POW victim as more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice. I heard from several people that this detail surprised them or that they liked it.
Like that war, the issue of abortion has caused deep and emotional divisions in the country. This year’s heated debate over “partial-birth” abortion has been particularly painful for Mrs. B.
Dr. Carhart came under fire last spring after he disclosed to The World-Herald that he, in rare cases, used a technique similar to the abortion method Congress tried to outlaw. He did not use the technique in Mrs. B’s case, because her pregnancy was in its 18th week and he normally uses the method after 20 weeks. That’s close enough, though, to make the political debate intensely personal.
“I was outraged,” she said, “because I always felt it should be between a woman and her doctor.”
Mrs. B, a member of the National Rifle Association, sees the issues of abortion and gun control as parallel. “They’re trying to take away our rights one by one,” she said.
Again, I like the contradiction of stereotypes here: We like to think of gun control advocates as conservative and of abortion-rights advocates as liberal. But her views are shaped by her interests and experiences, not by the reader’s stereotypes.
She remembers very little of her abortion, which took two days because of how advanced her pregnancy was. “I was in a very bad shape at the time,” she said. “I was in a fog. I asked if I could see the baby. I remember that.”
The Bs had Joseph Michael cremated. “He’s sitting on a shelf at home,” Mrs. B said. “I haven’t been able to let go.”
The urn bearing his ashes is inscribed with his name and the day of his abortion, July 17, 1994.
Mrs. B speaks proudly of her surviving sons. “They’re healthy, happy, successful.”
She paused and added: “It’s always like something’s missing. I wonder sometimes what it would have been like.”
It was the interview with GB that set this story in motion. I had been covering the issue of abortion for three years and had been wanting to tell the stories of the women who made the choice (or decided not to), but it had been a someday kind of story (and one I wondered how I’d even do). I had a pretty good relationship with Carhart and was the one to report that he used the technique that abortion opponents called partial-birth abortion. After I reported that, GB got angry about the flak he took and came to him telling him she wanted to go public. He lined up the interview, and I decided I wanted to tell this story, not just her story. I persuaded her to give me time to find and interview the others. I called her regularly with progress reports and appreciated her patience, which I think I tested. She was the only one of the six women who didn’t consent to having a photo published.
PH knew Matthew was dying in her womb.
He was still her son, though, and it angered her that doctors spoke as if he were an object. She remembers telling them: “This is my baby, and I am his mother. It’s not an it. If it was a healthy baby, you wouldn’t call him an it.”
Mrs. H says the doctors didn’t understand why she didn’t abort her pregnancy when she learned of her son’s severe defects. To her and her husband, Dr. DH, an Air Force physician stationed at Offutt, that wasn’t an option, regardless of the situation.
She remembers explaining it to a supportive nurse: “We asked for our baby, and we are going to carry him until God takes him, not us.”
Matthew was the Hs’ sixth child. For the first 20 weeks or so, this pregnancy seemed little different from the previous five. “I was just a little bigger than I was used to being.” Her first ultrasound examination, taken at the Offutt hospital, didn’t raise an alarm.
At about 26 weeks, she began feeling ill and another ultrasound was taken. The doctors saw signs of trouble and suggested amniocentesis.
“We don’t believe in that,” Mrs. H said. “My belief is that if you find something wrong, you’re just going to worry yourselves sick, or you have the test to decide whether to have an abortion.”
Her opposition to abortion is a matter not only of her Catholic faith but also of personal conviction. “I believe that once conception takes place there is a life, and that God is the author of life and only he should take it away.”
Without amniocentesis, the Air Force doctors could not tell the couple exactly what was wrong. Because the pregnancy was considered high-risk, she was referred to more specialized civilian care. She went to the Pope Paul VI Institute, a Catholic reproductive health clinic at 6901 Mercy Road, thinking she would be better understood there.
“We get a lot of negative comments because we have a large number of kids,” said Mrs. H, a dietitian and exercise physiologist who became a full-time mother after having her first child. She home-schools the couple’s school-age children.
Knowing the gender and grim outlook of the child Mrs. H was carrying, the couple decided to name their son. They called him Matthew Maurice.
Another ultrasound at Pope Paul VI showed that Matthew’s stomach was pushed up into his lungs and he had spina bifida. Dr. H, a family practice physician, studied medical literature and concluded that their son had Trisomy 18, meaning that instead of a pair of No. 18 chromosomes, he had three.
About this time, Mrs. H had a dream “that I was going to bury a baby boy in white.”
At 27 weeks, she began early labor and was hospitalized at Bergan Mercy Medical Center. After two days, because of her high-risk condition, she was transferred to another hospital, which she declined to name. Her contractions were slowed enough that she could continue the pregnancy and return home, with monitoring every few days to drain off fluid.
Doctors were blunt: “They told me I could die.” Other possibilities might be an emergency hysterectomy or a blood clot. For Matthew, the outlook was clear: “They said he basically had no chance to live.”
Whatever the risks, she would not consider hastening her son’s death.
Doctors, she said, regarded her with disdain. One nurse expressed admiration at Mrs. H’s resolve, saying, “Most women would just go down and do away with it.”
At almost 33 weeks, Mrs. H went in to have fluid drained again. This time, she didn’t get bigger afterward. That Saturday, she noticed Matthew had stopped moving. “I knew he had died.”
She waited a day and a half to go to the hospital, preparing herself emotionally. Matthew was stillborn Sept. 21, 1993, weighing 4 pounds.
Mrs. H is puzzled and angry about the treatment she received by doctors and some nurses after deciding to carry Matthew to term.
“If I had aborted my baby, it wouldn’t have mattered to them,” she said.
She was especially angry about a doctor’s comment after delivery, when she was snuggling Matthew’s body to her chest. The doctor “had an awful look on his face” and told her, “The next time you get pregnant, have an amniocentesis at 16 weeks so that doesn’t happen again.”
Mrs. H said she prays regularly for the doctors and knows a woman who went through a similar situation at the same hospital recently and was treated with more compassion.
Matthew was buried wearing a brother’s white baptismal outfit, which Mrs. H altered to fit his smaller body. “It was very therapeutic,” she said of the task of altering the gown and other funeral preparations.
Asked how she got through the ordeal, Mrs. H replied, without hesitation, “With God and prayer.”
Mrs. H has been pregnant twice since Matthew’s death. The first ended after six to eight weeks in the miscarriage of a daughter they named Jacinta. The second produced a healthy son, Luke, now 18 months old.
The Hs moved this summer to Dayton, Ohio. Her husband is starting a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, influenced into the specialty by the treatment of his wife.
“I was choosing life for my child until his time was up,” Mrs. H said. “Yet my choice wasn’t accepted by certain medical people. If we really believe in choice in a true sense, my choice should be as acceptable as anyone else’s.”
GB and PH were extreme situations. Most decisions of whether to continue or end a pregnancy are made in the first trimester, involving healthy fetuses. I thought it was important to have GB and PH in the story because of the controversy over partial-birth abortion and because it involves problems later in pregnancy. I liked the contrasts and similarities in the two stories.
Whatever people thought about abortion, I thought these two stories would give them something to think about: If you were pro-life, could you really fault GB for her decision? If you were pro-choice, how could you fault PH for her choice?
I put them in the middle of the story because I thought their extreme situations shouldn’t be the lead, but they were an important part of the story.
The Pope Paul VI Institute put me in touch with PH. Because she had moved away from Omaha, I couldn’t interview her in person. So I couldn’t gather details through observation, as I did with the others (BH’s knees drawn up to her chest; GB’s POW bracelet). I still got the nice detail about being buried in the baptismal gown, through asking questions and getting her talking. If I were doing this interview today, I’d do it by Skype or Hangout, if at all possible, to at least get some visual connection.
As a 22-year-old graduate student in 1961, Dorothy Fadiman knew nothing about abortion. She just knew she couldn’t bear to be pregnant.
She went to a gynecologist at Stanford University Medical Center, where she was a student, and asked what she could do.
“I didn’t know it wasn’t legal,” Ms. Fadiman said.
Her short, gray hair marks Ms. Fadiman, now 57, as a member of the generation that remembers when abortion was not only illegal but practically unspoken.
“I’m getting chills telling you this,” she said during an interview on a recent visit to Omaha, pausing to rub goose bumps on her arms. “So you know I’m telling you the truth.”
Ms. Fadiman, now an award-winning film director from Menlo Park, Calif., became pregnant 12 years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its Roe vs. Wade decision.
Abortion was a hushed matter, not a subject of loud national debate. “You never heard the word,” Ms. Fadiman said.
Very little was heard of birth control either. The pill was newly available, but usually just to married women. “To a large extent we counted on lovers who used condoms,” she said. “But many of them didn’t.”
Hers didn’t. Single, on scholarship and working 40 hours a week in the student union cafeteria to pay room and board, she couldn’t afford a baby.
“I didn’t really understand at that time what it meant to bring an unwanted child into the world,” Ms. Fadiman said. “But I didn’t want to do that. . . . There was no question in my mind that I had to find a way to terminate my pregnancy.”
She asked her gynecologist what he could do. “My doctor turned me away cold. It was not an option.”
She began asking around, pretending she was inquiring on behalf of a friend. Her landlord knew someone who could do the job. It would cost $600 cash, plus a plane ticket to Reno, Nev., and a motel room. By contrast, after 35 years of inflation, an abortion today at Women’s Medical Center of Nebraska costs $290.
She went for the abortion in January 1962. She was met at the motel, blindfolded and driven to the location where the abortion was performed.
“It was very important that I not have a way to trace these people,” Ms. Fadiman said. “I had no names, no faces, no telephone numbers. . . . The blindfold never came off until I was taken back to the motel room.”
She can’t remember even hearing the abortionist’s voice. “I think I was just handled.”
Lying on a bed, she had the abortion, with no anesthesia. “The feeling that I had – even though it was very painful – during the abortion and afterward, was gratitude.”
She was returned to the motel and flew back to Stanford, packed with gauze to stifle the bleeding.
Complications soon developed. She ran a fever that climbed rapidly to 105 degrees. “Blood was just gushing down my legs,” she said. She told a roommate it was heavy menstrual bleeding, and the roommate took her to the emergency room.
She had blood poisoning and an infection from a perforated uterus. Some tissue had been left in her womb.
After two weeks in the hospital, Ms. Fadiman recovered to finish her master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology. She married in 1964 and had two daughters, born in 1967 and 1969. Eventually she began a career making film documentaries.
For nearly 30 years, she didn’t speak or think about her abortion. “I went into very complete, successful denial,” she said. “It was this little black, dark chapter in my history.”
A 1989 Supreme Court decision seemed to set the stage for the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. With the 1991 appointment of Clarence Thomas to the court, it appeared a majority would favor overturning the 1973 decision.
Ms. Fadiman thought she had to tell her story. “I decided that unless those of us who had lived through it came out, it was going to happen again,” she said.
She began work on a series of three films telling the story of abortion, before it was legal and today. The first film, “When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories,” was nominated for an Academy Award.
In working on the films, Ms. Fadiman obtained her own medical chart and learned that the Stanford doctor who told her he couldn’t perform the abortion was called on to finish it when she went to the hospital. Ms. Fadiman, semicomatose with her high fever, never saw him or spoke to him.
“Just a knife went through my heart when I saw his name.”
Ms. Fadiman spoke in Omaha recently on a national tour promoting her new movie, “The Fragile Promise of Choice: Abortion in the U.S. Today.” Though the Supreme Court upheld Roe vs. Wade in 1992, the film tells how access to abortions is being limited through protests aimed at abortion providers, denial of Medicaid funding and restrictive state laws.
The nation is returning, Ms. Fadiman said, to the days of self-induced and back-alley abortions.
“If you didn’t live through it,” she said, “it’s unbelievable what we did.”
I thought it was important to include a pre-Roe abortion in my story. I interviewed another woman who had a pre-Roe abortion (she had two, actually), but she was insistent from the first that she wouldn’t go on the record. I interviewed her anyway, for the understanding and in the hope that she would change her mind after the interview. She didn’t.
Fadiman wasn’t local, but had spoken recently in Omaha, so I thought she was worth including in the story.
One way I’d handle this story differently would be to embed the YouTube video of her film, “When Abortion Was Illegal.”
“Dear Jesus,” TB wrote in her journal. “I thank you for carrying my load. I give it to you now. I give you all of my hurt and depression, anger, despair and devastation of my abortion. . . . I thank you for your forgiveness and mercy.”
Eleven years ago, starting her senior year of high school with a 3-month-old son and pregnant again, abortion seemed like the solution to her problems.
“I just felt like I couldn’t have another baby,” said Mrs. B, now 28. “I felt like my dad would kill me if I didn’t finish high school.”
Two-year-old Jordan and 1-year-old Lauren, the youngest of her five surviving children, competed for Mrs. B’s attention during an interview at her country home, north of Murdock, Neb. Wall hangings and figurines around the house give testimony to her Christian faith.
“Cast all your cares on him, for he cares about you,” urges a hanging on the dining room wall.
For several years, she bore the cares herself and found the burden too heavy.
She always had thought abortion was wrong. “That’s why I kept my first baby,” Mrs. B said. “I had always believed and known that when the egg and sperm come together it’s a baby. Whether it’s half a centimeter or 8 pounds, it’s a baby. And if I were to have an abortion, it’s murder.”
She didn’t change her belief the second time she was pregnant, as a senior at Papillion-LaVista High School in August 1985. She just tried to suppress what she believed.
“I tried to view it as what a lot of pro-choice people call it ― a fetus or an embryo, not a baby. I tried to do that to make it easier.”
Still, she didn’t rush into the abortion. She considered her options. “I didn’t see any possibility of me taking care of two children at age 18 and being successful.” She thought about adoption but worried that the birth, coming in the spring, would keep her from graduating.
In her 12th week, she went to Women’s Medical Center to end it. She remembers changing into a gown and being ushered upstairs into a room where she waited with seven other women. “I felt like we were a herd of cattle – going up steps and then one by one they took us in for the slaughter,” Mrs. B said.
During the abortion itself, “I could feel yanking, almost like pulling a tooth,” she said. “It felt sharp, like I was getting a shot.”
She remembers the noise of the machine that sucked out the contents of her uterus, “almost like you’re in a dentist’s office, like when they use that suction thing in your mouth, but it was much louder.”
Emotionally, “I was just numb,” Mrs. B said. Afterward, she cried and cried, waiting an hour or two in the recovery room until she was composed enough to go home.
After the abortion she began abusing alcohol and other drugs, mostly marijuana. “I think from the time I left, I tried to just block it out,” Mrs. B said. “I got to the point where I hated myself so bad I didn’t even want to face myself.”
She became pregnant again, giving birth in February 1988 to a daughter, Stephanie, who was stillborn. “I thought that was God’s way of paying me back, that I had killed his baby and now he was taking one back, like, ‘See how it feels?'”
She and the boyfriend who was the father in all three pregnancies married in January 1989. They had another daughter and son. When she was pregnant with the son, Mrs. B said, she stopped drinking and using drugs because she wanted to set a better example.
Without the fog induced by alcohol and marijuana, her pain over the abortion grew even more intense. She battled depression and bulimia and felt suicidal. “I think if I didn’t have children I probably would have killed myself.”
She also was struggling with a troubled marriage. Eventually, she divorced, married SB and had two more children.
After she quit drinking, she started going to the Bellevue Assembly of God church, at the urging of a friend. The friend had moved to Alabama, and they would talk at length on the phone and the friend would pray for her.
“I started seeing life is good,” Mrs. B said, “and it’s not all the things I’d lived in the past.”
Healing came slowly with her new faith. “I knew that I had been forgiven,” she said. “That is why Jesus died on the cross. But I couldn’t forgive myself.”
She went to Alabama to visit the friend. She remembers talking as they drove up the mountain where the friend lived. “She said if I couldn’t forgive myself, it was as if I was saying Jesus didn’t do a complete job when he died on the cross,” Mrs. B said. “I could almost feel a load of bricks being lifted off my shoulders.”
At the AAA Crisis Pregnancy Center, she joined a Bible study program called Post-Abortion Traumatic Healing, or PATH. In the eight-week course, women who regretted abortions studied, talked and wrote about their actions and God’s forgiveness.
“How did the abortion hurt the child?” asked a question in Mrs. B’s PATH workbook. “I took its life,” she wrote. “It had no choice. It was never able to fulfill God’s perfect plan.”
Verification is a challenge in these stories. The medical records are private and the women generally don’t have copies of them (I asked). But you can document details (as I did with the stillbirth from TB’s next pregnancy). And people have things such as her PATH workbook that provide some documentation. It’s not proof, but it’s unlikely someone would make that up in anticipation of a reporter asking for it.
More on confidential sources
If you’re interested in this issue, I encourage you to read my three accompanying posts:
Factors to consider in granting confidentiality to sources
You can quote me on that (my 2005 workshop handout)
Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews (my story of how I used information from unnamed second-hand sources to get reluctant first-hand sources to talk on the record)
Want to contribute a guest post?
I welcome guest posts either disagreeing with me on issues discussed here or presenting some stories of your own and how you dealt with confidential sources. Or please share in the comments links to other helpful posts on these issues.