I wasn't carrying life, only death, something called a blighted ovum, when I walked into Planned Parenthood. I was 40, the mother of one child; another one was a possibility, but not with this pregnancy. Ironically, I had the worst nausea and other symptoms I've ever had and was suspecting that this one, unlike the string of miscarriages I'd had before and after my single successful pregnancy, was a strong one. Instead, there was no one home inside my womb, only an empty gestational sac and hormones, somehow tricked, careening inside me.
My midwife suggested that instead of waiting a few more weeks and being admitted to the hospital for a procedure to clean out the contents of my uterus, I could go to Planned Parenthood for, basically, a first-trimester abortion. It would be safer and quicker, she said, and I wouldn't have to stay in the hospital. I was thrilled with the idea of ending this torturous nausea and fatigue and going home.
While making arrangements on the phone, before signing off, the Planned Parenthood nurse mentioned something about being careful about the protesters. I live in a small city, where nothing is far from anything else, and Planned Parenthood is an unfortunate stone's throw from the children's museum. I had vague memories of a man with a van that he parked outside the clinic from time to time. Affixed to the top of the van was some kind of bloody poster of something.
But, while politically pro-choice, I didn't think that my situation had anything to do with the whole abortion debate, and so I put it out of my mind, so much so that when my husband and I drove to Planned Parenthood the morning of the procedure and found our car immediately surrounded by gesturing people, we both thought, "How nice of the Planned Parenthood people to make sure we knew where to park."
As I exited the car like some kind of odd celebrity, I wasn't prepared for the older woman who shoved her face an inch from mine and screamed that I was murdering my baby. I wasn't prepared for the looks of pure hate, no, the looks that could kill. I seem to vaguely recall being warned not to make eye contact, but I did, and I saw what I thought was someone who would gladly murder me to keep me from entering the clinic.
"What baby?" I blurted. Then a real Planned Parenthood escort took my arm, told me not to talk to them and led me inside. The two minutes had felt like a siege.
The clinic was an unhappy place. I was surprised by how crowded it was. I wasn't surprised to see so many faces of color or people paying by counting out an assortment of crumpled bills. Of course no one chatted about her story, but in the inner sanctum I did learn that our reasons for being here were varied and that there was at least one other woman there who, like me, needed the procedure to correct an incomplete miscarriage.
I couldn't possibly know the circumstances that brought such a disparate collection of women to this place, but it was dismaying to see so many. It was no surprise that the Planned Parenthood staff loaded us up with birth control supplies stuffed into bags like Halloween treats. But I wondered exactly how much this would do to prevent "repeat customers." I remember the feeling of panic over pregnancy scares when I was younger, and I could easily envision myself here for an abortion of my own. But now that I'd had the experience of giving birth to a child, I wondered if anything had changed.
In truth, I didn't know how I felt, except that this experience left me feeling sad about the state of our society. Both sides of the debate are so heavily sunk into their bunkers. On one side, it seems monstrous that a handful of people, mostly men, decide on a procedure that involves, criminalizes and punishes women, and I know there are conservative, Republican, so-called pro-life women who feel they sit on the morally superior side but then end up having an abortion for the same reasons we pro-choice women are driven to it. But pro-choice people must also acknowledge somewhere in their hearts that this procedure is not the moral equivalent of merely surgically removing tissue.
I wish I'd had the foresight to visit one of those pregnancy clinics that offer free pregnancy tests, "counseling" and medical care, as they work as a front for religious organizations trying to persuade women to keep their babies; I'm curious what they would have done with me, someone who's just a little bit pregnant, for whom having or avoiding an abortion would add nothing to the inflammatory debate. Would they care about all my difficult pregnancies and miscarriages? Would they offer their free services for these ongoing problems? Somehow I doubt it.
At the same time, sitting in the recovery room with all those other women, post-surgery, the nurses exhorting us to eat our crackers, to get ourselves together (to those who were uncontrollably weeping), something didn't seem right either. There was a bit of an assembly-line feel to it. I was one of the first ones they moved out, probably because I seemed so chipper (only to throw up in the CVS parking lot not 15 minutes later).
When I was in Japan, doing the touristy temple visits, I happened to wander behind one particularly sumptuous one in Kyoto and came upon an odd, scrubby patch of ground that had a group of stone totems, almost exactly the size of those cloth target dolls you try to knock down at the county fair. Many of the totems were dressed up in bits of cloth or had flowers or other offerings attached to them. I asked my Japanese friend what they were, and she, sort of embarrassed, said that they were like little gravestones for children who had been aborted or miscarried. And that the mothers came here to grieve, often dressing them up in baby clothes or bringing candy.
"It's so the baby's spirit won't get mad," she explained. I understood. Completely.
In America, I need to know: Where is the place for people like me, who feel it is important for a civilized society to make abortion safe and available for those who need it and who also believe that the ending of a pregnancy, however it happens, also releases a tiny spirit into the air?
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the author of "Somebody's Daughter: A Novel."