Where you surprised to find yourself considering abortion?" the Preterm clinic counselor asked to the 19-year-old woman who had come to end her 12-week pregnancy.
It seemed like a logical question to ask the young woman - who will be identified here as Elizabeth - because she had been raised a Catholic in a small, rural community about 100 miles from Washington. Elizabeth was the valedictorian of her high school worked part-time not far from where she grew up.
"Well, I had suspected a little bit before I knew I was pregnant." Elizabeth answered, "and I would lie in bed at night and say, 'If I am, what will I do?' And I said,'Well, I'll go ahead and have it. I'll be, quote, the good Catholic.'
"But as the time came closer and closer, and then the time came (when) I really found out (about her pregnancy), I didn't want to have it at all. For me, abortion was the only way."
Like thousands of other American women, Elizabeth might well have chosen to have an abortion even if it had not been legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. One of the leading experts on statistics and demographics of family planning, Dr. Christopher Tietze, estimates that about 75 per cent of the women who had legal abortions in New York in 1974 would still have had abortions even if it had been illegal to do so.
What has changed since the Supreme Court decision is not the fact of abortion but rather the openness of of it. Abortion has moved from furtive rendezvous in back alleys to modern clinics like the preterm clinic on M Street where counselors help women like Elizabeth openly discuss an operation previously considered "dirty."
Even as a practicing Roman Catholic, Elizabeth is quite typical of the one million American women who had legal abortions in 1975. Between 20 and 25 per cent of all abortion patients are Catholic, roughly the same as the proportion of Catholics in the nation's total population.
Elizabeth's age places her right in the middle of the largest group of women having abortions, those between the ages of 15 and 24. She is also typical in many other ways. According to a study of 7,868 Preterm abortions patients made last year:
75 per cent are white
85 per cent are single or divorced:
89 per cent had more than a 10the grade education:
60 per cent are employed:
64 per cent are having first abortion and 63 per cent are aborting a first pregnancy;
56 per cent of the women leave the M Street clinic with a two-month supply of birth control pills and, also like Elizabeth, 46 per cent of the women do want children at some later point in their lives.
While the 1973 Supreme Courts decision legalizing abortion through the 24th week of pregnancy made abortions more available, it did not relieve women of the individual moral and ethical burden of deciding how much the value fetal life.
Elizabeth, like the two dozen other women intervewed for this series, knew that abortion is legal. But that did not make it any easier for her to commit an act that is anathema to her friends, her parents, her religion and was to her before she became pregnant.
Like all patients at Preterm, Elizabeth was assigned a counselor, who would fully explain the abortion procedure to her and be with her during the abortion and who would ask her enough questions to be sure she understood what she was doing.
Elizabeth sat in a modern chari, a few feet from Kathy Keay, her counselor. Hands folded primly, tightly, in her lap, Elizabeth leaned forward and said to Keay: "Let me ask you a question: Why is it important to specify your religion?"
"That can be optional," replied Keay, glancing at the admission form Elizabeth filled out. "I see you're a Catholic."
"I felt that in answering that question I was betraying something. I shouldn't have told everybody I'm Catholic."
"I don't know. I guess it's general information how Catholics feel about abortion, birth control, et cetera et cetera. And here I am, a Catholic, in here. I feel like I've betrayed a lot."
"Did that play a part in your decision?" asked Keay.
"I did struggled quite a bit, and the thing that I struggled over was my religious attitude. The social aspects and pressures really didn't come into play that much, but the way that people, my parents, would feel about it, due to the religious aspects, really had to do with it.
"My parents are devout Catholics. And last night I had a converstion with my brother...and somehow it came up in the conversation how very much he opposes abortion and everything.. I really don't know I've been able to cope. It's just been one thing after another and I haven't gotten upset."
"Does that upset you?" inquired Keay.
"It really does. It really does. I don't know whether it's more or less shock or whether I have an inner strenght I didn't know I had... Before this (pregnancy) happened I had always been against it (abortion). But once I was faced with it, I didn't see any recourse."
Keay asked what Elizabeth had struggled with, how she had worked through her decision.
"Well. I'm a college student. I hate to say this, but I didn't want to get married. I didn't. I don't know if that's selfish or what, but I had my future ahead of me and I just can't see the prospect of a child at all."
After reflecting for a moment, she added, "I realize I'm going to have a baby. But to me, it isn't a reality yet. And I think that may be the only thing that's helped me to through this, it's not a reality yet...I don't know...."
"You assumed I'd be surprised when you said you didn't want to get married," said Keay.
"I didn't know," said Elizabeth, "it seems the first thing that comes into people's minds when they find out you're pregnant and you're not married is, 'Are you going to marry him?'
"I guess I had a very good doctor and she said, 'You're young, this is the 70s and it'syour decision to make what to do.' And I really can't see marrying someone, as young as I am. I had a choice and I chose not to."
"Did the guy want to get married?"
"Yes, he did. We come from a small town - what can I say? Socially he's very, I don't know how to say it. He's from the upper echelon. His father is very well known and respected. I think it would have been expected because it happened in his family."
"How did he react when you said no?" Keay asked.
"Truthfully? I was relieved. He was relieved. Neither one of us are ready for that. We have a good relationship and it's growing, but we're not ready for marriage.?
"You mentioned that this has been a struggle; do you mean morally?"
"The whole big Catholic question is, 'When is a child a child?'" Elizabeth said. "I don't know. I said before that to me it isn't a reality; it isn't a child; it isn't a human being right now. I guess that's the only thing that's helped me make up my mind.
"I just had to make up my own mind as to when I felt a child was a child. Did I ever decide?" She repeated Keay's question. "No. I didn't set a certain time on it. I'm really not trying to delve that deeply. I don't prefer to."
"Did it surprise you that you were deciding to have the abortion?"
"I guess it did. I had done my senior term paper in high school on abortion and - this is really ironic - I asked to put on a seminar on abortion for the youth of my church. This makes me feel like the biggest hypocrite that ever walked, and that was only two years ago."
"How do you think you'll feel about yourself afterwards?"
"I don't know. I think I'm super logical. I think my head's on pretty straight.
"The only thing that I believe would really make me feel remorseful would be if somehow, some way, my parents found out. I would be the hurt that they would feel that would hurt me. But as far as the decision? No. No, there's no other way. There's a guilt that I'm going to have to face, but it's a guilt that I can live with in the belief that maybe I wasn't all that wrong.
"I don't believe the guilt will stem from the fact that I believe I (will) have murdered a living thing. I don't belive it's that. The guilt that I would feel would be in going against the traditions and beliefs of my church and family supposedly having been a devout person myself and then doing something that's so drastically against everyting."
"Have you adjusted to that?"
"I don't know," Elizabeth replied. "I just hope it comes naturally and gradually."