(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The long drive to end a pregnancy

On the 407 miles of open road between home and a Montana abortion clinic, a woman has a lot of time to think about how she got from there to here

15 min

Editors Note: This story was originally published on May 6, 2015

She had made a plan and now there was nothing left to do but follow it: a map in the console, a caffeinated tea in the cupholder, a tank filled with enough gas that she wouldn’t have to stop for hours. Now Emily sat in front of her house in Wyoming and made a final preparation, picking up her phone and typing in an address for an abortion clinic in Montana, 407 miles away, where she would drive and then no longer be pregnant.

It was 3:21 in the morning. The houses in her neighborhood were quiet, and the mountains behind them were dark, and when Emily first moved here she thought the landscape was so pretty, and now it just seemed lonely. She turned off of one road onto the next, and in the blackness there was a flash of movement. A deer darted into the street. She braked until it passed, a fawn lit by her headlights, running toward the bushes across the road.

“Oh, it’s a baby,” she said, and there were 406 miles left to go.

This was a drive Emily had never taken for a procedure she hadn’t imagined needing, in a time when fewer clinics and tougher laws were making the geography of abortion more complex. Because of the sensitivity of the abortion issue, The Washington Post agreed with Emily’s request not to use her last name or identify where she lives. In some parts of America, the accessibility of abortion has remained unchanged, but not in great swaths of the country — not in places such as Texas, where more than half of the clinics have closed since 2013, or in South Dakota, where the single clinic has a mandatory 72-hour waiting period between appointment and procedure, or in Wyoming, where there is one private provider and no clinics in all the state’s 98,000 square miles, and where the nearest facility Emily could find an appointment was six hours away.

She reached for her iPod, which contained another part of the plan: radio shows she’d been saving, podcasts that friends had recommended, an arsenal of distraction to be dispensed along the route. She’d called her mother a few days before in a moment of second-guessing, and her mother said, “Stick with the plan, Emily,” and the plan was to drive forward and never be left alone with her thoughts.

So she pressed play and tried not to think about the long weekend getaway when she took a pregnancy test and showed her husband the results, and they were both so excited.

She tried not to think about the night seven weeks later when her husband came home and said he’d done something stupid, and the police came and arrested him while she went to a friend’s house and sobbed.

Seven weeks of happiness. Three hundred and fifty miles to go. She tried not to think about any of that.

“I heard it was supposed to be nice in Missoula,” she said, as two comedians interviewed each other on a podcast. She had researched the city, trying to find a way to picture this drive as a road trip. Missoula had a good museum and sunny weather and open-minded people, she’d heard, like the people in the beach town where she grew up. “I wish I could enjoy the city more,” she said. She turned up the volume on her iPod. One comedian ribbed the other about being too handsome.

“I wish I was coming here under different circumstances.”

Her husband was the first thing that had felt comfortable about Wyoming, the unfamiliar cowboy state where she’d been offered an entry-level job that almost fit her graduate degree. They were both transplants from the South, both out West for their work, they made each other laugh, and when he told her about a youthful criminal past and promised he’d left it behind in their shared home state, she believed it because he believed it. He was going to teach her to hunt. He really wanted to be a father.

“Children deserve so much. And if you don’t start with a solid platform, how can you ever give them that?”

The stupid thing was an alcohol-infused altercation. It happened when he was out celebrating a career move, and he was in jail now without a hearing date. Emily knew he could be sentenced to prison for a few weeks, or a few months, or more. If it was months, could she handle the pregnancy alone? If it was more, could she handle the baby? Whatever his sentence, could she ever go back to the life they’d been living?

“Children deserve so much,” she said. “And if you don’t start with a solid platform, how can you ever give them that? I’m sure I could have done fine, eventually. . . . ”

If he had a hearing date, then she could have more certainty, but he didn’t, so she didn’t. She made one appointment with an abortion clinic in Helena, which would have been closer, only to cancel it at the last minute. By the time she decided she wanted to reschedule, the Helena clinic was booked for weeks. The nearest appointment she could get was the clinic in Missoula, and now instead of certainty she had 161 miles of a dark drive left in front of her, a landscape that was dotted only with occasional neon lights of gas stations and billboards that were too dim to read.

“I can help you find a good day care,” an acquaintance had offered recently.

“I’m thinking of having an abortion,” she replied.

“There are other options,” she remembered the acquaintance telling her, as if she didn’t know. Thinking about options is what had been keeping her awake at night.

Option one: There was the day a few weeks ago when she went to the government office of family services, just to see what it would feel like to have a child and need help raising it. She looked through the forms for food stamps, which asked things like whether she had a car and how much it was worth. Emily tried to picture selling her beat-up sedan, but then how would she get to work, in a town with no public transportation where she had few friends? A version of tenuous, exhausted motherhood stretched out in front of her, and it didn’t look anything like the one she’d always envisioned, with healthy meals, the right toys, two parents.

Option two: The people at the Missoula clinic sounded kind. They asked her how far along she thought she was — about 14 weeks now, she told them — and they explained how she would come in, fill out paperwork and have an ultrasound to make sure her dates were right. She would take a drug called misoprostol to prepare her cervix for dilation, wait for a few hours, and then the surgical portion would be about 15 minutes. She wondered if she would have to look at the ultrasound, and how she would feel when she was actually sitting there, inside the clinic.

“I would guess most women feel more certain,” she said, and kept driving.

Another podcast. The sun was coming up; the fields were filled with cows.

Her phone rang. “I’m in Montana now,” she told the friend who had called to check in. “I started driving at 3:30, I’ve been driving for a while now.”

A few minutes later, her mother called. “I’m 60 miles away from Missoula,” she said. “It was dark most of the time . . . I know . . . I know . . . I love you, too.”

A gas station stop. A can of Coke. Another fig bar from the snack bag in the back seat. Another podcast.

This time, it was a live recording: a man talking about a day when he went skiing on a nearly empty mountain. When he reached the bottom he saw a toddler barreling down the incline on an out-of-control sled. He somehow managed to catch the little boy just before he flew into a steel pipe. The man often thought about this incident, he told the audience, especially after having his own child.

Emily kept driving. The man started to talk about his daughter: how he pictured her growing up, learning to ride a bike, ride a school bus, have a boyfriend. He talked about how now, if he had a turbulent plane ride, it wasn’t his life that flashed before his eyes, but his child’s. “My life is not just mine anymore; in a large part it belongs to this little person,” he explained to the audience. “If you have a kid, you’re vulnerable, and they’re so vulnerable without you.”

The podcast finished. Emily didn’t start another one. Instead she opened an app on her iPod that played only ambient noise and selected the sound of a rainstorm so that it seemed like water was pouring through the roof of her car. Seventeen miles to go. She passed another field, another gas station. Seven. In the car the rain continued.

She’d come up with the plan because she wanted structure to get her through 400 miles.

They’d nicknamed the baby “Beauregard” because it made them smile.

The sound of the rain was still playing as Emily drove into Missoula’s city limits, and an hour later, she walked into the clinic.

It was dark again, 19 hours later, as Emily pulled out of the Missoula motel parking lot and onto the highway, with yesterday one mile behind her, then two.

She’d slept hard the night before, got in the car before 6 a.m., and the road was quiet and the gas tank was full once more. “I think I feel better than I thought I would,” she said. “I thought I might collapse in a field somewhere and just start crying,” but that didn’t happen.

Instead she’d left the clinic and gone to a grocery store, and while she looked for Tylenol in the pharmacy aisle, her mother called. “They talked to me the whole time,” Emily told her. “The doctor had been to Africa, too, so we talked about that . . . I love you, too.”

They had done an ultrasound. They hadn’t told her to look at it, but she found that she wanted to, anyway. It wasn’t three-dimensional as she’d feared it might be. It mostly showed the cranium, and nothing in the image was moving. She told them why she wanted to have an abortion: She wasn’t financially or emotionally stable; her husband might not be around. A clinic worker again went over all the steps that would happen next.

“I’m going to look back at this period of my life as a nightmare. This time when everything just unraveled.”

“I’m going to look back at this period of my life as a nightmare. This time when everything just unraveled.”

The misoprostol made her double over with cramps and sway with nausea; the worker brought her a heating pad and took her to a private room with comfortable armchairs and a thick diary where other women had written about their experiences in the clinic. “It took me awhile to come to this decision, but it’s what’s best,” read one entry. “To anyone who reads this, stay strong,” read another, and Emily had paged through them for a little while before lying on the floor and pulling her knees to her chest.

“I’m going to look back at this period of my life as a nightmare,” she said in the car, when the clinic was 120 miles behind her, 121, 122. “This time when everything just unraveled.”

She stopped at a gas station and bought a soda and a scratch-off lottery ticket, where the goal was to get three moose or three bucks in a row. She scratched off one moose. A second moose.

When she’d been alone in the private room, between the misoprostol and the surgery, when she was curled up on the floor and the clinic worker had already helped her throw up once, her phone rang and it was her husband calling from jail. He had good news, he said. He finally had a hearing date, set for just four days away, and his lawyer had offered another thing to hope for: He might be sentenced to just probation. He might not serve any time at all.

Emily pressed her head against the floor and took a deep breath. “I hope they do that for you, I really do. Whatever is the best situation you could get,” she’d told him.

He suggested that maybe she shouldn’t have the abortion after all.

She closed her eyes and rolled her head back and forth on the carpet. “Baby, I’m having it right now,” she said. “Right now, I’m going through it. I can’t stop it, it’s too late.” He hung up and didn’t call back.

Emily now scratched off the third square on her moose-moose lottery ticket. A buck. She finished scratching off the other squares.

“Oh well,” she said. “I lost.”

She put on a podcast, and the host was discussing a study, about crime rates and youth arrests, and how they happened more in poor and single-parent households.

The highway became a two-lane road, and billboards and road signs that had been dark yesterday were now legible.

“See Grizzly Bears Exit Now.”

“If you’re pregnant, it’s a baby: Choose life.”

“Montana Vapor Outlet: Electronic Cigarette Supply.”

“Life: A Beautiful Choice.”

“I need to get out of here,” Emily said. “I need to get to a place that’s bigger.”

There were so many young mothers in the town where she lived, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. She wondered what to tell the people who had known she was pregnant. “I guess I’ll just say what happened. Maybe they’ll think of me differently. I hope they don’t.”

Another fig bar. Another hundred miles. Another gas station stop. Inside she searched for a peppermint patty to go with her soda, and a few aisles away, a woman rested her hands on her round belly while her husband knelt to the floor, scanning the snack shelves.

“They don’t have Little Debbie, and that’s what we were craving,” the woman told her husband.

“That’s what Baby was craving?” he asked. “Come on, we’ll go somewhere else.”

Emily paid for her peppermint patty, but by the time she got to the car she realized she must have left it on the counter because she didn’t have it anymore, and she didn’t want to go check. “Back in Wyoming,” she said, crossing the state line. The speed limit was lower here, and the weather seemed cloudier to her. Yesterday was almost 400 miles behind her. She had done the right thing, she thought.

Her phone kept alerting her to new e-mails. It was a busy week at work; her supervisor had approved her time off, but she felt guilty leaving her colleagues to pick up the extra projects. “I think I’m going to put on more appropriate clothes and go to work,” she said. “I think that’s better than being alone.”

The exit for her town appeared by the road. She ran out of podcasts. She played music instead.

Back in the clinic, when the surgical part of the abortion was over and she was again in the recovery room, Emily had decided to add her own entry to the diary of experiences. She wrote out a few lines from a T.S. Eliot poem that she liked, and another by Pablo Neruda. She wrote, “I loved my baby, Bo, dearly, and I hope in the coming years I will believe that this was the best decision for both of us. He will be in my heart and on my mind always.” Then she wrote another sentence, addressing the child she would not have. “I know you would’ve been a beautiful joy in my life, and I can only hope and strive one day to be the mother you deserve.”

Eight hundred and fourteen miles, driven since yesterday, and she pulled back in front of her house and sat for a minute before going inside.