Emma is the pride of her Mexican immigrant parents. Her mother, Ana, wiped away tears as Emma walked the stage, becoming the first in her family to graduate from college in 2015. She asked for copies of Emma’s diploma to show her younger children what was possible for them to achieve.
Then about five years ago, Emma told her mother about a decision she had made her senior year of college. She had had an abortion — the first of what would be two. It was a confession that would forever change their relationship. Emma had decided to tell her secret after her mom texted that she was planning to attend an antiabortion rally.
“That just hit my heart, intensely” said Emma, who is being identified by her first name only to protect her privacy. “And I just, in that moment, with my hands shaking, replied to that message and let her know ‘Do what you want; the choice is yours. … But I just want to make sure you have the knowledge that I received abortion care at that very clinic you’re about to go protest in front of.’ ”
Ana still grieves for what she says are the “grandchildren” she has lost. She prays for them and her daughter, asking God’s forgiveness.
“It’s hurt me a lot. I’ve cried,” Ana, 53, said. “I’ve asked God for forgiveness, for me for how I’ve failed because I didn’t inculcate my daughter.” She prays that God “enlightens [Emma’s] heart, her mind, so this doesn’t happen again.”
As America cleaves over the issue of abortion, the struggle between Emma and Ana illustrates how views on the subject are often shaped by life experiences. That it could cause such damage to one of the most intimate relationships — the one between a mother and daughter — shows the seriousness and weight of the Supreme Court’s decision of whether to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Emma’s first abortion
Emma faced numerous challenges as a first-generation college student. In addition to her studies, she often helped her sister — who was a teen mom — pay the bills and care for her three children. She worked full time at her family’s Mexican restaurant in Indiana and attended classes at night to finish her degree.
For most of that period, her father was serving time for a drug conviction and awaiting deportation, which happened the year she graduated.
But none of those things threatened to derail her future as much as when she went to the Planned Parenthood clinic near campus a few months before graduation and found out she was pregnant.
“When you realize you’re pregnant, you become much more aware there is no safety net to catch me beyond my own ability to figure it out,” Emma said. “Realizing how unstable my life was at that moment, it made me extremely emotional. It was a very big realization then and for years after: that no one swoops in to save me.”
Her boyfriend wanted her to get an abortion but would not provide her any support. She knew she could not tell her devout Catholic parents. So she carried the emotional, financial and physical burden alone, making surreptitious trips to the nearest abortion clinic, more than an hour away on public transportation.
“I was in a really rough spot for a long time,” Emma said. “I wasn’t negatively impacted because of my decision to terminate the pregnancy. I was negatively impacted by the abortion stigma surrounding me at that time.”
Indiana law requires an in-person counseling visit, as well as a waiting period of at least 18 hours before a person can obtain an abortion. A doctor also must perform an ultrasound scan of the fetus — which Emma did not want to see. Patients also must be told that personhood begins at conception, a claim unsupported by many scientists.
Emma said she had a lot of cramping and pain after the medication abortion. But the worst feeling, she said, was that “I was alone.” Telling her mother, years later, was liberating. The weight of the shame she felt from the secret lifted.
Her mother was heartbroken.
“I got very sad. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to think. Because I never thought I was gonna be, like, in this situation,” said Ana, who has four children. “My daughters, they have their own lives, they have their own mind, different ways of thinking, and there’s nothing I can do about that.”
What stands out to Emma is how her mother reacted to a trip she took across Europe shortly after graduation, a trip she would have been unable to take if she had continued her pregnancy and not finished school. Her parents had always been confined to Indiana because they were undocumented and lacked the financial resources to travel.
Ana proudly posted photos of Emma’s trip on Facebook and captioned them: “Vuela alto y libre que tu eres las alas que siempre quise tener.” Fly high and free, for you have the wings I’d always wanted.
Emma’s second abortion
Emma, who had moved to Texas for graduate school, discovered she was pregnant a second time on Feb. 16, using a home pregnancy test. She and her partner had been using birth control, and she was concerned because she was taking a medication that could cause anomalies in a fetus. She also had a full-time job and was on track to complete her master’s degree this summer.
Her choice was clear: She would get an abortion. And this time, she would tell her mother.
“I immediately was, like, this is going to be rough,” Emma said.
She said it was more difficult justifying an abortion this time around. She was older and had a stable job.
Her mother said the news also was harder for her to take the second time, “because one time, okay, you made a bad decision. But for it to happen again?”
“My daughter is not a bad person,” Ana said. “But she doesn’t know, like, she never had a baby. And maybe she don’t know what it feels to have the baby with you, to see the baby, to hold the baby, you know?” she said.
Ana said it’s selfish of women to get abortions just because the timing is inconvenient. They should at least consider adoption, she said. She agrees abortion should be an option in cases of rape or when the woman’s life is in danger.
Two of her pregnancies were unplanned. Her son was a risky birth: Ana was older and had an IUD at the time, and the doctor said the boy might have Down syndrome or another condition. But she never considered not having them, she said.
“How great that she’s achieving the things she wants,” Ana said. “But I’ll at least always have that on my mind — that she’s had abortions. You’re killing someone to achieve something.”
And so Ana retreated from her daughter’s life.
“She never asked me how I am, or never asked me how it turned out, or never asked me how she can support me, much less offered to come down and help me recover from it,” Emma said. “And so that’s a difficult aspect of — that’s the way that abortion stigma shows up within our families and within our lives,” she said.
“It could have been a moment for her to show up and support me, but it’s so deeply embedded that it’s something that she would rather ignore,” Emma said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Emma’s second attempt to obtain an abortion was even more difficult than the first. Texas bans abortions after six weeks — well before women often know that they’re pregnant, including Emma. A Planned Parenthood employee told Emma she would have to go out of state for the procedure, and referred her to a clinic in New Mexico. The clinic is an eight-hour trip by car and has had a backlog of patients seeking abortion care since the Texas ban went into effect.
Emma was already experiencing pregnancy symptoms of fatigue, nausea and dizziness, and she couldn’t imagine traveling that far. She also was afraid that by the time she was able to get an appointment at the clinic, she would be too far along to qualify for an abortion pill and would have to undergo a more invasive procedure.
So she turned to some friends she knew in abortion activism circles who regularly picked up the abortion pills misoprostol and mifepristone near the border, in Mexico, where the procedure is legal. And she bought one and took it.
“It was extremely painful,” Emma said. “It’s akin to inducing labor cramps. It’s literally you’re inducing your uterus to begin cramping very much so as if you were going into labor.”
A week later, she was still feeling pregnancy symptoms. She made an appointment with Planned Parenthood, this time under the guise of having had a miscarriage, fearful of running afoul of Texas law if they knew she had taken an abortion pill. She wanted to know if she was still pregnant, and so she told them she had started bleeding a week ago, making no mention of the pill.
“I basically had to sit in this appointment and showcase an appropriate amount of grief as a miscarriage, just trying not to raise any red flags that I had self-managed this or undergone an abortion,” she said. “While I was sitting in the actual clinic in the room in my robe, I was texting my friends to see if I could find a second round of medication abortion.”
Although the appointment confirmed she was still pregnant, the clinic still could not help her with what she needed.
“They were kind of scolding me because in their mind they’re thinking I have a wanted pregnancy and I’m just being irresponsible about seeking medical care when experiencing bleeding,” she said. “I was getting scolded like ‘Why did you wait so long to come in?' Their options that they were giving me were ‘Let’s figure out the health of the pregnancy and how we can support that.’ ”
Her friends came through, with a pill that mixed both drugs, which is supposed to have a higher rate of effectiveness. After more cramping and bleeding and pain, the symptoms eventually subsided. She thinks that if she had been able to consult with a doctor about her abortion, they probably would have been recommended she take that pill from the start, sparing her the added time and pain.
She had, finally, completed her second abortion.
Ana doesn’t talk to her about it. She doesn’t know how Emma watched YouTube videos to figure out how to administer the abortion pills from Mexico. Or how she pretended to have a miscarriage so she could find out what was happening to her body. The cramps, the bleeding, the pain.
“The silence is deafening,” Emma said.
“I know if I decided to have a child today she would very much want to be involved, and be by my side, and want to support me bringing in a new life,” Emma said. “But she isn’t capable of supporting her actual child in making the health decisions that work best for them. It’s more support for the hypothetical life that could come than the one that’s already here.”
Emma expects to wrap up her master’s degree in August, an accomplishment far exceeding the expectations of her parents, who migrated to the United States from Mexico undocumented in 1989, and worked in low-wage, under-the-counter service jobs to make a living. Emma will be among 6 percent of Hispanic women who achieve graduate degrees in the United States, and she attributes that success to the decision she made in February.
“She is really smart,” said Ana, who will take the citizenship test this fall. “She is the pride of our family. She’s an example to her little brothers.”
Ana said the whole family will be attending Emma’s graduation in August.
“Emma and I can spend a lot of time together. I go visit her. We can talk about everything — about our lives. … She helps me, gives me ideas,” Ana said. “But that topic, it’s like 100 percent we are not in agreement. We don’t talk about it that much.”
Emma said her mom should understand what it’s like to feel trapped in your own body, unable to control or determine your own destiny.
“My mom has definitely experienced situations in which we did not have the autonomy to determine our own futures. Hers specifically has been more so related to immigration and not having status within the country — not being able to move freely throughout the U.S. or visit her home country,” Emma said.
One day, when she’s ready, Emma hopes to have children. Her second abortion prompted a conversation with her partner, for the first time, about whether he wants that one day, too.
“I really look forward to that journey,” she said. “But for me, I see motherhood as a sacred undertaking, and I want to make sure that I’m taking that step when I have all the resources needed to make sure I can do that well.
“I want to be able to offer a child something more than what I had to start off with,” she added.
Emma has always had big dreams for herself and her family. She was determined she would graduate from college, and she did. She would become a homeowner, and she is. And now she’s on the cusp of getting her graduate degree, with a plan to save enough money to allow her parents to retire.
“My abortions were an act of love. An act of love to myself, an act of love to my family. And I hope that they one day see it that way,” she said.