The pregnancy test is
Pregnant and desperate in post-Roe America
Three women face unexpected pregnancies in states with abortion bans
It’s a moment of panic that has played out again and again for people in more than a dozen states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
Once they find out they’re pregnant, there isn’t much time to act. The closest open abortion clinics that once offered next-day appointments are now often fully booked three, four, even five weeks in advance. Pills purchased online can take up to a month to arrive.
Every day, the fetus gets a little bigger — and the anxiety builds.
In polarized, post-Roe America, the experiences that draw widespread attention are often the most harrowing: a 10-year-old rape victim forced to leave her state to end her pregnancy, or a woman denied an abortion for a fetus without a skull.
Often lost in the discussion are the more routine stories. The mother of two who can’t afford a third child. The teenager who can’t tell her parents she’s pregnant. The 25-year-old who isn’t ready to be a mom.
Over the next decade, if recent trends hold, more than a million people with unwanted pregnancies are likely to run up against an abortion ban. Some will find a way, traveling hundreds of miles or securing illegal pills through the mail. Others will resign themselves to parenthood.
The Washington Post made contact with three pregnant women who were seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans. These women, reached early in their pregnancies, communicated regularly with The Post, sharing their experiences through calls, text messages and other documentation that supported their accounts. They participated on the condition that only their first names be used to protect their privacy.
Here are their stories, from the minute the two pink lines appeared.
Lillith rolled into the emergency room in a wheelchair, her cramps so bad she could no longer stand up.
The pain had been building for a few weeks, mild at first, then suddenly sharp enough to wake her up every day at 5 a.m. Weighing just 95 pounds, Lillith assumed it was some kind of nutrition issue: Maybe she wasn’t eating the right foods, or enough of them.
Then a nurse pressed an ultrasound probe into her stomach and informed her that she was almost 20 weeks pregnant.
“You can put this in your baby book,” the doctor said as he handed her the results of the pregnancy test.
She knew all about the recent Supreme Court decision that had banned abortion across much of the South. As a teenage girl in Oklahoma — where abortion is now almost entirely illegal — you had to keep track of these things, she said.
Lillith looked at her dad in the chair next to her, his eyes wide. As comfortable as they were with each other, with just the two of them living at home, she could tell this news had thrown him. Still, he reached out to hold her hand.
“I’m not mad,” her dad recalled saying once they got in the car. While he would need some time to process — he wanted to take a close look at the ultrasound of the fetus and learn the gender — he promised he would support whatever decision his daughter made.
Before the positive test, Lillith hadn’t even considered the possibility that she could be pregnant. She’d been on birth control until a few months earlier, when her prescription lapsed and she hadn’t prioritized going back to the doctor. She only had sex once every few months — casual hook ups with a friend — so birth control hadn’t seemed that important, she recalled thinking.
Lillith waited until her dad went to sleep that night to start researching abortion clinics. She would have to drive three hours to Kansas or eight hours to New Mexico, the closest states where abortion was legal. At 20 weeks along, a surgical procedure would cost over $1,000, on top of the price of gas and a hotel.
Her job at a sandwich shop paid $9.25 an hour.
Just after midnight, Lillith texted her best friend. Their messages were usually silly and low-stakes, easy banter about their next TikTok video or which shade of orange would look best in Lillith’s hair. Nothing like the news she was about to share.
Lillith started to panic even more the next morning, once she started making calls. Kansas wasn’t an option: Lillith couldn’t find an appointment there for another two or three weeks, which would put her beyond the state’s 22-week limit.
The wait in New Mexico would be long, too. When one clinic told her they would have to induce labor and deliver a stillborn — their standard practice for someone 23 weeks along — Lillith said she started hyperventilating. She could not imagine pushing a fully formed baby out of her tiny body. Childbirth scared her so much, she said, she’d always planned to adopt.
Lillith couldn’t stop fixating on the fetus inside her. Roughly the size of a mango, it kept growing as she spent her nights at home, knowing her friends were out drinking until 4 a.m., thoroughly enjoying the summer after their senior year.
She finally got good news a few days after her first round of calls, when a New Mexico clinic reached out with an open appointment the following week.
Once she started looking, she couldn’t believe how easy it was to find the money. A quick internet search led her to the National Abortion Federation and its Hotline Fund, a nonprofit backed largely by billionaire Warren Buffett, which agreed to cover the full cost of her $2,400 procedure, she said. She just had to get herself to New Mexico.
Lillith and her dad started the eight-hour drive at 5 a.m., a cooler in the back seat stocked with Pringles and pudding cups. In her comfiest sweatpants and Crocs, Lillith recalled, she closed her eyes right around the one-hour mark, drifting off to Bon Jovi and AC/DC, a soothing mix of what she liked to call “dad rock.”
The procedure itself took two days. Because Lillith was further along in her pregnancy, the doctor had to insert dilation sticks to soften and open the cervix, before starting the abortion about 24 hours later.
When Lillith woke up after the procedure, she said later, her dad was there waiting for her. One day, she thought she might ask him whether the little thing inside her had been a boy or a girl.
But for now, she decided, she didn’t need to know.
Kae drove to her ultrasound appointment with one question on her mind: Did her fetus have a heartbeat?
She’d scheduled her scan at a facility that offered “abortion consultations” as soon as she found out she was pregnant, well aware that she was up against a deadline. An Ohio law, which took effect when Roe fell and would later be blocked at least temporarily in the courts, banned abortion as soon as an ultrasound could detect cardiac activity, around six weeks of pregnancy.
If she’d been tracking her period correctly, she only had a few days to get an abortion.
When Kae pulled into the parking lot for her appointment, she was surprised to find it free of protesters. While the place she’d selected didn’t actually provide abortions, its website advertised free ultrasounds and other services for women seeking the procedure. With the Supreme Court decision so fresh and emotions raw, Kae figured any kind of abortion-friendly place would be a target.
Right away, Kae said, a few things seemed a little off. One counselor gave her a bottle of prenatal vitamins. Another offered to pray for her. Then the sonographer said the vaginal ultrasound wasn’t clear enough to date the pregnancy: Kae would have to come back in a week.
“You can’t give me an estimate?” Kae asked, fairly sure she was at least five weeks along. “Nothing?”
At Kae’s next appointment — seven days after her first — the sonographer played a sound she identified as a heartbeat.
“You’re measuring at approximately six weeks and three days,” Kae recalled the sonographer saying as Kae lay flat on the exam table.
“Do you want a picture to take home?” Kae recalled the sonographer asking.
No, Kae thought to herself: All she wanted was to put her pants back on and leave. She stared up at the ceiling, trying to tune out the sound and keep her breath steady. How could this be happening, she wondered? How had the fetus developed so quickly?
A one week delay was the difference between a legal and an illegal abortion.
By that point, Kae said, she’d started to suspect that the clinic was not an abortion-friendly place at all. She’d heard people talk about crisis pregnancy centers, often religiously-affiliated organizations that try to talk women out of abortions.
A sonographer can see a gestational sac with a vaginal ultrasound around four to five weeks of pregnancy, according to a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which means they can roughly identify the pregnancy one to two weeks before cardiac activity is detected.
When Kae told her boyfriend the news, he was immediately suspicious, pointing to the pregnancy center’s clear antiabortion stance. “To go from seeing nothing to being too far in a week, it just didn’t make sense,” he told The Post.
There had been a moment, right after the pregnancy test, when Kae briefly considered keeping the baby. She’d been with her boyfriend for almost a year. He owned a home. She had no doubt he was the guy she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. But Kae had just gone back for her college degree, still a few years away from launching her dream career.
When she sat down to write her list of pros and cons, she could only think of one “pro”: the chance to start a family with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, the “cons” quickly filled a whole page in her notebook.
Kae felt even more sure of her decision after hearing what the counselors called the “heartbeat.” She didn’t feel at all attached to the sound, she said. Angry that the pregnancy center may have tried to thwart her plans, she informed the counselors that she still planned to have an abortion. She would take pills from Aid Access, she told them, a Europe-based online service that supplies abortion pills illegally to women in states where abortion is banned.
“You have no idea what’s in them,” Kae recalls one of the counselors saying before she fled the building. (Aid Access is widely regarded in the medical community as a safe resource for medication abortion.)
Kae heard the counselor’s voice in her head when the abortion pills arrived in the mail a week later. Some of the pills were small and hexagonal, she said, while others were more circular.
“I don’t know why they’re different,” she told her boyfriend. “I’m worried.”
He said he reminded her that she’d done her homework: She’d read a bunch of articles about Aid Access before she paid $105 to place her order. The organization had been around for years. If these were the pills that arrived, he told Kae, they should trust them.
The next few hours played out exactly as the internet had led Kae to expect. The cramps came, sharp and fast, as she curled up on the couch with her golden retriever, trying to concentrate on an episode of “Breaking Bad.” She threw up a few times, then turned on the shower, the hot water dulling the ache in her back.
When Kae imagined all she might lose by having a baby, she thought about roller coasters and the kind of reckless freedom they represented. She loved the feeling of the wind in her hair and her hands in the sky, screaming as she plummeted 300 feet at 100 miles an hour.
She’d already planned a post-abortion amusement park trip with her friends, where they would ride one of the tallest, fastest coasters in the state.
“Suck it up,” she said out loud to herself, fixating on the dips and drops she could experience once she was no longer pregnant. “Just a few more hours to go.”
Taylor checked the time as soon as she woke up on the morning of her abortion appointment. It was 6 a.m. The clinic expected her at 8:10 a.m.
She had just over two hours to decide whether she wanted to become a mom.
When Taylor first found out she was pregnant, she had not even considered keeping the baby. Her boyfriend of two months had just moved 600 miles away. She had no savings. After working as a greeter in a fancy downtown office building, she’d finally scored an entry-level job in finance making $50,000 a year. But she had to pass an exam to stay on the payroll, and the studying had not been going well.
Based on her last period, Taylor estimated that she was at least seven weeks into her pregnancy, too far along to get an abortion in Georgia, which had enacted a “heartbeat ban.”
She would have to go to Florida.
Taylor knew she was in for a long wait. She couldn’t take any time off at her new job, so she could only travel to Florida on weekends. Flooded with patients from states that had banned abortion, the clinic’s earliest available Saturday appointment was two weeks away. Because Florida law requires patients to have an in-state ultrasound at least 24 hours before an abortion — and the clinic wasn’t open on Sundays — Taylor would have to make two trips.
She secured a pair of Saturday time slots at a Florida Planned Parenthood: one for the ultrasound and another, three weeks later, for the abortion. Her boyfriend, who Taylor said advocated for the abortion, agreed to cover half the cost of the $250 round trip flights.
It wasn’t until the ultrasound that Taylor started to wonder whether she was making the right decision. As the nurse walked her through a script of state-mandated information, describing every step of the surgical procedure, Taylor seized on a few of the details.
A tube inserted inside her uterus. A pump. Suction.
Taylor said she had only ever thought about abortion in a vague, abstract kind of way, as a medical procedure central to reproductive health care. Now she couldn’t stop picturing a vacuum cleaner inside her vagina.
The ultrasound photo made her even more anxious. At nine weeks, she said, the fetus “looked like a little person.”
After returning home from her first trip to Florida, Taylor spent hours scouring the internet for information: How much do you bleed in a surgical abortion? Do fetuses feel pain?
Eager for a sympathetic ear, Taylor posted in an antiabortion forum she found online.
“I am pro-choice and I’m weirdly having second thoughts about my appointment next week,” she wrote. “Advice???”
Her post quickly generated over 100 responses.
Money wouldn’t be a problem, promised dozens of people Taylor had never met: There were resources for mothers like her. They told her to call her local crisis pregnancy center. Several users offered to donate to Taylor’s baby registry. One asked for her address so she could send some baby clothes.
“The feelings you have right now is your conscience telling you something isn’t right,” one user wrote. “It is very likely that you will feel worse if you have the abortion.”
Taylor wasn’t sure whether she could rely on these strangers, or the resources they touted. But she was desperate for some kind of support, and she wanted to believe them.
As the appointment neared, Taylor still couldn’t settle on what she should do. She texted her boyfriend at 2:30 a.m. on the morning of her flight to Florida.
Taylor told herself she would make up her mind once she packed her bags. Once she got to the airport. Once she landed.
Then it was 7:30 a.m. on the day of her appointment, and she finally accepted that she wasn’t going to get out of bed.
As soon as she got back to Georgia, Taylor started to shop. She would swing by Target after work and linger in the baby aisle, picking up wipes or a few packs of diapers, eyeing the other women with rounded bellies as they filled their carts with everything you needed to care for a child.
Taylor felt like she was playing a part. She said she had just started renting her first apartment. She didn’t know how to drive. In a few weeks, she might fail her company’s required exam and lose her job. Still, she thought, maybe if she did the things mothers were supposed to do — bought the things mothers were supposed to buy — she could somehow handle this.
“I don’t really have control of anything right now,” she said. “So it’s nice to know, okay, I have the stuff.”
About two and a half months later, by then 22 weeks into her pregnancy, Taylor sometimes found herself doubting whether she’d made the right decision. In part, she blamed the Georgia law that forced her to leave the state for an abortion. The delay complicated a choice that once might have been simple, she said, leaving her to stew in ultrasound photos and antiabortion talking points.
“Sometimes I just feel like I should have gone to my appointment,” she said.
After every trip to Target, Taylor deposited her new baby purchases in a pile in the middle of her living room. She wanted to make herself look at it: a growing reminder of everything that was coming.
“This is the first adult thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said, taking stock of the pacifiers and baby cream.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to be a mom … But it’s my responsibility now.”