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If Someone You Love Has an Abortion, Give Them a Gift

9 minute read
Matthews is the author of You or Someone You Love: Reflections From an Abortion Doula. She is a writer, abortion doula, clinic worker, and community organizer. Her work has been published in ELLE, Esquire, McSweeney's, Teen Vogue, Catapult, and other outlets, and her book

A year after having my first baby, I had my first abortion. (My only abortion, maybe, but there’s no way to be sure of that yet–our reproductive lives are long, if we’re lucky, shifting and changing like a landscape we travel as we age.) My husband and I knew, as soon as that pregnancy test returned a positive result–our son having not yet taken his first steps–that neither my health nor our finances could bear another pregnancy, birth, or child so soon.

As an abortion doula and a clinic worker, I was intimately familiar with the mechanics of abortion, and had supported many people through their own processes, but that didn’t make the experience unfolding within my body and life any less intense, confusing, or emotional. Knowledge and experience didn’t slow the bleeding, or ease the cramping, or remove the logistical stressors. It didn’t mean I could go it alone, pretending I had the flu or a bad period, or just white-knuckling through my work and social commitments with a smiling mask of Nothing much! or I’m fine, you? as it was unfolding inside me.

Before and after I took the pills that would end my pregnancy, friends and neighbors dropped off big pots of soup, home-baked brownies and ice cream, a small stuffed rabbit for the infant resting in my lap. When I ended up needing an aspiration procedure, flowers and care packages and bottles of wine arrived, as if by magic. The days and weeks following my abortion were reminiscent of the days and weeks that had followed my son’s birth, when a constellation of community members had rallied for a postpartum mother and her family.

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I was (and am) lucky, in more ways than I can name. I had access to funding and care. I could safely and honestly share what I was going through with people close to me, without prosecution or (overt) social judgment. I could speak openly with friends and family–and even with coworkers and providers–about my decision: my grief, my physical discomfort, my resolve. I’m lucky my husband could show up at his workplace and say, “I’m leaving early today and I won’t be in tomorrow. Hannah’s having an abortion,” and be met only with compassion. In short: I’m lucky to have received not just the care and support I needed, but the care and support that any of us would dream of. But I’m also lucky that people in my life understood that this was not a moment for silence or pretending that nothing was happening. This was a moment for gifts.

I’ve always been a punctual and enthusiastic gift-giver (and, to my mother’s chagrin, a delinquent thank-you-note sender). I love to mark an occasion or a transition with something tangible–a letter in the mail with a dried flower pressed between its pages, or a succulent plant left on a doorstep. A book that made me think of the recipient, my notes scrawled in the margins, or a bottle of nice champagne when my bank account will allow it. A meal, a coffee, a gift card, a blank journal, a heating pad and fuzzy socks. The gifts themselves, of course, depend on the person–their sense of humor, their current health and abilities, what they’re going through and how they’re feeling about it. (And if I don’t know that last part, I certainly don’t guess or assume.) And so when I was going through an experience of my own, I was grateful for the generosity and creativity of those who showered me with presents both large and very small.

These were not performative, one-dimensional offerings. The intent was neither to celebrate my decision, nor was it to help me mourn my loss or to extend that dreaded, white-lilies-and-angel-statues declaration of “sympathy.” After an abortion, someone may be grieving deeply, someone may be buzzing with relief and contentment, someone may be physically exhausted, financially stressed, hormonally fluctuating–and someone may be all of these things, depending on the moment or the day. The gifts I received told me that no matter how I felt about my abortion, and no matter whether my loved ones could relate to those feelings, they honored them. The givers wanted to make this complicated moment of my life a little brighter, a little warmer, a little easier, a little less lonely.

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In the wake of the Dobbs decision, amid the escalating aggression of state bans and restrictions and their enforcement mechanisms, and as the powerful anti-abortion lobby pushes to strip us of our rights to reproductive autonomy, we are working to fill these systemic and institutional gaps–as quickly and as safely as we can–with community care. Doulas, anonymous hotlines and textlines, self-managed abortion support, independent clinics, legal defense organizations, mail-order pills, and information passed between friends are, increasingly, the care we can give one another. We are paying for each other’s abortions, or crowdfunding, or connecting each other to the funds. We’re giving each other rides to the clinic or hospital or airport. We’re babysitting each other’s kids. We’re covering for each other at school and work and helping each other stay safe from parents, partners, police. We’re brewing pots of tea, and braiding each other’s hair, and holding each other’s hands. We’re running to get the heating pad, the Tylenol, the anti-nausea medications. And–as humans often do in our lifelong quest for pleasure, love, belonging, and dopamine–we’re exchanging gifts.

After Erika Christensen’s third-trimester abortion, a college friend she describes as “very Christian” came through, unexpectedly, with a celestial show of support: she registered a star in the name that Christensen and her husband had been using to refer to their “maybe baby,” as she says now. It was a gift that acknowledged the grief and the beauty, that recognized the gravity of Christensen’s loss and the intensity of her love and strength.

T.S. Mendola’s mother-in-law “stress-bought” dressers from IKEA while Mendola and her partner were traveling to another state for their procedure. The Mendolas’ children, 2 and 5 at the time, got a fresh and lovingly rearranged new bedroom; Mendola got a constant physical reminder–heavy and tangible, and as real and undeniable of multiple large pieces of new furniture can be–that she was not alone.

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A woman who has asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons told me that the day of her abortion was like one big gift: her next-door neighbor–a generation older than her, and the only person she’d told about her pregnancy–came over, cleaned her apartment, and spent hours in her tiny kitchen, singing and cooking her iron-rich collard greens, baked beans, and steak. When the neighbor left, counters wiped down, fresh flowers in a vase she’d brought, and leftovers in the freezer, the woman realized that she’d been there for most of the day–and that she must have secured her own childcare and work coverage to do so.

Abortion is common and safe, and it has always existed on the same spectrum as birth, miscarriage, infertility, and so many other human experiences. And yet, we’ve all received and internalized the suppressive message–culturally, socially, and in many places and communities, legally–that it’s a separate, secret thing. That we shouldn’t acknowledge its presence in the room with us, its physical or emotional realities, its very real and nontheoretical place in our lives and families and communities. That–outside of political or academic debates, maybe, or philosophical and spiritual questions of ethics and laws–we shouldn’t speak about it at all.

Whether you believe, as I do, that abortion can be a powerful act of love–for one’s self and one’s own future, for one’s existing children and family, for the pregnancy being released and thus spared from the circumstances informing the pregnant person’s decision, and often for a combination of all these things–or whether you don’t, know this: When I trusted my community to show up for me as I ended my pregnancy, cared for the child I already had, and processed the experience in order to heal and move forward, I wasn’t asking for anything but to be seen and known. I wasn’t asking for anything other than friendship and support, for the space to share our experiences and to tell each other our stories, in order to better understand ourselves. But when the gifts began to arrive, I suddenly realized just how necessary those “extra” expressions of solidarity and love were, how crucial to my survival of that moment and my perception of my inherent worth and goodness. However you feel is OK, each of those gifts said to me, more clearly than any words their givers could speak or write. We see who you are, and what you’re going through. We’ve got you. We’re here.

When someone shares with you that they are having, or have had, an abortion, they are inviting you to take a step closer to them and a step into your own humanity. Take that step, and–just as you would when accepting any other sort of invitation–bring a gift with you when you come.

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