In my late 20s, I made the difficult and very private decision to have an abortion. About a decade later, I played a character that was the first woman to be shown undergoing an abortion procedure on network television. As women, it is our right to choose what happens to our bodies, our lives, and our futures. It is also up to us to decide when, how, and with whom we share our stories.
While, as an actor, I was proud to portray a woman exercising her right to choose, in real life I never talked about my own abortion publicly. My shame and embarrassment inspired a private silence that hid my personal truth and made me complicit in a culture of secrecy that shames women, our bodies, our choices, and our power. As I was writing my memoir, however, I realized how important it is to speak openly about experiences that have been kept in the dark, because when we do so we liberate ourselves and each other.
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The reality is that abortion is a very real and normal part of women’s lives. I share the story of my abortion procedure here because our right to make choices about our bodies and our lives is under attack both culturally and legislatively.
This is my story. I am one of many. And we will not be silenced.
It was January in New York City; I’ll never forget how cold it was that morning. I was grateful for the need of additional layers, not only to keep me warm, but also to hide in and cocoon myself away from the reality of the procedure I was about to undergo.
I sat in the waiting room and completed the paperwork with false information: a made-up name, a pretend address, a nonexistent email. Only the phone number was my own, should the office need to reach me in case of an emergency.
I remember looking around the room and wondering about the circumstances of the other women there. Were they pregnant, too? Did they want to be? Were they wondering the same about me? Afraid that they might be, I used my scarf to hide myself further. I was not, at this time, famous. I was a working actor, someone able to pay my rent and my car insurance. I had been in a few magazines, and my star was on the rise. But my work had not become an impediment to how I traveled through the world. Still, I wanted to be careful, wanted this procedure to remain private.
When the nurse called my false name, I followed her into a small office. She proceeded to ask me questions that she was required to ask by the state, to help me make sure that this was the right choice for me “and my family.” My body felt hot with shame. As a teen, I’d performed with a health-education theater company, and I had spent years on the other side of a version of that conversation, asking young people to consider their options and weigh the consequences. I was schooled, and schooled others, in the ways of prevention and the language of sexual empowerment, but in my own life I had committed the crime that seemed unimaginable to me back then. I had let the heat of the moment dictate choices that would impact me for a lifetime.
And now I was sitting across from a nurse, having to defend my desire to have an abortion. She reminded me of myself—we seemed to be about the same age; she too was a Black woman who I imagined had grown up in the outer boroughs of New York City. I answered her questions calmly and succinctly.
Later, as I lay on the medical bed with my feet in stirrups, the doctor described her plans for the termination, the instruments she would be using, and what it might feel like at different stages along the way. I had been to several gynecological appointments through the years, but never one so transactional. Today I had come to this office for a particular result and required a definitive outcome. When I left, I would be a changed woman, without the burden of new life, but perhaps with a bit more time to understand and define my own.
Why hadn’t I protected myself? Why hadn’t I had the courage to create boundaries around my womb? Why had I silenced my preferences in the name of people-pleasing?
This all could have been avoided. If I had spoken up for myself in the moment, I wouldn’t have found myself in that office. But there I was, surrendering my insides to a surgical vacuum, trying to repair the damage born of my silence and need to be loved.
Both the doctor and the nurse treated me with great kindness and care, as the website for the clinic had promised. I was doing my best to breathe through the procedure and remain calm until it was over. And then, the nurse—the same woman who had spoken with me before—let her eyes linger on me. She seemed to be trying to solve a problem. As the doctor opened my cervix and inserted the thin vacuum tube, the nurse looked down at me, smiled, and very gently said, “Do you know who you look like?”
I think she was trying to comfort me, to tell me that even though this moment was incredibly difficult, she could see the beauty in me, could see that I reminded her of a movie star.
She said my real name. I could hear it under the muffled sound of the water in which I was drowning. Kerry Washington. It was my name, but the version she was calling out had nothing to do with me. And so, in that moment, I didn’t know who I was.
So much of our reproductive journey is cloaked in secrecy and shadows—silences that compound, making us feel more alone. Until I had a devastating miscarriage and shared about it with friends, I had no idea how many women have weathered that same loss and long to talk about it, but don’t. I have the same experience every time I share about my abortion. These experiences are part of my history and who I am now. And what I’ve learned is that there is healing to be found in community.
Excerpted from the book Thicker Than Water: A Memoir by Kerry Washington Copyright © 2023. Available from Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., New York, NY, USA. All rights reserved.
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