Monday. I pee on a stick in the morning.
Tap — Google maps. Type in: Planned Parenthood, Bleecker Street.
Wonderful. Now, the intelligence officer tracking my internet activity also knows that I’m pregnant. Panicked searches for clinics and appointment timings will record my brief pregnancy in a datacenter somewhere. An un-erasable and easily retrievable fact. In a few days, it will be used to curate a Facebook advertisement, pushing newborn baby clothes onto my screen.
“Don’t go alone,” my friend’s voice cautions through phone static. She's in Rio de Janeiro and I’m here. I close my eyes and think of her. Maybe she’s in her office kitchen, looking out the window. I picture her staring at a long street, lined with an imposing row of lush, overgrown trees. Nobody I love is here.
While she speaks, I pace around a courtyard, frantically making eye contact with passers-by, trying both to relay and normalize my sadness. The distance between me and the people in my life who would find this whole thing despicable – maybe even depraved – sinks in. Mama and Baba are in Beirut, my eldest brother is in Doha. Jiddo and my amtos are all in Saida. I can do this alone, I think to myself. I can recover alone and pretend that they don’t matter in the process.
“I know you just moved to New York,” she starts, “But Kareem is there visiting this week, maybe he can go with you?”
He does come with me that afternoon. In the middle of his vacation, he meets me at the corner of Bleecker Street and Bowery, and we walk to the unmarked clinic. Past the security guard with a sympathetic smile, through the metal detector and towards the receptionist sitting behind a bullet-proof screen. Only patients are allowed into the actual clinic, so Kareem waits outside with fellow friends and lovers.
The clinic is packed, teeming with movement and anxiety. Someone with long black braids waits for the elevator. While I speak to a nurse, a person with slender arms and an exposed, deep-brown shoulder cuts in front of me to pick up a leaflet. I like the silver-navy paint on her plastic nails.
Women swirl past me, one of them in worn-out trainers and cellulite hugging leggings, another wearing long-leather boots, trick-trocking rhythmically. There is safety here. This is a place that serves the ever-changing “public” – all of us, not just the few. Like the subway, it makes me feel as though I’m part of a community, that I’m someone worthy of a shared good.
Between waiting rooms, foot tapping, and knee shaking – in anticipation of blood-tests and an ultrasound – my mind oscillates between complete stillness and an overwhelming amount of tenderness for the people around me. There is a woman sobbing into her hands. I so badly want to embrace her. But nobody else seems to flinch, so I follow suit.
“Do you want to see it?” the technician asks me. “No, no” I shake my head.
“Anyway, listen, you are way too early along for the abortion pill. We can’t see anything in your ultrasound. You’re going to have to come in again tomorrow for the full procedure – that’s the only way we can be sure it’ll work.”
I begin to cry for what might be the eighth time that day.
Tuesday. I arrive at 8:30 a.m., this time, alone. Past a man holding a sign that reads, “ABORTION IS MURDER. DON’T KILL YOUR BABY. We can help.” Past the security guard with the sympathetic smile, through the metal detector. Into one final counseling session. My mind feels empty, focused only on the task at hand. Abortion, now. The nurse asks one last time if I am sure, and I nod. Blood and heat lift through my body and to my eyes. I start to cry, again.
The truth is, I am absolutely certain about the abortion. There is no shadow of a doubt. The weight – the suffocating anxiety ripping through me and causing me to collapse into tears, over and over again – is not rooted in uncertainty or guilt, but rather in the clarity of how this “act” will change things. My theoretical, political beliefs and my feminism will no longer be an abstraction. This will become a part of me, and it will irreparably change my relationship with my body and my community. I will become someone whose morality is up for debate in spaces where I used to feel safe. It will build another unscalable wall between me and my family, moving me further into the category of “other” and away from the person they want me to be.
There are so many people in gowns waiting for their turn. Looking around, things are moving like clockwork. As though an abortion is nothing at all. The staff seem to work with extreme efficiency and sincere compassion, approaching patients with kindness. I’ve only been in crisis mode for 48 hours and they are already saving me. I love Planned Parenthood.
Check: mild anesthesia. I am partially awake through the procedure. Inside the operating room, there are four women taking care of me, speaking in hurried but calm sentences, “it will hurt, but you will be OK.”
The rest of the day passes in the company of three women and a few phone calls from far away. Gayathri re-fills a hot-water bottle, over and over again to help soothe the slashing pain in my abdomen; Indali comes home with French pastries; Lauren shares a sweet potato dinner with me. I’ve only known them for about three months.
In diaspora, I’ve kept my parents close by allowing their voices to take up excessive space in my mind. But today, they don’t get to speak. Now, I try to quiet down what their heartbreak would sound like.
I receive a call from the clinic in the evening.
“Hi, is this Karma? We’re going to need you to come in tomorrow for another blood-test. We weren’t able to see the egg after the procedure, so we can’t be sure it worked. You need to come in first thing in the morning. We’re closing early tomorrow and will be closed for the rest of the week because of Thanksgiving.”
Wednesday. I go in for the blood-tests, and although they promise they will call me with results before closing for the holidays, they don’t. They close for four days.
I cry a lot. I cry on the phone and I cry in the bathroom. I cry when I speak to my lecturer, and I cry on the subway – I am exhausted, but I really don’t mind that dozens of people are watching me sob. I cry my heart out. It feels good to shed those salty, runny tears so freely. It feels close. To subdue the tightening pain, I wrap my arms loosely around my ribs and I try to thank my body for carrying me.
Sunday. On the day that Planned Parenthood re-opens, I land in Beirut. As it happens, one of my friends is getting married this week and I can’t believe I made it. In what feels like an absurd joke, my U.S phone locks the moment I land, turning into a brick that won’t receive or make any calls.
I spend my week in Beirut sliding in and out of a spiral of anxiety. What if it didn’t work. What if it’s still growing inside me. In these circumstances, fear begets fear. Like ink in water, little demons waking each other up. Tenderness in my breasts makes my entire body pulse. I look at my abdomen in the mirror to see if my lower stomach is still protruding. I do this a hundred times. It’s still protruding. It didn't work. I'm going to have to go through it all over again. I can’t breathe properly.
Friday, two weeks later. I’m back in New York. My phone unlocks, and I finally know that the procedure worked. Now it’s actually over.
Sunday. I open the box and read the instructions. How do I use this thing? Do I pee directly on it? Do I use a cup?
Less than a minute later, I sit on the side of the bathtub and let out a deep sigh. I admit to myself that I am not surprised. I am never late. But still, nothing could have prepared me to see the two lines.
We did everything right except for this one time. One time.
He comes into the bathroom and sits next to me. He puts his arm around my waist and we sit in silence, in our small apartment in Dubai, for what feels like an hour. “Whatever you decide, I am here for you. Just tell me what you need me to do.” Just hold it together.
I know exactly what I need to do. My best friend went through this a few months earlier, and I helped her with the research at the time. A friend of a friend had given us the information of a doctor who was willing to help and I went with her to the clinic.
“I am okay, really. I know what to do,” I tell him.
I message my best friend and ask her to make an appointment for me, this coming weekend, in Beirut. Please don’t call me back. I really do not want to talk about it, even to her. I do not want to allow myself to feel the rush of emotions, when I am so sure that I do not want to have a baby. There is no point. What needs to be done will be done – I only have to focus on the next steps. Step by step by step.
Tuesday. The taxi picks us up from the hotel, where my team has been staying for six weeks, for a client engagement. In a very matter-of-fact tone, I tell the Engagement Partner that I have to fly back to Beirut this weekend and take a couple of days off to deal with an urgent and personal matter. He knows me well enough to know this is serious. He does not ask questions. We agree on how to handle the client deliverable, due in the coming days, to cover my last minute leave. Phew, that’s done. See, that was easy. Just hold it together.
Thursday. We sit in the car in front of the airport departure door. “You asked me not to come with you, and I respect your needs. It would mean a lot if you would update me at all times.”
I agree. I know that having him next to me in Beirut, worried and guilty, will not help me keep it together. We both made a mistake. It happens. But what I am about to experience could not be felt, with the same depth, by someone who will never need to have an abortion. I shake off the nagging feeling that this is selfish but I know that I do not want to be constantly asked how I am feeling or looked at with sorry eyes.
He helps me with my bag and I walk into the airport. “Ma’am, for security reasons I have to ask, are you pregnant?” the check in agent asks me. “No,” I lie. I spend the entire 3-hour flight staring out the window.
I walk into my parents’ house in the evening, right after landing, but I don’t tell them why I am in Beirut one week earlier than my original flight. They will never understand and there is no point trying. I spend the night in my bed and pretend none of why I am here is true.
Being around them almost makes me feel normal. But I am normal.
Friday. I meet my best friend early in the morning to go to the clinic. This is the second time I have ever been to this side of Beirut. I never thought I would return. As we walk into the clinic, the midwife recognizes us from our visit a few months ago and rushes to give us hugs. She looks so colorful with her bright red hair. Wow, this is what I am known for now huh? She proceeds to give us a discount. Please someone pinch me.
After a few minutes, the doctor walks in to perform the echo. He smiles and makes small talk while preparing the machine. He has a kind but mechanical tone to his voice. He points at the screen to show me the embryo. I really don’t want to see this. I smile out of kindness. He confirms that I am four weeks pregnant and congratulates me. Congratulations? Don’t you know why I am here? We move to his office and he begins to explain my options using medical terms I understand vaguely from my Google research. I wish I hadn’t done that much research because now I know the procedure steps and the risks.
The room is bright white with old black leather couches that tickle my skin. I am, after all, in an underground clinic that performs undocumented procedures. There is no sign at the door and they do not even know my real name. If anything goes wrong, no one is accountable. I feel a shiver run down my spine.
The doctor tells me that unwanted pregnancies are very common in Lebanon and that they do this very frequently. He says something about how our culture needs to change but I am not really paying attention. He wants me to feel comfortable and understood. Perhaps it is business as usual, but it works.
He tells me about another option – the non-invasive pill option. There is no way I am going to take the pill and go through the abortion with my parents in the next room. No way. What happens if it fails? I cannot take the risk and I need to travel back to work in a few days. I want to get this over with as fast as possible and get on with my life.
“I want the procedure,” I respond. “I am ready now.”
My best friend and I sit in the clinic and wait for the anesthetist to arrive. I can hear the doctor and midwife prepare the procedure room but cannot comprehend what they are saying. I can smell the antiseptic from where I sit. For me.
When the anesthetist arrives, he asks me a few questions to learn more about my medical history. He explains that I will be receiving a very light dose and will be awake in 10 minutes or so. I have never been sedated before, so I cannot help but worry about everything that might go wrong. But by then, it is too late. I am scared but I also have no other option.
“We’re ready for you,” I hear. I lay down on the chair and extend my arm.
“This won’t hurt, just relax,” he says. I feel a needle prick and close my eyes. I wake up with my best friend right next to me. “It’s over babe,” she says.
It’s over. I finally allow myself to cry.
Wednesday. My friend and I jokingly go to a pharmacy to pick up a pregnancy test. We laugh about what I’d call the baby. “Nour if it’s a girl; Jude if it’s a boy,” I say – not thinking I would ever actually have a baby to name. Of course, I made my friend, the married one, buy it for me. As if that would make the pharmacist less suspicious. Not too long after, I take the test — completely oblivious about what would follow. I stare at a plus sign, thinking my entire life is over. My knees go weak, and I feel faint. My life will never be the same and my mother will kill me if she finds out. I wonder whether my mother will be angry because I got myself into this situation or because I am choosing to get out of it this way, this quickly.
I have been in a happy and stable relationship with my boyfriend for the past three years; but there is a part of me that knows, then and there, that my relationship will completely change the minute I break the news to him. I almost want to wait a while before telling him. Maybe I could keep everything normal and carefree between us for a little while longer.
Still staring at the plus sign, I finally muster the courage to let him know of my result. With every passing second, my chest becomes heavier with the weight of the news.
We both immediately call sexual health centers in Beirut to figure out what the next step should be. I find a good doctor and schedule an appointment the same day.
Friday. 1709. That is the first number I see on the screen. I ask my gynecologist what it is, and he says it’s just an indicator. I ask again, unconvinced, and he tells me it’s my EDD. Expected due date. Expected? But I am not expecting anything. I am here to end an unwanted pregnancy. Why did my baby already have a due date at 6 weeks?
Between the time I find out and the time I go to my appointment, I must have taken three or four pregnancy tests, just in case it was a false positive. Turns out that almost never happens.
This is my second appointment at the doctor’s after finding out I was pregnant. I hadn’t even noticed that my period was late until about a week later. Why would I have noticed? In my head, there is no way I could be pregnant. I am always careful.
Monday. I make up a lame excuse to leave work and arrive at the clinic with my sister. I wait outside the doctor’s office, painfully self-conscious, with three very pregnant women next to me, smiling awkwardly. I am pregnant, I am here to ask for an abortion. I am pregnant, I am here to ask for an abortion. I am pregnant, I am here to ask for an abortion.
I go in several minutes later, and the doctor begins by asking how I am, how I have been feeling. “Good, great, pregnant,” I answer.
“I need to ask you this question one time and I will not ask again,” he continues, “Do you want to keep this baby?”
I freeze. Up until then, it did not even occur to me that I have a choice. I knew what had to be done without ever having to say it out loud. Before I answer him, my eyes wander to the corner of the clinic, to framed pictures of patients with their newborns, and to one photo in particular – a woman holding up a positive pregnancy test with a sign reading: “My doctor is a hero!” And I think to myself, maybe, one day, if I choose to have a baby, I now know that my body is capable, and for a second, I feel grateful.
I bring myself back to the doctor’s question, almost having to remind myself of why I am here, in this clinic. “I do not,” I say quietly under my breath, unsure if I am ready to hear myself say those words or if I even want him to hear them just yet. He examines me and informs me that I am still very early on in the pregnancy and could not go through an abortion procedure now, as that could increase the risks of an incomplete abortion. He advises me to return a couple of days later.
The wait is excruciating. I feel guilty and reckless for ever letting this happen and want nothing more than for the pregnancy to be over. To go back to the minute before I found out I was pregnant. When life seemed less painful and I didn’t have as many complicated decisions to make.
Tuesday. As soon as I walk into the bar to meet my friends, I am hit with the familiar smell of cigarettes and beer. This time, they make me nauseous. I try to act normal and order some coffee. I am quiet the entire night. I wonder whether they can tell something is different.
I feel too present in my body. I keep my arms crossed around my belly, excusing myself for the bathroom every couple of minutes. I feel as though I am lying to everyone. I talk about how much work I have this week. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not to this pea-sized thing growing inside me.
Friday, one week later. Four p.m. My appointment is still a few hours away, I remind myself, as the sense of urgency kicks in and I am unable to focus on anything.
Time passes and I leave the office, rushing to my appointment with my best friend on a cold January evening. The doctor greets me with a smile, not asking about my relationship status, not passing a single judgement. It makes the entire process feel so much safer.
“0.46 cm, right there,” my doctor says.
“0.46? What is?” I ask, confused.
“Your baby, do you see it?” my doctor asks.
I am Rachel from that one episode of Friends, when she lies about seeing her baby on the monitor to seem like a good mother. I get it, now.
The next part of my appointment is centered around making my decision, how and when and where I want to get the abortion. I choose the less invasive option and purchase the pills, which I had needed a prescription for. At that point I had had a whole week to myself to Google what felt like every post, every article, and every testimony ever written about abortion. The only stories that came up were about traumatic experiences. I had read about women describing it as a terrible experience that they were never able to recover from. Some women wrote that their abortion led to some sort of an infection and they couldn’t have children after it.
I ask my doctor a million questions about the right dosage, the proper instructions for administration, and any repercussions I should be aware of. He calmly answers all my concerns as I sit in his office, with ice-cold hands, shaking in my seat at the thought of something going wrong. I am very much aware of the weight of this decision on both my mind and my body.
I go back home that day, and dutifully start my round of pills. The minute I take the pills, it is almost as if my body knows what is happening. I suddenly am extremely dizzy and lightheaded. This goes on for several hours, with the pain fluctuating as the contractions start. They subside when my painkillers kick in.
After that, the actual process feels rather uneventful. As though I had gotten my period for much longer than usual, with cramps that are incredibly painful.
It isn’t until I write the words on this page that I actually allow myself to grapple with how broken I had felt.
I went through my abortion in silence. Nobody had ever shared their experience with me. I was 25 and I didn’t know whether any of the women I loved had ever had an abortion. That Monday, when I went to the clinic for the first time, I needed someone to tell me “I’ve felt this too, and it’s going to be OK.”
I fixated on the pain that flowed from that isolation, I thought it would subside if I looked outside of me: I thought about the women in my life. I didn’t want them to face an abortion alone. How awful, to have only yourself to sit with, grappling with the shame that shrouds it. I packaged my experience up into a political commitment: I would talk about my abortion openly. At the very least, whenever a friend asked, “How have you been?” with a degree of sincerity, I would answer honestly - working to soften the word “abortion”. I would still wonder though, how far can you go before you are expelled from your Arab, Muslim, Shiaa community? Did I lose it?
In these conversations with friends, I think I was searching for someone to respond, “I had one too”. I found four women who did. Although each of them was quick to qualify their admissions, (“but please, don’t tell anyone”), they had given me four new stories to hold on to. Closing my eyes, listening to them navigate their abortions, between Amman, Dubai and Beirut, I could place myself at home again.
An unwanted pregnancy brings it with shadows of recklessness, of pain, of shame and constant self-criticism. The space in between you and all the people who would judge you for your decision feels colossal. But the abortion itself, despite the whirlwind of bodily experiences I went through, from actual morning sickness to nonstop bleeding for several weeks, was a huge relief. The fact is that, for me, it was the only thing I could have done. I don’t know who I would be now if I hadn’t been able to make that choice for myself.
It is now something I carry with me, wherever I go. It is something I feel I might mention to new partners in the future, and something I hope wouldn’t change the way people feel about me. Even though it pops up every now and then when my mind wanders to an alternate life, where I could have been a mother by now, the memory isn’t as heavy as it used to be. It comes up in late night conversations and only after several drinks. It remains to this day one of the hardest things I have ever had to go through. I learned to use my experience and my voice to talk to other women about it. If I ever have a daughter, I want to be able to talk to her about it. If I have a son, I will talk to him too. I had promised myself I wouldn’t let this define me. But it does, in the best of ways. I am stronger because of it.
Would I have chosen an abortion if we were married or had the means to raise a child? Many years later and into my 30s, I reflect back on this while sitting next to him, my husband now and partner then. The answer is yes. I had the right to choose, I still have the right to choose. The experience does not define me. The decision itself was easy.
I know what I want and what is best for me. No one else is more qualified to make that decision for me – not my partner, my family, my community, or my country. As a woman, I am constantly pressured by society to explain and defend almost everything I do, for others to judge whether my reasons are valid enough. Although it is still difficult to talk about my abortion openly – because I know I will be asked why I did it – I realize now that do not have to explain my reasons. Truth is, I just knew I had to get one.
What I do realize now is that I was lucky. I was lucky the doctor and medical team performed the procedure successfully. I was lucky there were no complications. I was lucky I had money to pay for the procedure. I was lucky I had a boyfriend who loved me and supported my decision. I was lucky I had my best friend who knew what to do and how to help. I was lucky.
But not all women will be lucky. And this is what I struggle with to this day.