The Gotham Beat: Waiting out the war on women

This is what it’s like to get an abortion in New York.

You pull up outside the clinic, and park your car. You climb out. You double-check that you have your wallet, your keys. You take a deep breath, and you walk.

You can hear them before you can see them. Muffled voices, but loud and impassioned. Turn the corner, and there they are. Men and women who carry signs with ugly things written on them. They leer at you, yelling.

There is no defending yourself. There’s a part of you that wants to spin and face them. Plant your feet and yell right back.

“I’m just here to see my OB-GYN!” or, like me, “I’m doing research!”

But to the protestors outside, the building represents only one thing; it is the place where pregnancies end. And in their eyes, the women walking through the doors are all the same, and they are there for only one reason. There is nothing you could say to change their minds, and it’s clear they wouldn’t listen. So you duck your head and scuttle past, and hold your breath until you’ve made it safely through the double doors.

Inside, it’s all clean lines and pastels. Welcoming enough to make you feel safe, but cold enough to keep you awake, and focused on the task at hand.

I visited several clinics in the city, and what struck me in each waiting room was how far apart the seats were. There’s room to spread out – you never have to sit next to anyone if you don’t want to.

Assuming you are there for an abortion procedure, you fill out the requisite paperwork, and then they take you from the waiting room and sit you down in a small office, usually one with a couch. There, someone sits across from you and asks a series of questions.

“Are you positive that you want to have this procedure?” they ask. “Is this a decision you’ve made for yourself?”

If they’re satisfied with your answers, you’re sent off to another waiting room, where you don a surgical gown. If you seem particularly distraught or nervous, they may offer you a Valium.

Over the course of my visits to these clinics, I was struck by the distinct similarities between the waiting rooms – and by the stark differences between the women in them.

Some come alone, others with a friend, a partner, or a parent. Some sit silently in a far corner chair, flipping absently through a magazine. Some cling to their companions, and speak in low whispers. Some text, others weep. Still others chatter happily on their cell phones, or to the women in neighboring chairs.

In the recovery room where the women are escorted after their procedures, the atmosphere is the same. It is a curious jumble of emotional responses – and it speaks volumes.

In the last few months, the most prominent issues that have been raised in the media, in Congress, in our classrooms and around our kitchen tables have revolved around women’s health. People are divided by party lines, personal and religious beliefs. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, and it is becoming exhausting to listen to them as the camps dig their trenches and battle to drown one another out, each convinced that their answer is the right answer.

But what I learned from visiting these clinics, watching and speaking with these women, is that truly, there is no right answer.

There is no correct umbrella decision on any issue regarding women’s health, because all women are so very different. Each woman in the waiting room has her own thoughts and feelings, wants and needs. There is no mandate, no legislation, and no opinion that encompasses them all.

At the heart of every debate that has sprung up in recent months is the same sentiment: it is necessary to provide women with every opportunity to maintain their personal health. But a woman’s health is just that – personal. The only way to ensure a woman’s health is to leave open to her a wealth of options, and to allow her to make the healthiest choices for herself as an individual.

The battle will continue to rage. There will be new issues with new opposing sides, new media coverage, new initiatives, new compromises. The voices, political, religious and cultural, will clamor and bellow about the big picture.

But in the waiting rooms, women will sit patiently, passing the time until they are called through the doors to make whatever choices they have decided are right – and healthy – for themselves.