Midnight Breakfast

Issue 7


What is Sacred

by Wendy C. Ortiz

Another afternoon had fallen over the clinic, the morning bustle turned sleepy lull. In the waiting area, the patients seemed more sedate than I’d come to expect on such days. Perfumes mingled in the air and dissipated with every opening of the door as patients or their companions entered or left, some smoking cigarettes on the front steps, ignoring the protesters in the parking lot. I was invited to leave the front desk and enter the small hallway where a doctor and certified nursing assistant stood, focused on the countertop in front of them. I left the medical charts on my desk, neatly aligned in a pattern that showed the order of patients from first to last.

I was told to put on a blue paper smock, paper mitts, and a mask. My fingers felt unsure touching the crinkly paper. The doctor’s gaze was fixated on a tray.

“This one’s about nine weeks.” The doctor studied and turned over the little bits of blood and matter in the tray with an instrument. Our very pregnant CNA took notes.

Seeing organs, tissue, bone—things that should by all accounts be on the inside suddenly outside—normally made me squeamish. I stood over the tray and blinked. My focus on the tray blotted out the sounds of the clinic, the unfamiliarity of this mask on my face. There were definite features to the fetus, features I had never envisioned seeing up close—the minuscule hands, smaller than a grain of rice; the curve of the backside reminiscent of a shrimp. When I let out my breath, thoughts wheeled wildly around my head, silly thoughts, untethered feelings. This is it! I’m seeing it!

I heard myself say some things, words meant to relay to the medical professionals around me that I was fine, just fine. Not in awe. Not amazed that what I was looking at looked, of course, like what it was—a minuscule human—then alternately like what it wasn’t—a tiny shrimp tossed ashore from the ocean. I watched as the medical instruments prodded, turned, measured. My nostrils flared under the mask.

I observed the fetus as it was surveyed and reported (because any remains of the fetus left in the woman’s uterus can cause complications). I tried to imagine what I was seeing juxtaposed with the enlarged images of aborted fetuses on Operation Rescue signs. My gaze could never linger long on those signs, with their spattered blood, some version of mangled skin and clotted hair that looked forged to my earnestly pro-choice eyes, mind, and heart. The doctor’s voice brought me back as she suggested that I’d be a good candidate to help with noting fetal measurements on future abortion days. I was pleased with the doctor’s suggestion. I thought it meant something about my composure, my professionalism—even as in that moment it seemed that standing upright and being willing was enough. Add a blue smock, mitts, a mask, and I was on my way.

I was the receptionist at the only feminist women’s health care facility that offered abortions in my adopted county in the Pacific Northwest. To me, this was a pro-choice activist’s dream job. I’d been hired quickly, by surprise. When I’d first applied for the open position, they’d filled it with someone who had a medical-office background. Then, a few months later they called to offer me the position. I didn’t even ask what happened to their previous hire, why there had been such a swift turnaround. I was anxious to leave the monotony of my state job, and the fact that I myself had traveled a couple of counties away for an abortion just five days earlier made the job seem possibly fated.

I’d embarked on my activist dream job in earnest. Now I was looking at the remains of a fetus in a tray with a sense of awe I couldn’t yet place.

I encountered Michael in various places, but we were officially introduced at an editorial meeting in the local library. I had volunteered to proofread for the local progressive newspaper that he wrote for, edited, pasted up, and distributed. Michael could alternately be found testifying on behalf of the homeless at city-council meetings, observing police officers downtown, facilitating a collective’s meeting, and riding his bike with an almost purposeful recklessness on the streets.

Months passed, months in which I tasted his signature specialty of spaghetti with avocado, shared beers at the alehouse, went to newspaper meetings. I watched Michael walking toward me in his long-sleeved shirt, black jeans, and boots, and I knew I wanted this life of action, fiery and fluid, and I wanted to do it alongside him. By the time Michael and I had been together for a year and living together for several months, various meetings populated my calendar, along with marches, Critical Mass bike rides, and teach-ins.

One rally stands out to me. It was early February, and the faint sun took some of the chill off the crowds gathered at the capitol building, readying to march to the park. There are photos of me holding a megaphone, standing in the park’s gazebo. When Michael lugged the video equipment down to the march that morning, I had silently hoped that the video he shot that day would not be memorable for anything other than the rally we were participating in.

After the march from the capitol building to the rally itself, the last thing I wanted to do was travel to the west side of town for what would be my first pregnancy test ever. But later that afternoon, I left behind a urine sample at the HMO clinic and was told I could call for the results after four.

The rally was long over, but my throat was still scratchy from the chanting and yelling we’d done that day. I waited until just after four as instructed. I sat on the couch and punched the numbers on the phone.

A perky female voice answered. After telling her the reason for my call, she asked, “Which way do you want it to be?”

I started to say something, sighed, said nothing.

“The test came out positive,” she replied after an awkward moment. My breath caught in my throat. Another moment of silence eclipsed everything until she said, “It sounds like that’s not the news you wanted. Here’s who to contact.”

I was twenty-four, several months shy of twenty-five; a few weeks prior, newspapers around the country noted the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I hung up the phone, stunned into silence. I had crashed into my fertility.

I’d always felt like I was on one side of a fence; my friends who had abortions stood on the other side. I was holding their hands through this fence, but we were separated. I was perfectly content to stay on my side of the fence for as long as possible, if not forever.

Back then, I often collected statistics and rational, practical analyses of most issues in order to build arguments that would stand up in discussions and in even the most personal dilemmas. My notebooks were filled with talking points to make my case or compose a talk about the latest issue I was involved in. In the case of women’s reproductive rights, I was well versed in what I believed were the most important facts.

Women average about thirty years of potential fertility. One article I read in a progressive magazine reported that forty-six out of one hundred women (presumably American, presumably with insurance coverage…so many things to presume) would have at least one abortion in their lives. One (or two, even three) unintended pregnancies in thirty years seemed pretty low in that context.

I was buffered by facts, padded with statistics. I didn’t yet know about the time one friend couldn’t find a ride to the clinic and had to ask a friend’s boyfriend, or the day another friend borrowed money from her mother for the procedure, or the moment when another friend looked at the ceiling in terror as the aspirator turned on, filling the room with its low-toned industrial noise. These were not facts or analysis. They were details that either I’d been unwilling to hear or my friends unwilling to share at the time it happened to them. These moments were particulars of an experience no one really asked about or shared. Pregnant, I now wanted their stories from beginning to end, if my friends were willing to share. I wanted to hear about actual experiences, not talking points, not rhetoric.

I opened my black address book. My hand scrawled red curlicues and circles on the edge of each page as I called every friend I knew who had had an abortion. I had to abandon my fact sheets and statistical notes, and surrender to the fact that I was now going to join the women on the other side of the fence.

In 1997, at the time of its publication, I read The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. I had become familiar with the terms used in the book over and over, like a spell: curette, cannula, laminaria. There was something romantic to me about the accoutrements of an underground service I considered nothing short of revolutionary. The tools in name were something sharp and utterly necessary, though I could only imagine particulars: the size of the instruments, the weight, the coolness of metal in an outstretched palm.

The following year, my days working at the clinic were composed of less-than-romantic paper cuts, constant questions about insurance coverage, and the completely unglamorous necessity of turning the building alarm off and on. Alone in the office, the fax machine’s whir and beep often catching me by surprise, I understood the enormity of having to protect the physical property of the building and the people working inside. The all-too-common faxes from the National Abortion Federation spilled like foreboding ticker tape into our clinic, warning of recent attacks on abortion facilities all over the country on any given day.

“AB day,” as we called the one day of the week when abortions were scheduled, started early in the morning when I turned off the alarm so I could enter, and ended only after the last patient had exited, the anti-choice protesters had abandoned the sidewalk outside, and the clinic defenders had left their posts. The ambient music might still be playing if I weren’t the last to leave. I was glad to close the door on that music—usually top-forty songs sung by women whose voices all sounded the same, who warbled of love lost or love found. I often wondered about the soundtrack we provided in this space, how the women on AB days had to integrate the romantic, lilting music into their experience. Still, the music often drowned out the sounds of arguing, crying, or little screeches of pain and discomfort. Sometimes the volume was subtly turned up when someone’s moaning became too loud. In that context, the music was essential.

On non-AB days, appointments ranged from pregnancy tests to annual pelvic exams and various other general-practice procedures. I tended to each of the patients those mornings and felt the days shift languidly into afternoons. The palm-sized dial I used to help calculate how many weeks pregnant someone might be was often in my pocket, to be used during phone calls from women inquiring about pregnancy tests. If I had time between patients, I sometimes studied this dial. Someone on the other end of a phone line had used this instrument, studied its small face of months and numbered days, when I’d called to schedule an abortion. I would have given birth sometime in early October. I hid the dial in my pocket and was relieved again and again that had not been my fate.

I worked next to a pregnant woman four days a week at the clinic. She’d had more than one abortion herself and now assisted women during their own procedures. People constantly asked her, “Isn’t it weird working there while you’re pregnant? Don’t you find it hard?”

Their questions reminded me of the phone conversation I had with a customer-service representative of my HMO when I called to inquire about coverage.

“Does my coverage include abortion?” I asked.

“Ahhh,” he said. “Voluntary termination of pregnancy.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Let me see.” His tone was friendly. He paused. I could practically hear him searching for something to say. “Abortion…such an ugly word,” he finally said. And then, “Yes, voluntary termination of pregnancy is covered.” I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked him.

I was so thankful that it wasn’t until later that an outrage began to seep out of me, as though it had waited to be unearthed only when I could handle it. Why had this stranger felt the need to comment on the word abortion? Was it a chastisement? Or was he completely unconscious of what he said and how it might impact me on the other end of the line? There was no dialogue to be had. I had to accept his comment and move forward. With a red pen, I marked the day on the calendar when Michael and I would drive to Seattle for the abortion. I would soon tire of counting the days backward from that date, staring at the numbered squares that only reiterated the mistake I’d made in gauging my ovulation with a calendar.

It also wasn’t until long after I hung up the phone that I realized there was a language to learn. It was not curette or cannula. It was the protective, sterile coating that voluntary termination of pregnancy provided, instead of the word people often found shameful, ugly, or rife with political meaning. It was the vocabulary of the doctor’s office and insurance carrier, and I would actually find it useful later when explaining the procedure to countless patients.

When people asked my coworker if she found it difficult, or unsavory, to be working at the clinic while pregnant, she told them, “No. It’s not weird or hard.” In fact, she told me in private, she was easily irritated by people who couldn’t utter the words abortion or termination. Eventually I felt exactly the same way.

The office felt heavy and turbulent with the comings and goings of patients in various emotional states. I found that the teenagers needed the most reassurance, as well as lengthy explanations of low-income funding for abortions. The yellow piece of paper I gave to each of them explaining how they wouldn’t be responsible for payment if they fell into a particular income category did not seem to register. It was the slap of This is happening to me that I saw on their faces, as if they had just awakened into something sick and disturbing. Whether their faces were wan and soft or cold and grim, I could never predict whether they would return for the next appointment.

I remember one girl from Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain’s hometown. I had been there a few times and had found it remarkable only in that it was so unremarkable. It felt as if a gray shroud had been thrown over the area, and I wondered if the air ever felt warm and fragrant or if spring somehow bypassed this place every year. As the girl from Aberdeen stood in front of me, her whole body seemed to cringe from the counter that separated us. She was not only willowy in her being; she was willowy in that she was wavering, seriously wavering, about the decision she felt she must make. She’d had to travel way out of her county for an appointment to confirm what she had already guessed—that she was indeed pregnant—and to decide what to do about it. I wanted to project comfort and something solid, rocklike, when I offered the yellow paper, explaining how she could qualify for financial help to afford the procedure. She took the yellow paper. She never returned.

Before I even knew I was pregnant, strange things happened.

I broke open the seal on a pack of pastels that had been in a closet for over a year. As someone who never, ever draws, I surprised myself by covering pages of an empty sketchbook with colorful renderings of fire and multicolored, oversized, altogether preternatural flowers. I had countless dreams of holding babies that turned into cats and leapt out of my arms. My bones felt achy for an animal to join us in our house, a cat or a dog, something I could squeeze and murmur at. I longed for juicy hamburgers and strips of bacon after many years of living as a vegetarian.

Once we knew I was pregnant, Michael was present for me, listening to my ramblings, stoic and supportive as he could be. He had never been interested in biological children or parenting, and I knew this. It had never been a part of our plan, though our “plan” was rather nebulous and nonexistent, our schedules marked out only by meetings, demonstrations, rallies.

After making the appointment for a medical abortion, I still wanted to try alternate means. Equal measures of fear and DIY attitude compelled me to seek out books about herbal abortions. The local co-op and herb stores contained the ingredients I needed.

Michael and I stood over the stovetop daily, stirring herbs close to boiling. Sometimes I spoke to the herbs as they simmered, wishing for their highest potency to work their magic on me. I lay in hot, mustard-oil-tinged baths and urged the embryo to detach, to release. I continued my runs around the nearby lake and pushed myself up the hills, running harder than I ever had before.

The herbs didn’t work. I began to see the embryo as something much more powerful than I’d anticipated: hanging on, refusing to be washed away.

My abortion was scheduled almost four weeks from the day I’d found out I was pregnant. Each week I met with my therapist, and each week I realized that though I wasn’t going to carry this pregnancy to term, I was developing a relationship with this fetus, with the knowledge that the relationship would soon end. I began to understand in some small way that there were transformations I wanted to undergo in the next five years, and that maybe, down the road, I might consider children—though probably not with Michael.

As the weeks went on and I described fearing any connection to the fetus inside of me because it might make the loss of it more intense, my therapist challenged me. “Perhaps the more time and thought you devote to the relationship you have with this fetus, the more healing you’ll find available to you,” she explained. “The more gifts.” This notion seemed radical and scary and weirdly exciting to me. I had thought that it was best to consider a fetus a clot of cells, a scientific phenomenon—not part of a relationship. I even believed that this stance was a feminist one. No one had ever offered this other way of thinking about it. Now I was learning that there were more ways to consider this embryonic passenger and still fight the feminist, pro-choice fight. A new dimension of experience was opening up to me, and I slowly, gingerly, ventured in.

Alongside my work at the clinic, I was developing a hands-on education in the often-frustrating skill of interfacing with anti-choice groups. I never had to deal with them directly at the clinic. A consistent group of clinic defenders outfitted in fluorescent orange vests patrolled our clinic on AB days, often outnumbering the anti-choice protesters, and it made my job much easier knowing they were there. The clinic defenders were a congenial assortment of male and female second-wave feminists, third-wave feminists, sexy hipsters, and earnest students from the college. Coffee and doughnuts were shared, and from the inside, it seemed like a convivial weekly social event. It wasn’t until later that I learned of the gunshots fired near the clinic, the harassment of women coming to and from the clinic doors, and the vandalizing of the clinic owner’s home.

Things were more overtly dangerous in the streets. One demonstration that spring was marked by confusion and chaos. It was sunny and dry, itself an oddity in our damp, mildewed existence. It was weeks and weeks after my own abortion, and I was one of many standing on a sidewalk the next town over. I’d left work at the clinic early that day, receiving advance notice that anti-choice organization Operation Rescue would be staging a demo against the second and newest abortion clinic in the area.

The street was shut down because of the commotion, and a police car was parked in the middle of the street, the officers observing the shouting matches between pro-choice and anti-choice protesters. The owner of the property whose sidewalk we stood on brandished a hose to scatter us away from his business. The Operation Rescue signs and their escorts were in full force on both sides of the street. We were assailed by Bible scripture, and some of the pro-choice supporters lobbed insults and shrieked their own vitriol.

I was feeling oddly subdued by the sunny afternoon. The chanting, shouting, watching, and waiting took on a rhythm that felt strangely tranquilizing. When I saw a sheriff’s officer suddenly pull a gun out from his vehicle, the inexplicable dreaminess I’d been feeling slowed my senses further. I wondered aloud to Michael if we should drop to the ground, and I could hear a trembling in my voice when I said it. Something about the officer’s action seemed to turn everyone’s voice up a notch in pitch and volume. The Operation Rescue people seemed not to worry about this scene, but the pro-choice contingent were awash in adrenaline. People scurried to and fro on the sidewalk and called out what they were seeing, what we were all witness to. All eyes were immediately drawn to this officer, who seemed not to even know what impact his firearm might make.

Finally, without explanation, he put the weapon away as simply as he had withdrawn it. The clinic defenders and Operation Rescue crowds eventually thinned, and the street reopened to traffic. Everything returned to some semblance of normal. Time suddenly sped up, and my senses, previously slowed, caught up to me in a rush.

The newspapers did not go into great detail the next day. The facts were that a lot of local people showed up to protect the new clinic, and a lot of people turned out to protest the clinic, largely out-of-towners whose mission was to travel with their message and ill will. Still, that afternoon, when the air felt thick and the protesters seemed to hit a crescendo at the sight of the officer and his gun, I was confronted, viscerally, with the heft of this thing we refer to so often as an “issue,” the way it could quickly grow into something emotionally taut, screaming.

In January of that year, 1998, protestors and demonstrators turned out in many cities across the country for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Norma McCorvey, otherwise known as “Jane Roe,” was no longer a representative of abortion rights. She had, in fact, been baptized in a swimming pool three years before as part of her conversion to Christianity, and ended up working for Operation Rescue.

Days after the anniversary, a clinic bombing maimed Emily Lyons, a nurse at a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that same year, Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician who provided abortion services, would be murdered in his home, the soup he had been warming going untouched once the bullets hit the window glass. More similar stories, too many, followed, right up to the present time, as I write this.

Home from work after a day at the clinic, I conjured up the voices of the doctors, nursing assistants, and office coordinator when I read these kinds of stories. There was a simple and important purpose embedded in their jobs, and they were a lead I could follow. When reading newspaper accounts of acts of violence against health-care workers and the buildings they worked in, I was silently grateful for each day everyone I worked with made it home safely. No job I’d had before—or since—carried with it this kind of weight.

In late February of 1998, before I had stepped foot in the clinic I would later work in, before I would come face to face with the most virulently outspoken anti-choice woman in the county, I had an abortion.

Ever faithful to the volunteer jobs I’d committed myself to, I worked my appointment into an ambitious and task-filled day. Michael and I drove from Olympia to Shelton early on a Friday morning to drop off the hard copy of the newspaper he’d painstakingly put together the night before. From Shelton, we drove to Seattle for my appointment, and after it was over, we stopped by a bookstore, visited a friend, and took a ferry to Bremerton. We drove from Bremerton to Shelton, picked up the bundles of finished newspapers, and made our usual drop-offs. Then we stopped to pick up video cameras and equipment at the local cable-access-station office, and later filmed a talk by writer and activist Tim Wise.

Most of my recovery that day happened in the passenger seat of the car, where I slept deeply as the ferry navigated the waters between Seattle and Bremerton, and Michael navigated us from Bremerton to Shelton to Olympia.

We spent little time at the Seattle clinic. Their schedule was efficient, and the procedure itself was quick. From the moment the aspirator turned on, I felt free. I was teary throughout the procedure, silently bidding farewell to this fetus not meant to be. The nurse and doctor present, both women, were kind and supportive, and I felt waves of appreciation for them. The nurse held my hand throughout and helped me dress afterward, my feet unsteady beneath me and my hands a little shaky from the experience and the mild sedative I’d been given. The softness of everything carried over into the recovery room, where Michael met me, where we shared yet another experience that marked our time together as unique, which I would never again share with anyone else.

Many afternoons throughout our relationship, Michael and I sat in the cool, dark editing suites of the local cable-access channel. We ordered videos from progressive organizations and used the suites to edit the programming into something we could fit into the hour-long time slots we’d been allotted.

In March of 1998, we showed the video Jane: An Abortion Service on cable, and organized viewings of the video at our local library. One viewing occurred on a sleepy Saturday morning. Michael and I hosted an audience of three. One was the president of the county chapter of the National Organization for Women. The other two were a notorious anti-choice activist in our county and her colleague. We watched the video together in silence. When it was ejected and the television was turned off, I immediately felt as though the air had been sucked out of the room.

“I just don’t understand why women would kill innocent children,” the anti-choice woman whined, slicing through the tension. “I mean, I just want to tell all these women, ‘I’ll take your baby.’”

The five of us attempted to have a discussion. We spoke of the millions of children worldwide who were in need of adoption. We asserted that women should have a choice to do with their bodies what they wished. We listened to this bright-eyed, slightly off-putting woman reiterate her desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned and “abortion mills stopped.” Her colleague asked over and over, “How could women do this?” in an incredulous tone.

My heart beat furiously and my palms were damp. I had had an abortion in a clinic just weeks prior to this video showing. Paranoid thoughts filled my head, and I wondered if this woman somehow, in some creepy way, knew what I’d experienced. The fact that the library was so close to our apartment and we could be tracked walking home from the viewing so easily further unnerved me.

When I finally spoke, it was with an even tone. I observed myself taking part in this strange dialogue in which I silently loathed the motives of this woman who would come to a video showing in hopes of persuading us to join her crusade. In fact, I wondered at her mental stability. I noticed that my interactions with anti-choice people were becoming slightly more diplomatic, but I couldn’t help but wonder how far any one of them would go.

For months afterward, Michael and I would joke about the woman, and her glassy-eyed, high-pitched declaration: I’ll take your baby! It was enough to make us laugh. With a slight shiver.

By May of 1998, I’d been working at the clinic for two months. My job title was officially “receptionist,” providing front-office clerical support at a women’s health-care facility. As I would write later for the purposes of my résumé: Scheduled appointments, conducted client check-in, and other duties as needed.

While working there, new information came at me every day in the form of detailed medical charts, conversations between the doctor and nurse practitioner—sometimes overheard—and intake procedures that varied from patient to patient. I was taking in overwhelming amounts of information, from the details of one patient’s symptomatic STD to the objects one mentally ill patient regularly and methodically inserted into her vagina only to come to the clinic to have the objects just as methodically removed.

At home, I found myself thinking about the medical histories on the shelves behind the office desk and the physician’s notes on the lined paper attached to each folder. The constant dryness of my hands reminded me of all the color-coded tabs I’d touched each day. Sometimes women left the clinic hysterical, abandoning their abortion appointment altogether. In my dreams, I opened patients’ folders and was confounded by unwieldy stacks of forms I couldn’t identify as I shoveled small, bright, foil-covered bits of chocolate into my mouth. My reality often reflected these dream images at the front desk in some slight way.

In June 1998, I applied for and was offered a job at the library of the college I graduated from.

Throughout that spring, I’d been writing notes about my experiences—being pregnant, having an abortion, and working at a clinic that provided abortions—in a blank book. The book was hardcover with a spiral binding. On the front and back covers were images of roses—layer upon layer of oranges, pinks, and reds—all of which appeared preternaturally bloomed, not unlike the strange pastel flowers I’d produced in my previously unused sketchbook during the early weeks of my pregnancy. Those roses, thick as they looked with life, with fragrance, with fecundity, made me think of the metaphors ascribed to pregnant women, and how, in my state of non-pregnancy, I was possibly considered the opposite of ripe, blooming. I had chosen a different state altogether. But it was the start of the “bloom”—the weeks I had been made to wait before the abortion was to occur—that I wanted to focus on in this notebook. And now, I was ending this notebook, closing up a chapter in my twenty-five-year-old existence.

I gave immediate notice to the clinic. It was not reluctantly. The hours had been more than I wanted. Abortion days felt like midweek rollercoasters, even as I wanted to believe they were a manageable and valuable part of my activist dream job. I sensed that sitting behind the desk at the clinic was possibly not even where I belonged. My interest lay in the streets, in protests and demonstrations. I left the clinic.

On the day I witnessed that aborted fetus in a tray, after finally removing the smock and the mask, I returned to the clinic desk and set aside the experience to think about later. Later, the last AB patient left the clinic, and soon after, I was set free to ride my bicycle home.

I thought about what I had seen in the tray that afternoon as I pedaled, knowing I’d want to discuss it with Michael, but not yet knowing the words or the emotions I might express. By day’s end, I had seen one more fetus, estimated at fourteen weeks, a rare occurrence at our clinic. The fetus was larger than I had imagined it would be. The image was burned into my brain. Momentary doubt thudded around my chest as I pedaled up the light incline toward my apartment. Could the sight of such things, the up-closeness of it, change my mind? Was there really power in such moments as I’d experienced at a rather typical day at work? If so, what kind of power did they hold?

As I locked my bike to the post outside my front door, I remembered the Operation Rescue posters I’d seen at protests. It was obvious they were looking for a particular response, and what more provocative way to accomplish this than to have posters of two-inch aborted fetuses enlarged to the size of the six-foot-tall anti-choice protestor holding the sign?

And still, the size of the fetus or the poster didn’t matter.

What I was left with was this: I had been thrilled to see something of this magnitude, a feeling similar to secret privilege. I was overwhelmed by having viewed something that was perhaps ordinary to a doctor but highly unusual to the average person. I recognized that this kind of moment would be considered sinful, an abomination to many. But maybe it was also sacred, whether one agreed with the right to abortion or not.

I headed up the stairs. I told Michael about what I had been witness to. He listened and we finally, simply, sat in silence around the fact that I’d seen what I’d seen.

In the telling, and in the days after telling, I realized that my beliefs were not fundamentally changed. In fact, I believed, more so than ever, that it takes immeasurable courage and compassion, strength and caring, to choose to have a child—and sometimes equal amounts of the same to choose not to have a child. The choice of either could be, for any particular woman, sacred. At my core, I still believed—and continue to believe—that every woman has a right to choose abortion. Working at the clinic, I felt honored to play what part I did in the struggle to ensure this choice for the women I’d come into contact with, however dangerous it might feel, however conflicted I might be, ever. And this, I discovered, was its own kind of sacred.

Wendy C. Ortiz was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014), Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015), and the dreamoir Bruja (CCM). In 2016, Bustle named her one of “9 Women Writers Who Are Breaking New Nonfiction Territory.” Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog. Her writing has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Joyland, StoryQuarterly, and a year-long series appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles.

Illustration by Leanna Wright

A portion of this essay originally appeared in a different form on Gender Across Borders.

Issue 7