Jennifer is a 27-year-old woman. She has a beautiful, whimsical face, delicate but well-defined features, long chestnut hair and a slight figure. She is a mother of an eight-year-old son. She works with paramedics and crisis response teams and has the semblance of a once tough-minded individual. But since November 2005, she has become victim to panic attacks brought on by having to relive a botched abortion, not once, not twice, but three times. She sat across from me on a bleak February day and recounted the occurrences of the past several months. Her story is a harrowing tale of an abortion gone very wrong.
On Nov. 14, 2005, Jennifer went with her boyfriend Tim (not his real name) to the Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto. She describes her decision to abort as one that she herself did not make. “I knew in my heart that this is not what I wanted.” She writes in her well-documented journal that she began keeping since the procedure, “Everyone around me thought that this was the right thing to do. This included my mother, my partner at the time and father of my child.” One of the greatest sorrows regarding her whole ordeal was the cold reception she received to the news that she was pregnant. During our 90-minute interview, she remained calm, but tears ran down her cheeks when she expressed to me how her own joy at the prospect of another child was met with icy disapproval.
Her journal describes in detail the pre-procedure “interview,” in which she sat in tears as an abortuary counsellor told her boyfriend that abortion was “almost like getting your wisdom tooth pulled.” The complications sheet “was never reviewed … it just seemed like the questions never got answered.” There was some concern about Jennifer’s intentions and at the request of the counsellor, her medical form was changed to reflect that she herself did not want the procedure, but that the persons requesting the procedure were her mother and her boyfriend, Tim.
Still distraught and in tears, she was given a sedative and told that the medicine would relax her and “make things easier.” Jennifer wonders whether she would have stayed in the abortuary had she not been given that pill.
Unsure of her decision, now groggy and “in a daze,” Jennifer was led down a hall to the surgery room. As she lay on the table in the presence of nurses and awaiting the abortionist, she began to cry “uncontrollably.” She records in her journal that there was a “sense of coldness” in the operating room. It had “almost a factory-line feel” to it. “All I can remember hearing is the noise in the back room of clanging instruments and the smell and the voices laughing and talking,” she writes. And she recalls the noise of the suction machine.
The procedure is over within minutes and Jennifer is told to “get up, it’s done.” She is sent home with the standard take-home package of medication and the “what to expect” pamphlet, but she is bleeding and suffering intense pelvic pain.
Over the course of the next three days, Jennifer continued to bleed and suffer from pelvic pain, for which she medicated herself. There was also emotional turmoil and regret to cope with. For fear of losing her job in the emergency services, she forced herself to go to work, where she felt isolated and unable to talk about her experiences. “I had no one to talk to at work because I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had killed my baby … I can’t change what I did,” she explains.
When the abdominal pain and bleeding did not subside, Jennifer called the Morgentaler Clinic back. “I felt like my condition was not normal (according to) what was written in the ‘what to expect’ handout,” she said. She spoke to a doctor at the abortuary, who advised her to return to the site the next day, but if her condition worsened, she was to take herself to an emergency department. The following day, Nov. 18, Jennifer drove herself to the Morgentaler abortuary for a second time. By this time, she had developed a fever. She was cold and shaking. When she arrived at the abortuary, she was quickly ushered through to a back room, away from the women who were waiting for their abortions.
There was an issue because Jennifer had driven herself to the abortuary, so the doctors were reluctant to perform any surgical procedure. Instead, Jennifer was dressed in a paper sheet and taken to an ultrasound room. After a pelvic ultrasound examination, she was led to the very same procedure room where she had had her abortion only days before for a vaginal ultrasound, which consists of an internal probe. Jennifer claims she was not informed about this invasive procedure, which was done in the presence of at least five hushed and apprehensive abortuary staff. It was there, lying on the operating table, that she was told she would have to be “re-suctioned.” But Jennifer first had to drive herself home and pay out-of-pocket for a taxi to bring her back to the abortuary.
Jennifer’s ordeal continued. She went back that day to the Morgentaler abortuary for a second suction aspiration procedure, to remove the “products of conception” that had been retained in her uterus. But the pain persisted following that procedure and she finally went to see her general practitioner, who at that time was unaware of her abortion. She was scheduled for a second internal ultrasound and diagnosed with an internal pelvic infection. After two suction aspiration procedures, there was still “narcotizing material” left in her womb. She would have to undergo a third internal surgery, a dilation and curettage. This surgery was performed on Dec. 14, exactly one month following her initial abortion.
I have kept in touch with Jennifer, who continues to experience periodic pain from an ongoing, low-grade infection in her uterus. She has had two more internal examinations and was scheduled for a fourth surgery on April 4. She has been told that she may never conceive again, which, at the age of 27, is devastating news. She is coping at work, however, and finding time to spend with her son. Her relationship with her boyfriend Tim has not withstood the ordeal. “When the phone rings,” she says, “I cannot answer it. I find it hard to be in the company of men.”
It is not surprising to learn that Jennifer is angry. She is angry at the way she was marshalled around in the Morgentaler abortuary. She is angry that she was never properly informed about the abortion itself, and about the possible consequences. She is angry that abortuary staff were indifferent to her distress, her indecision and to the subtle pressures that were informing her “choice.” She is angry at the brusque, rough and shoddy treatment she was given by doctors who, according to Jennifer, were more concerned for their own reputation than her life.
Jennifer is using that anger constructively. She wants other women to know about her experience with abortion. Despite the painful memories and the panic attacks that occasionally threaten to overwhelm her, she wants others to know that what she had initially thought was a “routine procedure,” a procedure that according to the abortruary counsellor is just like having a tooth pulled, has profoundly reshaped her life and her future.
Natalie Hudson is executive director of the Toronto Right to Life Association.