Unexpected: How an Abortion in My 20s Changed My Life (an excerpt) by Emily Heiden

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue


Eventually I decide that I have gotten as much as I can from research. I am overcome by the feeling that I must do something. I need to see a doctor; have this pregnancy confirmed; put in motion the chain of events I am certain will come about from seeing someone in the medical profession. I get the number of a local OB-GYN from a friend, and on a Monday morning before work, I call. They’re a few streets away from my apartment, and I’m hoping maybe they can see me later that very day. I am used to being a doer; a go-getter; I know how to make things happen. And it’s time to make something happen with this pregnancy that has at this point been confirmed solely by an at-home kit and a body I no longer trust. I wait as the phone rings, eager to get this process, whatever it is, underway.

“Hello?” a receptionist answers.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m calling because…well, I think that I’m pregnant, and I’d like to see someone to confirm it.”

“Okay,” she says. “We typically deliver out of Fairfax Hospital – is that okay with you?”

I pause. She’s jumping ahead to the end of the pregnancy, and I’m still grappling with the beginning.

“Um.” I tell her. “I’m…not sure if I’m going to get to delivery.”

“Oh.” There is a pause. “Well then let me give you a number for another place you can call.”

I know in this moment that I am being turned away. The OB-GYN won’t see me. There are other kinds of doctors for women like me. I want to cry. Her words to me feel as if the world is saying this is not legitimate. You and your pregnancy are not the kind worthy of our time.

Shaking, angry, I punch in the digits of the other number she’s given me.

The phone rings several times. Then a pre-recorded voice answers.

“You have reached our services. We are not available at this time. Please call back and leave a message on Thursday between 2 and 4.”

Now I’m furious. I’m not calling back to leave a message on Thursday afternoon. First of all, I’m at work on Thursday at that time, and secondly, it’s a Monday morning, and offices are open for business, and I need some help. Now.

I Google Planned Parenthood. I get ahold of a woman in an office located about 25 minutes away. I ask her if I can be seen after I get out of work that afternoon.

“As long as you get here half an hour before close, you’ll be okay,” she says. “We close at 6 tonight.”

I get out of work at 4:20 and drive straight to the address I’ve found for them online.

I make it there by 5 and am relieved. I get out of the car and look at the building, which is large, grey, and unmarked. Hmmm, I think. I hope this is it.

None of the signs in the lobby list Planned Parenthood, but I’ve written the floor down on a scrap of paper that I pull from my purse. I head up there and find two weary-looking women in blue scrubs sitting behind a desk.

“Hi,” I say. “I called earlier today about being seen tonight.”

The women raise their eyebrows at me.

“We can’t take you tonight,” one says. “You’re here after 5.”

I look at the clock. It’s 5:03.

“I was told that as long as I got here half an hour before close I was okay.”

“I don’t know who told you that,” the same one says. “We don’t see anyone after 5. You can come back on Wednesday night.”

This news is too much for me. I’m being turned away by a third service today.

I burst into tears.

“I need someone to help me,” I sob. This is an ugly, raw, open, panicked cry these women are witnessing. I can’t stop myself. I am getting tired of going to bed pregnant and waking up pregnant and going to work and saying nothing to anyone and walking around with this secret in my body day after day after day.

“Come here,” one of the blue-scrubbed women says, and motions for me to come inside.

When I walk through the door, she says “Look. These are our services—here’s some information. This is all I can give you tonight. But read this over and call us back if you have any questions. We’re not open on Tuesday nights, but Wednesday we can help you out.”

I nod, silently, take the packet, and walk slowly down the grey flight of stairs to my car. I feel absolutely defeated. I sit in the driver’s seat and flip through the pages she’s given me. They describe vacuum aspiration and medication abortion, two procedures I’ve already read about online.

In a vacuum procedure, they essentially knock you out, fully dilate your cervix, and suction the fetus out of you. In the medication option, you take two kinds of pills at different times, one to stop fetal development, and the next to cause uterine contractions and the fetus to be expelled. Both procedures scare me, and I don’t want to think about either as I sit there feeling sorry for myself.

I decide to call my friend Sarah, whom I’ve known since sixth grade. She’s not far away, in Maryland—my only longtime friend within driving distance. I don’t want to be alone in this moment anymore.

The phone rings.

“How are you?” she asks, picking up.

“Not too good,” I say. “I’m actually sitting in the Planned Parenthood parking lot. I came here to try to see someone tonight. Because I’m pregnant,” I say.

“You’re what?” she says. “How did that happen?”

Her words ring in my ear like a slap.

“The way these things happen, Sarah,” I say.

“Is it with what’s-his-face?”

“Yes,” I say.

We fumble our way through a few more minutes of painful conversation, and I hang up and drive home, feeling worse than before. As I drive, I remember that this week is the 4th of July. I shudder at the thought. I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t go home to Connecticut, because I just get the one day off work. And I had to miss the first day of my job because of that wedding in June. My work makes a big stink about absences since we don’t staff substitutes. I can’t miss any more days.

When I get back to my place, I see a text from Sarah.

“Hey Em,” it says. “Don’t know what you’re doing for the 4th, but if you’d like to spend it at our place, we’d love to have you.”

I melt with relief and gratitude. She does care about me after all. At her initial reaction, all I felt was judged. But she loves me. Maybe she just needed some time.

I end up driving the hour to their place in Maryland the next day. When I arrive, Sarah greets me with a hug. Her fiancé does too. The day is hot, so we decide to walk to the beach at the end of their street. As we sit down on the sand, a metallic taste fills my mouth. I shudder and lick my lips. I’ve read about this strange pregnancy symptom and wondered what it would feel like. And well, here it is: a lot like biting down on battery fluid and swishing it around in your mouth.

I look out at the Chesapeake and try to let my thoughts be filled with nothing but the beauty of the sun filtering down on the slow, calm waves. It’s a hot, beautiful day. And a holiday, I remind myself. I kick off my flip-flops and lean back on my elbows in the sand. I’m self-conscious about my red-and-white-polka-dotted bathing suit. I’m bloated, can’t shake the weird taste filling my mouth, and just feel pregnant in every way. I can’t focus on the festive day. Also not helping is the fact that I am hyper-aware in this moment that I am the single, knocked-up girl sitting here with her friend who has made all the right decisions in life. Her 6-foot-4, brown-eyed, Hopkin’s-educated guy is at her side, and as the conversation begins to slide towards what’s going on with me, I can hear his shock when I reveal, in a moment of very blunt honesty, that there was no condom involved that night.

What?” her fiancé says. I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t want to explain the tremendous percentage of times I have used condoms (or the pill, patch, or ring) in comparison to the isolated, negligible amount of times I have not. I don’t have the energy to tell this couple  that when I started sleeping with this guy, I went on Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and then he left me, and I waited three months for his return, taking the small, white pill every day, before eventually giving up. I don’t want to explain that around the same time I had fallen for my friend Anna’s suggestion that I try her charting method instead, to avoid having synthetic hormones in my body. That I had felt shamed by Anna’s question: why didn’t I know how my cycle worked better at nearly 30 years old? I know Sarah and her fiancé won’t understand why I tried this method out instead of starting back up on the pill when he finally returned. They will think I was an idiot. And I already think that about myself. I know I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life. I came here for support, but all I feel is judged.

The feeling worsens when we begin to discuss what I’m going to do. I tell them that I don’t know how I could keep it; don’t know how I could take care of a baby right now.

They both nod their heads in grim agreement, and then Sarah tries to turn the mood by suggesting we go back to their place to have some food.

“And since you’re not keeping it, you can have one of my Twisted Teas!” she says.

I just look at her, at a total loss for words. I can see in her face that she is genuinely trying to be cheerful. I feel shitty that I’m bringing her holiday down. But I am so baffled by this moment. Filled with rage I don’t know how to process, I manage a grimace and turn the conversation away from me by asking about their upcoming wedding. Sarah readily starts discussing the details of where the rehearsal dinner will be held, but all I can think about is whether I’ll still be pregnant at that point, and how my bump would look in a bridesmaid gown.




Days later, back in Virginia, I call a friend from grad school, Jen, and we go to Whole Foods.

She goes to find some produce, and I find myself suddenly in the vitamin aisle, as if drawn there subconsciously. I wander until I see big bottles of prenatal vitamins staring back at me from the shelf.

I begin comparing brands.

My friend comes back after buying her produce. I don’t really want to her to see me doing this. She knows what’s going on; she practically guessed it on her own when I told her I needed to talk in person recently.

But this is a crazy thing I’m doing. I can’t be buying vitamins to nourish a baby I can’t keep.

But I feel that Jen might understand my particular kind of crazy. Because when I confided in her about what was going on, she had shocked me and told me that last year, she had realized that her period was late around Christmastime. She hadn’t wanted to be pregnant, and she and her fiancé felt that they were nowhere near financially stable enough for a baby. She was about to attend graduate school the following fall. The timing was all wrong. So, the day they confirmed the pregnancy, they decided to end it. They still wound up getting married; she still went to graduate school. The abortion did not end them as a couple. They did not fall apart, nor did she. She told me that she seldom thinks about it now.

Knowing this—knowing a real live woman who is walking around next to me who has gone through what I’ve only read about—and who has come out the other side of the experience in one piece—helps tremendously. It makes me feel that I can talk to someone who can’t completely judge me, even if I judge myself.

So, I say screw it and buy the prenatal vitamins. My friend says nothing, except, “How do you feel about dessert?”

We sit and have some gelato. She gets a coffee too.

I instinctively inhale its strong, rich scent.

She sees me eyeing it and chides me gently: “Y’all can’t have that.”

I realize as I hear her say the words that she is talking about me and the baby.  A very strange feeling comes over me at the recognition of this. Someone is treating me like a real pregnant woman. This is the first time anyone is acknowledging it in a way that recognizes the baby as a possibility, and not as a thing that can’t exist, must be downplayed, discarded. This is the first friend who seems to be recognizing that part of me wants to keep this child.

“Y’all” is collective. I realize it is true as I sit there fidgeting uncomfortably at her word choice. Whether I meant to or not, I have become we.




The next morning, I get up and get dressed for work. I put on the blue polo, and head to the kitchen, where I stare at the jar of vitamins.

What if I can’t go through with the procedure? I think. Then wouldn’t I be wishing that I had done everything I could to have a healthy baby?

I unscrew the cap, pop one in my mouth, and begin to chew.

I do this each day from then on. If anyone asked me to explain myself, I truthfully might have to say I don’t know what I am doing. Allowing myself to live in a fantasy world for just a week or two more: a world in which I’m a 29-year-old who is married to a loving man and has a house and a paycheck and is in a perfect situation in which to create life. A world in which I’ve made different decisions and don’t have to make this one now.

Maybe I’m trying to prove to myself I’m not a horrible person because I’m going to deny that life inside me the opportunity to grow. My self-judgement has reached searing levels. Maybe I’m trying to take care of what I have while I have it so that I can know, even if I never become a mom for real—that I was pregnant once, and nurturing, and put some other bit of life above myself for some small chunk of time, even if I couldn’t see it through. Even if I couldn’t give it my life. Or one of its own.




Eventually I crack and call my mother. I’ve gone as far as I can on my own, and the result has been thorough confusion every day. I’m terrified as I scroll through my contacts and hit home. What if she screams at me? What if I can hear her disappointment?

The phone rings and she picks up.

“Mom?” I say in a small voice.

“What is it, Emily?”

“Are you sitting down somewhere?”

“Just tell me what it is, kid,” she says, voice rising instantly as it does when she can sense bad news on the way.

“Well…” I pause. “I think I’m pregnant, Mom, and I’m terrified to tell you,” I say, and start to cry.

“Why would you be terrified to tell me that, Emily?” she says in an astonishingly calm, kind tone. “This is something that happens, honey. People have sex—and sometimes the woman gets pregnant.”

I cannot believe what she is saying to me. This kindness is almost too much.  Hearing her like this, I’m the one who suddenly feels she has to sit down.

Then she says, “Do you know what you’re going to do?”

I can hear in her tone that this is not an objective question.

My voice cracks. “I don’t think I can have a baby right now, Mom.”

“No, honey, you can’t. It would ruin your life, Em. Do you know how common this is, Emily? Do you know how many people have this done? It’s a procedure, Emily. It’s a procedure.”

She goes on to name people we both know who have had an abortion. In this moment my world cracks open. I’m close with some of these women. And I would never have guessed they had gone through this too. They don’t seem messed up at all. Most of them in fact have families and good lives. I start to think for a minute maybe all the accounts I’ve read online that tell me that I will regret ending a pregnancy for the rest of my life are wrong. Maybe I can get out of this without it wrecking me. Maybe I can get on with my life somehow after all, and just get back to me.

“You haven’t told him,” she asks, “Have you, Emily? Honey, promise me—promise me—that you will not tell him. You think he’s going to help you with this? That the 24-year-old is going to help you? He’s not, kid. Promise me, Em.”

“I won’t tell him, Mom.”


Emily Heiden’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Literary Hub, Brevity Magazine, Colorado Review, Juked Magazine, The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times, and elsewhere. Another excerpt from her memoir Unexpected: How an Abortion in My 20s Changed My Life is forthcoming from Ohio University Press in the anthology Don’t Look Now: Essays on What We Wish We Hadn’t Seen, edited by Kristen Iversen and David Lazar.

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