My daughter was conceived the summer between my junior and senior years in college. Though I wasn’t attending classes, I was working. I was fatigued immediately, before I knew I was pregnant. During all my waking hours, sleep was the primary thing on my mind. I couldn’t get enough. I rode my bicycle from my apartment to work, which was a hardship when I was so tired.
Since student insurance doesn’t cover maternity, I applied for our state’s public medical coverage. It limited the doctors I could see and the paperwork and interviews were significant time drains. I had to work them in between work and school schedules. Because of my upbringing, it was humiliating to be on public assistance, but I was grateful to have some kind of coverage. Before I applied, I had worked out a payment schedule with the doctor and there was no way it was affordable.
When I was about 6 weeks pregnant, the severe nausea set in. That fall Anatomy and Physiology were part of my class schedule. Getting out of bed was difficult, making it to class an achievement. I managed to keep up with the academic work, but the smell of the preservative (formalin) in my lab class was overwhelming. Since formalin is known to cause birth defects I wore a mask in lab. No one knew how to respond when I explained. As soon as class was over, sickened by the smell, I’d run to the ladies room. I missed other classes too, including some exams. Make up exams were essay, while the original exams were multiple choice. I felt punished for being pregnant.
I remember talking to my dad, who was the only supportive person in my extended family, telling him that I understood how women who were as sick as me could choose abortion. I also understood the financial aspect. A quick fix to the suffering and complexity was seductive. I would never have chosen that option, but it crossed my mind.
After several weeks of effort, I dropped the Anatomy and Physiology class. I lost the tuition and lab fees, a significant expense for a student paying her own way through school. I felt embarrassed and disappointed because I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I was worried about exposure to the formalin and I didn’t have time to spend a whole day recovering from the lab. Ultimately I dropped back to a minimal class schedule so I could continue working and still get adequate rest. It was a setback for my degree plan, but I was committed to staying in school.
During the pregnancy I was especially susceptible to anything contagious. I got bronchitis twice, several colds, and the flu. I had terrible rashes I had never had before. Blood vessels around my eyes were always discolored from the vomiting and I knew the location of every ladies room on campus by the second week of the fall semester. My doctor was across town and transportation was not reliable. There were no healthcare accommodations or comfort measures for pregnant students on campus.
As my tummy grew, I was joyful to be a mother, but I also felt ashamed. I was raised in a home with contraception. Sex was everywhere on campus. I felt the duplicity of wanting to be a mother conflicting with my conditioning to consider pregnancy a failure. Attitudes on campus were conflicted too. I experienced them in glances and awkwardness of interaction with professors and other students. Fitting into desks in lecture halls started to be problematic. I attended a very large university and getting from one building to another exhausted me so much that I would go to the student center and sleep at a table between classes.
My daughter was born two week before spring final exams. The birth went smoothly, but she had to be hospitalized for the first 9 days. I was able to return to class after a week, running back to the hospital when I had an hour or two. People would ask about the baby and it was painful to explain. Everyone tried to be kind, but college students are oriented toward graduating. “Well, at least you’re back in class. That’s the important thing.” I was heartbroken and no one understood. When my daughter finally came home, her father stayed with her while I went to class. I pumped milk in bathroom stalls and neglected resting in order to finish the semester. It took a physical toll and my grades were lowest they had been since my first semester, but I was glad to finish the term.
Approximately 25% of women who have abortions are college-aged. Today when I stand outside the abortion clinic praying and watching the young women arrive, I am sad, but I feel compassion for them. There was no support for me on campus when I was pregnant. Overall, the atmosphere was hostile. I understand the pressures, the prejudice, the lack of resources, the fear, and the absence of options. I had an advantage that many pregnant students don’t have. When I conceived, I was already married.
When a woman decides that aborting her child is the lesser of two evils, something is gravely wrong. Part of the problem is a matter of a properly formed conscience. Equally salient, however, are the cultural pressures women face. If we want to end abortion, the pro-life movement needs to take responsibility for actively building a Culture of Life. This means more than bumper stickers and protests. Changing the atmosphere on college campuses is an excellent starting place. Feminists for Life has great resources and guidance. Individual attitudes are powerful agents of change too.
Women in college deserve better than choosing between their children and their college careers. A Culture of Life will provide support and options. It will celebrate and venerate the dignity of motherhood. It will make abortion unthinkable. Even more important than making abortion illegal, building a Culture of Life should be our goal.