Breaking the Silence: Abortion at Dartmouth

by Caroline Berens | 7/28/16 7:05pm

D-5of12-7.29.2016

Introduction

As first-year students arriving at Dartmouth, we are bombarded with mandatory sessions and discussions about sex and sex-related healthcare. We are introduced to Sexperts, educated about sexual violence and assault and informed about safe sexual decision-making at floor meetings.

Heavy emphasis is placed on safe and consensual sex. Bowls of brightly colored condoms (occasionally accompanied by candy) sit outside most undergraduate advisors’ doors, accessible and obvious. Numerous forms of birth control are readily available at Dick’s House, as is the morning-after pill, a contraceptive effective up to 72 hours after intercourse. There’s even a safer sex bar at the Student Wellness Center on the third floor of Robinson Hall, which provides numerous forms of contraception.

But the possibility of these many resources failing is never addressed; not once in any of the many pamphlets or discussions are the words “abortion” or “pregnancy.” The reality of contraception not being completely foolproof is never acknowledged.

As a first-year, one could attribute this to a lack of necessity — perhaps these plentiful resources were doing the trick, and no students needed to consider the possibility of an abortion, because nobody was getting pregnant. But this was naïvete; students were likely getting abortions, but due to the pervasive societal stigma and controversy surrounding the procedure, we were and are simply not talking about it.

Philosophy professor Ann Bumpus, who teaches a course called “Reproductive Ethics,” wrote in an email that the extent to which abortion is stigmatized in the United States is somewhat moderate in comparison to other parts of the world. In some areas, it’s seen as nothing more than a medical procedure, but in others it is still illegal, such as in Africa and South and Central America. Bumpus said that abortions are still occurring in those countries, but women often have to resort to unsafe procedures, which can not only engender a lot of shame, but can also pose significant medical risks.

Bumpus added that even though the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion over three decades ago in the United States, individual states can still place significant restrictions on women’s access.

“This means that while abortion is constitutionally protected in name, in reality, a woman or girl’s access to abortion can vary dramatically depending on where she lives,” Bumpus said.

Reasons for opposing abortion are numerous and multi-faceted, but the ones that most immediately come to mind are religious arguments. Many people, particularly those with a strong religious faith, believe that life begins at conception and consider abortion akin to killing.

Survey

In a survey conducted by The Dartmouth, to which 505 students responded, students shared their opinions on abortion at Dartmouth. In the survey, the greatest percentage of respondents — nearly a majority of respondents, in fact, at 43.7 percent — said that their personal opinion on abortion was that it should be legal in all cases. Of the remaining respondents, 37.9% said they believed abortion should be legal in most cases. In sum, 81.6 percent of students who responded to this survey believe, for the most part, that abortion should be legal.

This deviates heavily from popular opinion in the United States regarding abortion. Bumpus said that we remain almost evenly divided as a society, and polls suggest that just a little over half of Americans consider themselves pro-choice.

Interestingly, 43.7 percent of respondents saying they believed abortion should be legal in all cases contrasted with what people believed the majority of Dartmouth students’ position is on abortion: a majority, 74.0 percent, said that they believed most students would opine that abortion should be legal in most, but not all cases.

Director of Dick’s House clinical medical services and physician at Dick’s House Ann Bracken wrote in an email that she does see unplanned pregnancies at Dick’s House and that some people choose to pursue abortions, though she noted there are few. Bracken said that if a student comes to Dick’s House with an unplanned pregnancy, her staff can counsel the student on various options and make referrals, but Dick’s House does not perform abortions.

“If a student decides to have an abortion, we can help them with a referral to a health care facility that provides this service,” Bracken said. “Alternatively, if they choose to continue the pregnancy, we will refer them for prenatal care.”

Bracken noted that Dick’s House also provides counseling for students who face unplanned pregnancies, whatever the outcome of their decision.

In the survey, over a quarter of respondents — 26.9 percent — said that they knew someone at Dartmouth who has had an abortion.

A Personal story

The voices and stories of these students are rarely, if ever heard. Savannah Maher ’17 is one of very few students who chose to share her story publicly.

Maher elected to have an abortion the summer after her freshman year at Dartmouth. She was 19 and had the procedure done in Massachusetts, her home state.

She said that she was very open about her abortion with her friends, adding that this was particularly notable for her, as it was somewhat antithetical to how she typically approaches private matters.

“As soon as it happened I told most of my close friends, including some of my friends from Dartmouth,” Maher said. “It was surprising for some people, because I’m a private person and I like to work out things on my own. Sometimes even with close friends I just don’t really feel the need to share.”

She said her friends were surprised that it had happened but more surprised that she was willing to tell them. Maher decided to share her story because of the taboo surrounding abortion. She felt a responsibility to start a dialogue about such a heavily stigmatized issue.

“I knew from the beginning that it was going to be really important for me to talk about this,” Maher said. “Just in general there is such a taboo surrounding abortion and a lot of pressure to be silent. I knew I needed to tell people, even if it wasn’t just for me, to start a conversation.”

Maher explained that women who get abortions are expected to keep quiet and that being open about it, as she was, heavily deviates from the norm.

“It’s something you expect people to be silent and stoic about,” she said. “That’s just the typical narrative surrounding abortion.”

Maher also chose to tell her story of having an abortion publicly this past winter as part of Voices, an original student production that was directed, produced, written and performed by self-identifying women. Maher said that in her piece she was very honest about her sentiments toward the abortion, in particular that it did not devastate her.

“I basically said that I wasn’t going to act like I was ashamed or emotionally wrecked about what had happened to me, when I wasn’t, because that would be disingenuous and it would be contributing to this toxic cycle of silence and shame surrounding this issue,” she said.

Maher recalled that after she performed, the people in the communities she is a part of were overwhelmingly supportive. She added that some people — either acquaintances or total strangers — approached her after the performance to say that they liked the piece and were happy that she had been so open about the topic.

“Some people said it helped them to feel less alone in their own experiences,” Maher said.

She said that for the most part, people reacted with positivity and support. She added, though, that she tends to surround herself with politically like-minded and progressive people, and she can’t speak for the entire community due to being in these selective circles.

Maher noted that she did receive an email from someone who said they had been “on the fence” towards the issue for years and found her story very compelling, but advised her to be less apathetic towards her experience.

“They said, ‘I think you’d have more success winning people over if you didn’t speak about this so callously, if you didn’t come off so cold and unfeeling in your retelling of the story,’” Maher said.

Maher said she found this ironic, as the entire purpose of her piece was to demonstrate that for her, having an abortion was not the emotionally destructive experience that some people automatically consider abortion to be.

“That was the whole point of my piece,” she said. “That I wasn’t going to pretend to feel a certain way when I didn’t and that for me to do so would just be contributing to these toxic cycles.”

Maher added, though, that she can only speak from her experience, and that getting an abortion affects everyone differently.

“There are some people for whom this procedure can be really, really emotionally taxing, and I feel for those people, of course,” Maher said. “But that was not my experience.”

Local resources

One reason why discussion — or perhaps prevalence — of abortion might seem scarce at Dartmouth is due to the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B. Bracken said that Plan B can be purchased in the 24 hour vending machine or pharmacy at Dick’s House and can also be purchased at CVS and other local drugstores. A seemingly frequent option for students who have had unprotected sex, Plan B is commonly discussed and very accessible.

However, for a plethora of reasons, people might be unable to take Plan B, or may not think it necessary, or might not even consider it altogether.

There are various resources for students who become unexpectedly pregnant in the Upper Valley besides Dick’s House. Although many students do not have access to a car, the majority of these locations are within 15 to 20 minutes of campus. Maher noted that for some people, particularly in different areas of the country, people might have to travel significantly longer distances than this — and that she did in Massachusetts — to get an abortion.

The resource that seems most well-known among students is the Planned Parenthood in White River Junction, Vt. Planned Parenthood provides numerous services, particularly regarding sex and pregnancy ­— everything from contraceptive consultations to general healthcare screening, from STD testing to flu vaccines. Ostensibly, though, its most well-known service is abortions, providing both medical (often in the form of a pill) and surgical (in-clinic) abortions.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center referred comment to Dick’s House, but according to their website, appears to perform abortions.

Pregnancy Center of the Upper Valley

There is also the Pregnancy Center of the Upper Valley, located on Main Street in West Lebanon, N.H., which provides numerous resources for women with unplanned pregnancies. The center’s executive director, Anne Burge, said that their program’s mission has three components: prevention, intervention and recovery.

The prevention aspect, she explained, involves comprehensive contraceptive consultations and helping women build healthy relationship skills. The intervention part involves counseling and supporting a woman when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant and helping direct her determine her actions going forward.

The recovery part entails supporting and counseling women for a variety of experiences related to sex and pregnancy, such as if a woman became sexually active before she was prepared or if she has had a miscarriage or an abortion.

"The recovery aspect is mostly helping people to deal with potential pains of choices they might have made and trying to help them reach a place of peace,” Burge said.

She noted that the center also provides classes on childbirth, parenting and budgeting. The center has an expansive room in its basement lined with colorful maternity wear, baby clothes and strollers.

Burge noted that center provides all of its services free of charge, and it is entirely funded by donations. She added that the center is not a medical clinic — aside from counseling and education, their health services are limited to pregnancy testing and limited obstetrical ultrasounds. In fact, Burge said the center doesn’t administer or refer for contraceptives, and similarly, neither performs nor refers for abortions.

Burge explained that this was not necessarily due to lack of funds but because the organization is faith-based. The tenets of Christianity, Burge explained, mandate that sexual activity be kept within the bounds of marriage.

“We acknowledge that all of our clients are sexually active,” Burge said, “But we do believe that abstaining from sex outside marriage is the best way to optimize sexual health and emotional stability.”

Despite these doctrines, Burge said the center treats every client with a non-judgmental and respectful approach and aims to help them make a fully informed decision without pushing them in a specific direction.

“We want to encourage our clients to look at the big picture,” Burge said. “We say, let’s look at where you’ve come from, where you want to go, what you want life to be like ten years from now.”

Burge said most of their clients who come in for the intervention aspect carry their pregnancies to term, others give up their baby for adoption and the rest terminate their pregnancies.

When asked if the center’s willingness to discuss and even support abortion decisions conflicted with its faith-based nature, Burge said it had not.

“It’s a legal option,” Burge said. “We know that for the women who come to us, whether they articulate it or not, that is an option that they undoubtedly have been looking at or have been faced with at some level. To ignore it would be naïve.”

Burge, whose personal impetus for becoming involved in the center stemmed from various members of her family facing unexpected pregnancies and getting abortions, said that she often sees women pressured into getting abortions. She said she aims to ensure that clients’ decisions surrounding abortion are their decision and not that of someone else.

Burge acknowledged that for some women, it can take a heavy emotional toll. Ostensibly, it depends on the person and circumstances.

Burge, who has been working at the center for 19 years, said that she has seen women from all different parts of Dartmouth, including undergraduates, Tuck School of Business students and professors. She said that on the other end of this spectrum, she also sees women who are on public assistance and didn’t graduate from high school and “everyone in between” the two groups. She said the average age of the center’s clients is about 20, but that the youngest client was 12 and the oldest 80. Burge noted that this woman came for the recovery program, being obviously well past child-carrying age.

Another local resource for women’s health is Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, located in Lebanon, N.H. President and chief executive officer Susan Mooney — who used to be an obstetrician-gynecologist — explained that in the hospital’s women’s health department, women with unplanned pregnancies can also get counseling about various options and trajectories. She said, though, that the hospital does not perform elective abortions. Typically, she explained, the hospital will refer women to places that perform abortions, such as the Planned Parenthood in White River Junction or other clinics in Concord, N.H.

As opposed to the Pregnancy Center in the Upper Valley, Mooney said that the hospital not performing abortions is not related to ideological or political reasons, but is instead because there is not a great enough need or volume to merit abortion services. She said that she feels people would be better off terminating a pregnancy at a place where abortion is a “core competency.”

“It’s not making a political statement,” Mooney said. “It’s just not something we feel competent to do.”

Mooney, similarly to Burge, noted that women who she has seen seeking abortions vary greatly.

“It’s an equal opportunity challenge for women,” Mooney said. “I think we have in our heads stereotypes and ideas about who finds themselves in this kind of situation, that they didn’t intend to be in, and I think it’s a myth. Unplanned pregnancies happen to all women of different age groups, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and it happens for lots of different reasons.”

She noted that every situation is unique and that abortion is just another point on the spectrum of women’s reproductive rights.

Discussion on campus

Maher said that in her experience, discussion of abortion at Dartmouth is virtually nonexistent.

“In my whole Dartmouth experience, I had never heard anyone talk about having gotten an abortion or how they would go about doing that if they needed to,” Maher said.

She noted that she does know people who have gotten abortions while they were students at Dartmouth, but it’s just not something that people talk about.

She said that students receive a lot of information, particularly freshman year, about the healthcare that is available to students through Dick’s House, but mention of pregnancy or abortion is severely lacking.

“There’s no conversation about what to do if you get pregnant as a student, and you don’t want to stay pregnant,” Maher said.

Bumpus added, though, that for the most part students are not disinterested or apathetic towards important and controversial topics. She said that students confront a number of topics in their day to day lives, implying that abortion might not be as discussed because it is not as relevant.

“I know Dartmouth students are focused on ways of making the College better such as by getting more faculty of color, combatting sexual assault, getting Dartmouth to divest,” Bumpus said. “I would be surprised and concerned if students were generally disinterested in social justice, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Student health plan

In the survey, nearly half of respondents said that they believed that the total cost of an abortion should be covered under the student health plan. In the response portion, people expressed varying opinions regarding the circumstances under which the College should assume the full cost of an abortion. One respondent said it should only be completely covered in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, while others said it shouldn’t be covered at all due to being an elective surgery, while others said the College should pay the full cost, since it’s a medical procedure.

The Dartmouth Student Group Health Plan, which Bracken said half of Dartmouth students are on, covers certain contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures as prescribed by doctors, but does not include abortfacient drugs — drugs that induce abortions.

Maher noted that the procedure can pose a financial burden for some people and that she was privileged to have the relative financial security that allowed her to afford it.

According to the Planned Parenthood website, the abortion pill can cost up to $800, but is often less. It states that surgical abortions can cost up to $1,500 in the first trimester, but that this too is often less. It’s important to note that these prices do not take into account any costs that insurance or health plans might cover.

Bumpus noted that although it’s only by a few percentage points, the number of people who consider themselves pro-choice has declined since the 1990s.

Bumpus also said that discussions regarding abortion are more crucial than ever; first, because of a recent Supreme Court decision in Texas regarding “TRAP” laws — the result of which struck down on the state’s requirements for wider hallways in abortion clinics (an effort to restrict abortion access) as posing an undue burden on women trying to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. Also, with the upcoming election and vacant Supreme Court seat, Bumpus said, abortion will likely come under even greater scrutiny than usual.

“Maybe abortion seems like it was an issue for prior generations, though in reality, abortion rights will be vulnerable if Trump is appointing our next Supreme Court justices,” Bumpus said.

Maher said that at Dartmouth, awareness of abortion could be increased by making it more a part of the typical dialogue surrounding healthcare. Information about resources should be more widely dispensed, particularly transportation and financial payment methods.

Maher said that she would tell others considering getting an abortion that they are not obligated to make anyone privy to their experience. But she said if people are comfortable doing so, as she was, they should share their stories, to keep these conversations going.

“If you do feel comfortable, and if like me you don’t feel necessarily too torn up about the whole thing, then I think it’s really important you talk about that,” Maher said.

Savannah Maher '17 is a member of The Dartmouth staff.