Pregnant students forced to make tough choices

by Heather Kofke-Egger | 1/25/01 6:00am

Nationally, about 29 percent of all women who become pregnant choose to terminate their pregnancies. But that number is much higher at Dartmouth, according to Women's Health Program Manager Janice Sundnas' estimates.

The fact that some Dartmouth students must deal with the issues surrounding pregnancy is no surprise given the situation here. A 1997 sex poll conducted by The Dartmouth found that 50 percent of students at the College are sexually active, and a small percentage of Dartmouth women will face an unplanned pregnancy at some point in their college career.

Sundnas said that anywhere between 25 and 40 women come to Dick's House each year facing and unplanned pregnancy, and that others may become pregnant but not go to Dick's House.

However, she said that there have been fewer students in the past five to seven years. She attributed the drop off to more women coming to Women's Health to discuss contraception and the availability of emergency contraception, or the "morning after pill."

But the fact remains that each year, some students at Dartmouth abort undesired pregnancies at a higher rate than in the nation at large.

According to Rebecca Brooks of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, "Lots of students say that they have other plans for their lives at the moment. It's not the right time for them and they need to finish their education."

She said that many women who have abortions express a desire to have their own children in the future, but feel they aren't ready right now.

Brooks also said that college-aged women may feel more empowered to make choices than other women.

Another possibility is that college women do not have the means of support necessary to raise a child -- both financially and emotionally.

Christine Percheski, a member of Dartmouth Coalition for Life, says that there needs to be more institutional support for women who wish to keep their babies, particularly with regard to child care and financial aid.

The level of involvement of the father of the child can also be a factor. Brooks said some women do not want to be single parents, and Percheski cited the financial difficulties that single mothers often face.

Medical options

When a student goes to Dick's House to discuss an unplanned pregnancy, she is usually given a 30-minute appointment in which she can discuss her options with a Women's Health practitioner, Sundnas said.

"The first thing we do is deal with the emotional impact that the unplanned pregnancy has for that woman," Sundnas said.

Sundnas said that the practitioner and the student discuss the woman's three possible options -- continuing with the pregnancy, seeking adoption or deciding on termination.

"We are pro-woman and we are here to support them in whatever decision they make," Sundnas said. "Most women choose to terminate."

For those women who choose to have an abortion, they are then referred to area clinics that perform abortions, either at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon or Planned Parenthood in West Lebanon.

If a woman decides to continue her pregnancy, then she is referred out for prenatal care.

Sundnas said that a common perception among some women is that Dick's House is in favor of all women choosing to have an abortion. She said this is a misperception.

"We really go through all the options with the students. No one should assume that if they come to Dick's House that we push one method over another," Sundnas said.

Once a student decides to have an abortion, her options are discussed, according Brooks. For women who are in their first trimester or first fourteen weeks of their pregnancy, there are two options -- medical and surgical abortion.

Brooks said that both medical and surgical abortions at the Lebanon branch of Planned Parenthood usually cost $370, and that women usually pay for them out of pocket. However, there is also a sliding fee scale and a special fund to help women who want abortions but cannot afford it.

According to the plan booklet, Dartmouth Student Group Health Insurance covers the cost of an abortion in full up to $350.

Medical abortion has been available for the past three years, but is more available now since the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone. In a medical abortion, the woman takes a first drug that stops the pregnancy and a second drug is taken two days later to cause uterine contractions, which expel the fetus.

Sundnas said that she has only seen students choose medical abortion twice in the past three years because it is a more involved process than how it has been portrayed in the media. The entire process can take two weeks or longer and currently requires two visits and a follow up.

The other option is a surgical abortion, in which the fetus is surgically removed from the uterus. This is the most common form of abortion, and most abortions performed this way are performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 14 weeks, the procedure is more costly and complicated, and after 24 weeks abortions are rarely performed. Planned Parenthood only offers first trimester abortions.

After a surgical abortion at Planned Parenthood, the woman recovers in a room designed to make her feel comfortable and allow her a chance to talk to other women, Brooks said.

Both types of abortions require follow up appointments, which can be either at the clinic where the abortion was performed or at Dick's House. At that time the woman is examined to make sure that the abortion was successful and that there is no infection. Surgical abortion is effective 99.8 percent of the time and a mifepristone abortion is 92 to 95 percent effective.

Women are also given the opportunity to talk about the abortion and to consider different contraceptive options to avoid unplanned pregnancy in the future at their follow up appointment.

Campus Activism

Abortion may seem like the most logical option for a student who feels she is unprepared for a child, but there are some students who feel that ending the pregnancy should not be an option. Abortion is not simply one option, but the subject of political and moral debate.

Dartmouth Coalition for Life is devoted to educating the community about abortion issues and providing support for women facing unplanned pregnancies.

According to Percheski, the group is trying to create a culture that supports life and affirms people's choices in favor of life. The group held a candlelight vigil this week in remembrance of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The pro-choice side of the issue is less vocal than the pro-life side. There was a Students for Choice group that has met in the past, but former adviser and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ann Bumpus said the group is no longer active.

"There is definitely a group of people who are very strongly pro-choice and very strongly pro-life," Percheski said. "But I feel like most students are apathetic tending toward pro-choice."

Effects of Abortion

One of the goals of DCFL is to educate the campus about abortion.

"We think that people are not aware of the negative consequences of abortion on women's health," Percheski said.

Percheski said that almost half of women who have abortions report severe psychological issues as a result of the abortion. She also said that abortion increases a woman's chances of breast cancer and future fertility problems.

Brooks, however, says she disagrees, and that the emotional effects of abortion are highly dependent on the situation and the amount of support available for the woman.

"Many of the responses we get are enormous relief," Brooks said.

The Planned Parenthood website addresses the effects of abortion, and states that abortion is a safe procedure with a low incidence of emotional effects. The site says, "Research studies indicate that emotional responses to legally induced abortion are largely positive. They also indicate that emotional problems resulting from abortion are rare and less frequent than those following childbirth."

The site also denies the claims that abortion causes an increase in breast cancer or fertility problems, provided there is no infection, which only occurs in 1 percent of abortions. However, an abortion does not provide the same protective effect against breast cancer that carrying a pregnancy to term does.

Choosing Life

Sara Largay '00 is among the minority of students at the College who decided to keep her child when facing an unplanned pregnancy.

Largay said the first thing she did when she realized she was pregnant was to speak to her mother and to the father.

"He had expressed that he would support me in whatever decision I made," Largay said. However, she said he was inclined toward abortion or adoption rather than raising a child.

"I didn't want to be pregnant at the time and I didn't want to have a baby at the time but I couldn't see myself not having her," Largay said.

Largay's daughter, Catherine, is now almost two. She says that it's not easy raising a child as a full-time college student, but that it can be done. She said professors have been understanding and that the deans helped her and her boyfriend out, but that they have still had to work hard to find solutions to problems on their own.

Daycare, Largay said, is one of the main problems. Dartmouth runs a child care center, but it is only for the children of employees. Affordable child care is hard to find, but Largay said they found a home daycare with the help of the Dartmouth Child Care Office.

Another problem is that financial aid does not offer any additional support for students with children. Largay said that when her boyfriend approached the Financial Aid office to discuss additional aid, the office "wouldn't even take into account that he had to support a child now."

These issues make it difficult for students to raise children, and DCFL is working on improving these areas.

Largay also said that she felt somewhat misled when administrators implied that she was the only student in this situation. Since giving birth, she has learned of three other women -- two single and one student couple -- who have had children and are raising them while attending Dartmouth.

"No matter what you decide, people will surprise you. They may not agree, but they will grow to accept it as long as you make a decision that is true to yourself," Largay said.