Michele Asselin for The New York Times
S. arrived alone at a Planned Parenthood in Richmond, Calif., four days before Christmas. As she filled out her paperwork, she looked at the women around her. Nearly all had someone with them; S. wondered if they also felt terrible about themselves or if having someone along made things easier. She began to cry quietly. She kept reminding herself that she felt secure in her decision. "I knew that that was going to be the right-wrong thing to do," she told me later. "I was ready for it."
After S. urinated in a cup, she was led into a small room. She texted one of her sisters, "Do you think God would forgive me if I were to murder my unborn child?" It was the first time anyone in her family knew she was pregnant.
"Where are you?" her sister asked. "Are you O.K.?"
"I'm at Planned Parenthood, about to have an abortion."
"God knows your heart, and I understand that you are not ready," her sister texted back. "I think God will understand."
The pregnancy had crept up on S. She was a strong believer in birth control — in high school she was selected to help teach sex education. But having been celibate for months and strapped for cash, she stopped taking the pill. Then an ex-boyfriend came around. For months after, she had only a little spotting, but because her periods are typically light, she didn't think much of it at first. Then she started to worry. "I used to press on my stomach really hard thinking maybe it would make my period come," she said.
Around Thanksgiving in 2011, S., then 24, took her first pregnancy test — a home kit from Longs Drugs. S. (her first initial) lived alone, with her dog and her parrot, and it was late at night when she read the results. She stared into space, past the plastic stick. She'd never been pregnant before. "I cried. I was heartbroken." Her ex had begun a new relationship, and she knew he wouldn't be there to support her or a child. She was working five part-time jobs to keep herself afloat and still didn't always have enough money for proper meals. How could she feed a baby? She kept the news to herself and made an appointment at Planned Parenthood.
At the clinic, a counselor comforted S. and asked her why she had come, if anyone had coerced her into making this decision. No, S. explained, she was simply not ready to have a child. The woman asked how far along she thought she might be. S. estimated that she was about three months pregnant.
In the exam room, a technician asked her to lie down. She did an ultrasound, sliding the instrument across S.'s stomach: "Oh . . . it shows here that you are a little further along." She repeated the exam. S., she estimated, was nearly 20 weeks pregnant, too far along for this Planned Parenthood clinic. S. felt numb: "I was thinking, If it is too late here, it is probably too late other places. . . . And I was like, Oh, my God, now what?"
Planned Parenthood gave S. a packet of information, including two pieces of paper — one green, for adoption, and one yellow, for other abortion providers. S. still wanted to have an abortion. She called a clinic in Oakland and took the first available appointment, just after Christmas. "I was a ticking time bomb, running out of days," she told me. On the Internet, another of S.'s sisters also found a place called First Resort, which provided abortion counseling. S. didn't know that First Resort's president once said that "abortion is never the right answer." (A spokeswoman for First Resort says that while the organization "takes no public stand on legalized abortion," it "does not provide abortions or abortion referrals.")
S. went to First Resort the day before her appointment in Oakland, unsure what to expect. It provided a free ultrasound. The nurse asked S. if she wanted to see the baby and turned the monitor toward her: "Look! Your baby is smiling at you." S. was shaken, convinced she also saw the baby smiling. The nurse told her that she was at least a week further along than the Planned Parenthood estimate (ultrasound estimates can be off by several days either way). S. sobbed all the way to her car and called the clinic in Oakland, giving it the First Resort estimate. If it was correct, they told her, she would be past its deadline. S. never made it to the Oakland clinic and in a matter of days gave up looking for another clinic that could perform a later procedure. She was out of gas money, hadn't eaten a decent meal in weeks and resigned herself to the fact that, no matter what she wanted or how it would affect her life, she was going to have a baby.