‘I Couldn’t Bear It’

Door of Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health with sign saying they no longer provide abortions

'I Couldn't Bear It'

As abortion becomes illegal in Tennessee from the point of fertilization, three women look back on their own experiences — and look ahead with foreboding.

by jesse fox mayshark • August 25, 2022

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Door of Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health with sign saying they no longer provide abortions

A sign on the door of the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health announcing the end of abortion services.

Based on recent historical data, about 16 women will become pregnant in Knox County today. About half of those pregnancies will be accidental. A disproportionate number of the unintended pregnancies will be among women living below the federal poverty level and women of color.

In 2019, 668 women in the Knoxville area had abortions. Local clinics are now closed.

Also today, a “trigger law” will take effect in Tennessee that will require every one of those pregnancies to be carried to term, regardless of the age, circumstances, plans or desires of the women involved.

Many of the Knox County women who become pregnant today won’t know it for weeks, if not months. That doesn’t matter. From the moment of fertilization — all of those moments that will take place today — their bodies will be subject to the state’s strict new regime.

Any pregnancy that does not end in a live birth after months of increasing physical and emotional duress will be subject to potential investigation and prosecution — not of the woman, but of anyone suspected of assisting in terminating it.

“A person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion commits the offense of criminal abortion. Criminal abortion is a Class C felony,” says the 2019 law, known as the Human Life Protection Act, which is taking effect after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June eliminated a constitutional right to abortion. Class C felonies carry penalties of three to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

In 2019, according to state data, 668 women in the Knox County region chose to end their pregnancies. They were able to do so at abortion clinics in Knoxville staffed by experienced doctors and nurses. Those clinics are now closed.

As with most significant life events, data only goes so far in understanding abortion. Every abortion has its own story, its own set of circumstances.

For the 49 years since the Roe v. Wade decision first guaranteed legal access to abortion across the United States, most of those stories have gone untold. Even as more than 63 million abortions have been performed nationwide, a combination of personal privacy, social stigma, and political and cultural conflicts have kept most of them quiet, shared if at all only with close friends and family.

To illuminate the experiences behind the numbers and the impact of criminalizing abortion in Tennessee, Compass talked to three local women about pregnancies they chose to terminate.

All shared intimate and often traumatic details of their lives, because they wanted people to know their stories. They had varying degrees of comfort with public identification, and Compass has granted partial anonymity in some cases.

They talked not only about their own histories but their concerns and advice for other women who will soon find themselves in similar situations without the same access to medical options.

Sarah

Sarah is not her real name. She is in her late 30s and prefers to remain anonymous — partly for professional reasons and partly for reasons having to do with the boyfriend she was with when she got pregnant. It has been a long time, but she knows he has looked for her over the years.

“He was a big drug dealer, he did a lot of drugs,” says Sarah, who was a 19-year-old college student at the time. “I had fix-it syndrome, so I thought I could fix him, because I thought he was like a shelter puppy.”

She says he was emotionally abusive and manipulative. And when she discovered she was pregnant, she knew for sure that she did not want to have a child with him.

By her own account, Sarah grew up sheltered in a “super Catholic” small town in Louisiana. In high school, she says, she was a “big Goody Two Shoes” — “I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I wasn’t promiscuous. I’ve still never done drugs.”

The summer after high school, she started dating a guy who was on the fringes of her group of friends. He was the first person she ever had sex with. They became serious enough that she withdrew from her out-of-state college after one semester and transferred to a school closer to home.

In the middle of the spring semester, she realized she was pregnant. She was using birth control pills, but she didn’t realize antibiotics she had been prescribed could interfere with their effectiveness.

She didn’t feel like she could talk to her parents about it — an older sister had had an abortion, and it had caused family turmoil. But her friends and, initially, her boyfriend supported her certainty that she should not have a baby.

A friend dropped her off at a clinic in New Orleans. Her boyfriend had promised to pick her up afterward. But when she called him to tell him she was going into the procedure room, he told her he was meeting with a priest and had become convinced that she would “go to Hell” if she had an abortion — and he would, too, if he helped her.

“So he left me stranded in New Orleans, 45 minutes from home, with no way to get home,” Sarah says. She was so upset that the clinic told her they wouldn’t do the procedure that day. She had to call her out-of-state sister, who arranged for a friend to come pick her up.

The boyfriend then told Sarah that she should have the baby, and if she tried to give it up for adoption, he would fight for custody. She knew his parents had money and she believed he could back up his threats. Suddenly she saw her future narrow.

She made a second abortion appointment and booked a hotel in New Orleans to stay at afterward, so she wouldn’t have to worry about a ride home. She remembers the waiting room at the clinic and the stories shared among the patients there, all of them different.

“There was a woman in there who had an ectopic pregnancy that she and her husband had been trying years for, it wasn't viable,” she says. “There was a girl whose neighbor had molested her, she was 15, she was in there with her mother. There was a woman, she and her husband had five kids already. She almost didn't make it out of the last pregnancy alive. And her doctor said, ‘Either you or the kid are going to die.’”

After the procedure, Sarah says she holed up in her hotel room feeling relieved, traumatized — from the circumstances, not the abortion — and fundamentally different as a person.

“Everything changed that day,” she says. “Like, I’m never going to be that girl again.”

When she got home she found that her boyfriend had told her mother about the abortion, ostensibly because he was worried about her.

“I went off on her and told her I didn’t regret it,” Sarah says. “And if she wanted to kick me out and do all the same shit she had done to my sister, she was more than welcome to do it. But I wasn’t sad, I didn’t regret it. Which I think changed her mind a little bit.”

Within a few months, she ended the relationship with her boyfriend and re-enrolled at her original college of choice. She earned her degree and eventually landed in Knoxville where she works for a food service company. She is in what she calls the best relationship of her life, with a partner who knows her history and supports her decisions.

She thinks sometimes about the life she escaped, at least 18 years of legal entanglement of one kind or another with a man she believes would have been dangerous to her and any child they had.

“He was crazy,” she says. “I think with him being as jealous and possessive and manipulative as he was, I think he would have killed me. I don’t really doubt that. I don’t say that lightly.”

She believes ending the pregnancy saved her and the potential child from years of trauma and abuse.

“I think what the pro-life people need to understand the most is that I didn't wake up and go, ‘I'm bored on a Saturday, I think I’ll go get an abortion,’” Sarah says. “Even knowing that I've never wanted to have kids, it's still a decision that weighed very heavily on me. Even though I wanted to terminate, I felt just as protective of that life as I did my own.”

She is also sure that even if abortion hadn’t been legally available, she would have found a way to do it, or at least attempt it. She couldn’t have afforded to travel out of state — as it was, she spent her semester’s textbook money on the procedure.

“I would have found a way or I would have found a back alley,” she says. “But nothing was going to prevent it from happening. I think that’s the other thing they don’t understand, outlawing it doesn’t mean it goes away, it means it goes underground. And it’s going to get people killed and it’s going to get people hurt.”

Haley

Haley was a 16-year-old Knoxville high school student when she discovered she was pregnant. She had just broken up with her first serious boyfriend, the only person she had ever been intimate with.

She has written an account of her experience, which she read during an interview. (You can read it here.) It begins with her being comforted by friends after the break-up — and with those same friends, who had picked up on signs that Haley has missed herself, steering her toward the pregnancy tests in a Walgreens aisle.

“We have to ask permission to use the bathroom in Walgreens,” she says. “The bathroom is behind a locked door. At least we will have privacy … I hope. We go into the bathroom, all three of us. There are two stalls, one narrow, one larger, accessible. I go into the small stall, alone.”

The test quickly confirmed what her friends suspected: Haley was pregnant. She and her friends drove over to her ex-boyfriend’s house to tell him. He hugged her and whispered in her ear, “We’ll take care of it.” He meant an abortion.

She describes her thoughts this way: “How can I do this? It is my only choice. I love my baby, but I can’t be its Momma right now. I’m too young. My baby won’t have the life I want to give it. Abortion is our only option. I love my baby and I love myself. That is why I have to have an abortion.”

She was terrified to tell her parents for fear of their reaction and judgment. So with friends’ help, she arranged for a judicial hearing where she could be granted a waiver from parental permission for the procedure.

Her ex-boyfriend borrowed money to pay for both the judicial bypass and the abortion. He and her friends accompanied her to the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, which provided abortion services from 1975 until this June.

In the operating room, she says, “The vacuum is a scary sound. I know what’s happening. ‘I love you,’ I tell my baby. Her name is Ema Grace. Ema from Emanon, ‘No name’ spelled backwards, a secret word from a sorority that my Mom was in in high school. Grace because by the grace of God I am able to continue my direction in life, not a pariah.”

Two weeks later, Haley was in a car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury and erased much of her recent memory. She had to piece together the story of the abortion from her friends. She thinks of it now as an important part of who she is and the life she’s been able to choose for herself. She is now 30 and married.

“When you grow up, you kind of have an image of what your life will be like as an adult,” she says. “People have successful futures with a child at a young age, but I felt that I could not attain the type of future that I sought. I didn't see or perceive that having a child at a young age would allow me to provide my child with the type of life that I wanted to give.”

She has become more open about sharing her experience in recent years, which she thinks is important so that people in the same circumstances don’t feel so alone. She even found out that her own mother had had an abortion years earlier — something she says would have helped her a lot to know at the time.

“It made me feel more connected to her,” Haley says, “and also made me feel frustration and a more profound sense of how long-standing the stigma for abortion has been.”

If abortion had been illegal in Tennessee at the time, she says, she doesn’t know what she would have done. “I think that I would have become so catatonic that I might not have been able to complete the process so that I could provide myself with the future that I wanted to have,” she says.

For the Knoxville teenagers who will find themselves pregnant and scared in the coming months and years just like she was, Haley urges them to find trustworthy sources of support and information.

“I would counsel her to talk about it, to let people that she trusts know,” Haley says. “Because there are so many people who have had this experience and who are willing to help them receive the care that they need.”

Amanda

For Amanda Lovingood, an unwanted pregnancy came a little later in life. She grew up in rural Ohio, in a strict Methodist household, and internalized strong prohibitions against sex outside of marriage.

She notes with some irony that the first time she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic was to get her first birth control prescription, because she was about to get married to a longtime boyfriend. When the staff began to prepare her for a routine pelvic examination, she asked, “I haven’t actually been sexually active, do we really need to do this? And they said, ‘No!’”

But that early marriage ended after seven years — Lovingood says her ex was abusive and also abused drugs and alcohol. When she was 28, she moved back to Ohio from Arizona to be close to her family and finish a college degree that she had abandoned.

She started dating and felt more liberated than she had in the past. “You know, I’m a divorcée, I’ve decided that maybe all these religious rules didn’t apply to me anymore,” she says.

Still, she was stunned to find herself pregnant just a few months into a relationship with a graduate student at the same university. She was working full-time and going to school and not at all sure the relationship was a good long-term prospect.

“We hadn’t even said, ‘I love you,’” she says. “And I did know enough about this person that I knew if I were to tell him, ‘I'm pregnant,’ he would have just very quietly insisted that we get married and have that child out of a sense of obligation. That was his way. He was very quiet and very stoic and just, ‘This is what we do.’

“And I couldn’t bear it. I didn't want to be someone who forced someone into a relationship. I didn’t want this to be a situation where we did it solely out of obligation.”

She went to a Planned Parenthood clinic on her own and discovered she was farther into the pregnancy than she thought — “I had no idea how pregnancy works,” she says. The staff estimated she was at 13 weeks, which meant that a medication abortion was no longer possible.

She didn’t feel comfortable telling either her then-boyfriend or her family members, which meant she had no one to drive her to and from the appointment. So her only option was to have the surgical procedure done without anesthesia, which would allow her to drive herself.

“It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” Lovingood says. “I was more excited about the prospect of the nausea and the breast pain (from the pregnancy) going away than anything else at that point. It was such a relief.”

She did end up marrying the person she was seeing, but they divorced within a year, which to her was further confirmation that she had made the right choice in ending the pregnancy. She is now in her mid-40s and married with a stepdaughter she loves fiercely. She says she has been open about her experience with her stepdaughter.

“When I told my stepdaughter about this, when we had our heart to heart and I told her what my story was, I told her that I knew I was doing this for my future child," she says of her abortion. "It turned out she was my future child." 

Lovingood previously worked at Blackberry Farm and is now the service manager and sommelier at A Dopo Sourdough Pizza. She says the abortion was one of the decisions that allowed her to have a happy and fulfilled life.

“I would be leading an entirely different life,” she says. “Not one that I chose. And knowing the struggles that I've had with anxiety and depression and relationships, I can't help but think that wouldn't have been the healthiest relationship.”

She notes that the man she was with when she became pregnant has since remarried and has children of his own — children who wouldn’t even exist had they stayed together for the sake of a different child.

At the time of the abortion, she says, “None of us had reached our potential.”

She became outspoken about her experience after being diagnosed and successfully treated for breast cancer.

“I realized that having been through cancer, I still had a voice,” she says. “And I felt like it was my obligation to use it for people who didn't have a voice.”

She has spoken at rallies and news conferences for reproductive rights, and she has a sign in her yard that says, “Everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.” She says the response to publicly telling her story has been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s a couple who walk their dog around our block every day, twice a day,” she says. “I was out gardening last week and just the wife stopped by and she said, ‘I really like your signs. My abortion let me be the woman that I am today.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, me too. And everybody deserves the same chance, don’t you think?’ And we had a nice chat.”

For women in Tennessee who now find themselves pregnant, she says her advice is to find information about options as soon as possible. “Don’t wait, do it fast,” she says.

Lovingood is no longer religious, partly because of her experiences. But she says she would like to see more compassion and understanding flowing from local pulpits, which still have a lot of influence in the South.

“I would love to see more women leading congregations,” she says. “We need more representation. We need more people who have borne children and who have experienced what it’s like to be there.”

Abortion Information and Resources

The following resources were recommended by the women we spoke to and other advocates for abortion rights.

Abortion Finder (abortionfinder.org)
Hey Jane (heyjane.co)
Mountain Access Brigade (mountainaccessbrigade.org)
Plan C (plancpills.org)
Planned Parenthood (plannedparenthood.org)