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My Job at the Abortion Hotline

I never met the women I counseled, but they taught me what it means to be pregnant, desperate and afraid.

Photo Credit: Martinez


The murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has exposed frightening corners of humanity — 30-week fetuses, jars of baby feet, venereal disease, snipped spinal cords, a refugee drugged to death, and unfortunately, more. Whatever the verdict, we may never understand Gosnell’s motivation. But what of the women who streamed into his allegedly filthy clinic for years? Who were they? Why would some of them have been seeking such late-term abortions? Why would they put their own lives at risk? As it happens, I think I have a pretty good idea.

I was 21, and for nine months in the mid-1990s, I worked as a hotline counselor on the toll-free line at the National Abortion Federation, a voluntary membership group of several hundred providers nationwide. Overtly, the job went like this: Women called to ask for a clinic near them, and I provided the address and phone number. Each clinic had been vetted by a NAF inspector. The clinics I could mention were not the only clinics out there. They met certain standards and agreed to pay a membership fee for the referral service.

But the job involved much more than that. Women had questions. I had answers. Some, anyway.

My guidelines and fact sheets were contained in a thick black-covered binder, which I scanned early on. Basically, I was to remind callers I wasn’t a doctor, and refer them to expert counseling services if needed. I wasn’t working for one of those church-based pregnancy counseling centers. I didn’t try to sway anyone, nor did I discuss the matter of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” Rather, I was like a crossing guard for abortion. The women knew where they wanted to go. I just helped them get there.

The phone rang every few minutes, all day long. Answering it was at once intimate, anonymous and terrifying.

I was often the first person to whom these women had spoken about their unwanted pregnancies. The questions came.

Will it hurt?
Will I be able to have children later?
What if there are complications?
What is the procedure like?
Will I be psychologically scarred?

And there were whispers.

I can’t pay for this.
I’m in a shelter with my four kids. He was beating me. I can’t have another one.
It was my uncle. I can’t tell anyone.
The clinic is too far. Hours away. How am I going to get there?
I’m already 16 weeks. Is it too late?
Does it matter if you’ve had more than one?

Even though I could not see the callers, I could tell certain things about them by the way they spoke, their accents, the circumstances they described. They were often poor, or disadvantaged, or minority young women with huge obstacles to success in their lives. There was no redemption in their stories, at least not when I spoke to them. Some were frank and open, spilling details about how they got pregnant. Others were businesslike and clipped in their speech. Some cried. Most did not.

Their unifying factor was a lack of control over what had happened to them sexually. Sometimes it was teenage stupidity. Sometimes it was more sinister, like violence, or molestation. Sometimes it was just bad luck.

I answered their questions as best as I could. Pain would be similar to strong menstrual cramps. Complications were rare. Counseling was available. If they were worried about money, we talked about their options. Did they have any savings? Could they borrow from a friend or family member? Could they save money from their jobs? Sadly, this was what forced many women into later-term abortions than they wanted: denial, fear and lack of money. The longer it took to save money, the more expensive the procedure became. From $300 for a 12-week abortion, the costs would skyrocket to the $2,000 range and beyond by 20 weeks. I could now understand why late-term abortion was needed by so many women.