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Thoughts on unplanned pregnancy and standing with Planned Parenthood

Saturday, September 19, 2015 by Rebecca , under

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting in Uganda with healthcare providers, who were sharing their experiences with women who had died from complications of unsafe abortions. A nurse midwife spoke up. "I had a woman come to me last year asking me if I could help her have an abortion. I told her I do not believe in abortion and that she must go somewhere else for this thing. I turned her away. A few days later, her family brought her to me as she was dying. I could do nothing for her and I watched as she bled to death. I have never forgotten her."

This story isn't a new one. This woman is one of many. Every year, ~70,000 women die from unsafe abortions worldwide and millions more suffer from debilitating complications. But this isn't a post about abortion. It's a post about unplanned pregnancy.

I work as a sexual and reproductive health advisor for an international NGO. I spend big gobs of my time talking and thinking about contraception and how to help women have babies when they want them and not otherwise. I'm passionate about this.

Because here's the thing about unplanned pregnancy: it is always a bad thing. Yes. I'm taking an unequivocal stance on this. Sure, I know you probably have a story about your friend's sister who got knocked up unexpectedly and it ended up dragging her off a ledge of drugs and violence and turning her into a better person. Or perhaps a cousin whose unplanned pregnancy with her husband ended up bringing them back from the brink of divorce. Or maybe it's you who had an unplanned pregnancy and you'd never go back and change your life because the turn it took as a result of your experience has formed a big chunk of who you are. I get that. Good things can come out of bad things. But first and foremost, it's a bad thing to be pregnant when you don't want to be.

It's a bad thing because no matter what happens, no matter what you choose, the outcome isn't ideal. It isn't ideal to have an abortion. It isn't ideal to give up a child for adoption. It isn't ideal to raise a child you didn't want to have. It simply isn't. And because having a child, or giving it up for adoption, or having an abortion are all big, life-changing decisions, it means that no matter what you choose, your life will never be the same.

A lot of people think that adoption is the ideal. Have an unplanned pregnancy? No problem - just give it to someone who wants it. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that there are more parents out there who want all these unwanted babies, I'd pay off my freaking student loans and live happily ever after on an island in the Bahamas. Having worked for an adoption agency, I can tell you first hand that adoption may seem glossy and beautiful, but that it is entrenched in the ugliness of poverty, privilege, racism, and capitalism in ways that you could never imagine.

You look at adoption and you see babies and happy adoptive parents. I look at adoption and I see the broken, poor women left in the wake - most of whom are uneducated, impoverished, and full of mental health issues. I see women overwhelmed with their violent, hopeless backgrounds, trying to get by. I see the woman I worked with who had given up six children for adoption because her stepfather kept sexually abusing her and getting her pregnant, which she put up with so he wouldn't beat her mother. No one ever tried to help her - they looked forward to the babies (money) she would bring them when she'd come back to the agency with another pregnancy. I see the woman from Philly who we dropped off at the homeless shelter with her four and two-year old children, two short weeks after she'd given birth because she literally had nowhere else to go. I repeat: we dropped her off at a homeless shelter with her two kids. THAT is what adoption looks like to me. It looks like capitalizing on human tragedy.**

You look at keeping and you might see your cousin and her beautiful little girl, but I look at keeping and I see the three-year old girl with a huge chunk taken out of her face, the result of a smack across the face with a cubic zirconia ring on her mother's middle finger. I see a hugely pregnant woman dragging her saline drip across a hospital room in an attempt to beat the shit out of her little son who was bored and misbehaving. I see children growing up in poverty with mothers who, while they do love them, have absolutely no clue how to raise a healthy child because they are exhausted and overwhelmed and poor and, sometimes children themselves. Some research:

Children whose conception was unintentional are also at greater risk than children who were conceived intentionally of experiencing negative physical- and mental-health outcomes and are more likely to drop out of high school and to engage in delinquent behavior during their teenage years. 

Are my experiences simply the worst case scenarios? Probably not. The majority of unplanned pregnancies are experienced by poor, minority women. How about some research to go with my personal anecdotes:

"women who experience unintended pregnancies have a higher incidence of mental-health problems, have less stable romantic relationships, experience higher rates of physical abuse"

I could only stomach the adoption job for a year and trust me, a year was enough. I will never forget what I saw there.

I also worked for Planned Parenthood for a few years. I worked on a research study, looking at the efficacy of a new type of emergency contraception. I talked to women and their partners who came in to get the morning after pill. I listened to their stories. I gave them pills that prevented the thickening of their uterine walls, thereby preventing implantation of an egg. I watched the relief on their faces as they came back for follow-up and were declared "not pregnant." I saw a lot of the good work Planned Parenthood did first hand. I watched my coworkers call women back to tell them that they had cervical cancer. I watched them provide low-cost contraception to poor women and, if those women couldn't afford it, they'd provide it to them for free. I saw all types of women come in and out of the clinic, but all of them needed help and Planned Parenthood never turned anyone away.

I also went to Planned Parenthood myself. I went when I didn't have health insurance and needed birth control. I went to Planned Parenthood to get Gardasil, the vaccination that prevents cervical cancer. I wanted it, but without health insurance, I couldn't afford it. Planned Parenthood helped me to get all three vaccinations for about $50. Planned Parenthood took care of me when I didn't have other options and they gave me some of the best medical care I've received.

I watched the videos that were put out talking about fetal tissue donation, both edited and "unedited."
I felt Dr. Nucatola's flippant way of talking about fetal tissue donation was awful, unprofessional, and tragic, though it is clear, even in the edited version of this video, how she's being manipulated and pushed by her colleagues. It doesn't impact in the least how I feel about Planned Parenthood. I support fetal tissue donation unequivocally and I wasn't bothered that Planned Parenthood was providing this lifesaving service to research facilities. As a researcher, I know first-hand how important this type of tissue can be for medical advancement. If you have questions about this, I suggest doing some research into it. Or, for a beautiful story about it - here.

I support women's right to safe abortions.*** That doesn't mean I feel particularly comfortable with it or that I think it's the right choice for every woman who has an unplanned pregnancy. I support their right to have abortions because I understand, probably better than most, that they need it as a choice and if they don't have it as a safe choice, they will choose it anyway and will suffer and die from their injuries. I also support women's right to put their children up for adoption and to keep their children. I support women who have unplanned pregnancies because they need support. I work very hard to try to make it so that they have access to contraception and emergency contraception all over the world. I also work to address underlying issues of gender inequality, violence, and sexism that prevent women from getting the choices and support they desperately need. I support women regardless because it's not my job to judge them for their lives or choices - it's my job to try to help them.

I support Planned Parenthood because Planned Parenthood also supports women regardless of their lives or choices. I support them because they continue to stand up for poor women. They were a support when I needed them. And I'm confident that, wherever you stand on the issue of unplanned pregnancy, if you needed them, they'd support you too.

**Note: that does not mean that I think ALL adoption is capitalizing on human tragedy - let's keep some sense of nuance here, people

***Note: Planned Parenthood does NOT USE FEDERAL FUNDING for abortions. I want to point that out in the context of the bill that passed in the House to defund them. What are you defunding? You're defunding the cervical cancer screening, vaccinations, the STI testing and treatment, the low-cost or free contraception for poor women. You're defunding poor women - the very women who are at the greatest risk of having an unplanned pregnancy.

Adulthood - a list

Thursday, June 18, 2015 by Rebecca , under

Some things I think are associated with growing up, in no particular order:

  • Self-knowledge and subsequently, self-kindness
  • Willingness to transcend the propensity toward black and white and live in the space between
  • Accepting losses
  • Accepting what is (which is often the same thing as losses)
  • A willingness to stare into the meaningless of existence without reaching for distraction
  • Appreciation of little things
  • Ability to tolerate boredom
  • Openness to being wrong - or to being only partially right
  • Not knowing
  • Accepting a lack of closure - of never knowing
  • Willingness to make decisions and accept the consequences
  • Showing up
  • Making basic human decency - giving up seats to old people, being kind to mothers with screaming children on airplanes, holding doors, saying thank you to customer service - the default mode
  • The ability to give time-outs to oneself, think before speaking, and not saying all the potentially terrible things one could whilst in the heat of the moment
  • Delayed gratification
  • Willingness to go it alone, if no one else is headed that direction

Moving through space and time

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 by Rebecca , under

As a pitfall of working with data, I sometimes have to slog through large quantities of recoding variables or fixing little pithy aspects of a dataset that are incredibly time-consuming, but necessary in order to complete analysis. The repetitive cycle of delete, return, enter, scan, copy, paste is mind-numbingly tedious; I find my only small consolation is the ability to zone into some music while I code. I can't listen to anything with content because I stop paying attention to details and make mistakes in the data, but a good long set of music makes this type of work bearable. I can't usually listen to anything when I'm doing regular analysis- my brain needs all the bandwidth to focus on the task at hand. So sometimes coding is a lovely break. 

Anyway, that's a tangent. Today, I have been recoding a hideous dataset requiring many, many hours of sloggery. I turned on Pandora to the First Aid Kit station and a Brandi Carlile's "Have You Ever" came on. It was sort of a shock to my system to realize two things: 1) I had a Brandi Carlile phase of my life - a phase marked by many images of the first Sugarhouse place, of mountains, of travel and falling in love, of ocean escapes and less-than-well-concealed pain and bonfires and that first new summer after so much had changed, and 2) that it is over. Sometimes you don't really realize you're in a specific place until you leave it. 

And then, oddly, right after Brandi finished her song, Bon Iver came on playing "Skinny Love." After Mikee died, I couldn't bear to listen to that song for several years - it was almost a physically painful experience to remember his sweetness to me after Josh and I had broken up and I was sort of broken. It was Mikee at his best and the song is a tour de force of remembrance of how much he meant to me. Today, I listened to it and felt no pain - just a strong appreciation for the fact that I have something that so viscerally connects me to someone I love. Another phase of life long gone, but this time, without any residual nostalgia or pain. 

Time is like a steady drip of water on stone. What once seems so solid will eventually wear away to reveal new shapes - a changed view of events and life and a deeper appreciation for all the seasons of this crazy journey. 
April 13, 2008


You fell asleep with your face buried in my neck
breathing humid drops of air
curling the little hairs near my ear
holding my hand
Uma Thurman exacting her revenge
on the blue screen
with a samarai-
neither of us caring or
wanting anything else
but a few peaceful hours
of simply this.


Sunday, November 3, 2013 by Rebecca , under

There's a corner of my building -
near my door-
where people abandon their plants.
yellowed, crunchy lost causes,
thrust into sunny ubasute.
out of sight.
out of mind.
I, too, have abandoned many things I
once loved
for their own good
for a better life
I tell myself.
But yesterday, I took a little wizened bonsai
from the corner and
watered its tired, desiccated bones and
put it in my windowsill
a testament to second chances.

A Lack of Access Inwardly

Thursday, September 12, 2013 by Rebecca , under

I am Jack's barely contained
typing furiously
rushing against the cynical tide
only to find
all work and
no play
a dullness,
a calm before the storm.

4 Minute Warning

Monday, January 14, 2013 by Rebecca , under

I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between quitting and walking away. You know what I mean. We all do. There are times when we give up on something because it is too hard, because we're lazy, because we're not willing to go the extra mile, because we're too afraid to push through it, because  we don't want to risk failure- there are a thousand reasons to quit something. I once quit a job because I wanted to stay at my friend James's house and play Risk all night. Quitting is something you do because, for one reason or another, you don't have the capacity (skillset, maturity, tenacity, etc) to see something through.

Walking away though, is a different concept entirely. Walking away is something you do for yourself because staying is bad for you. Not difficult, not challenging, not something you can tell yourself to just push through, but something that is harmful to you. You usually walk away from something you don't want to leave. You can quit something for a thousand reasons, but you walk away from something when you love yourself more than you love whatever you are leaving. It could be anything, but usually its a job, a person, a relationship, a dream- something you've devoted a significant amount of time and energy to. Nobody taught me how to walk away as a child. I think it might be one of those lessons you learn through trial and error, though sometimes I wish I'd been a faster learner.

How do you know when it's time to walk away? I think it's pretty situation-specific, but there seem to be a few common denominators.  In my experience, they look like the following:

  • Feeling exhausted. This feeling is pervasive—it's not some bad-day/bad-week/bad-month feeling—it seems to never go away. 
  • Feeling like, no matter how hard you try, you can never make any progress, despite working harder than you've ever worked before. In fact, it may seem like the harder you work, the worse it seems to get. 
  • Feeling afraid. Not the type of worry you feel about passing a class or getting a promotion you've worked for, but actually feeling yourself contract in some sense.  This may also manifest itself as a constant and relentless stress. 
  • Being unable to live in the present moment, either because it's too miserable or because you're so focused on a future when things will be better, you're trying to forget today exists. 
  • Finding yourself chronically sacrificing your health for XYZ. This could be not sleeping, not eating good foods (or not eating much of anything because you don't have time), not moving enough (because you're too tired, or you're tied to your computer), not taking time for mental health. 
  • Feeling confused. On some level, you just feel confused as to why something you care about so much is so bad. There seems to be no connection between what you think it "should" be and what it is, which creates a feeling of confusion. 
When you get to this place, it's good to realize that walking away usually involves some sort of loss, but that the loss that you think you will experience has probably already occurred; you just haven't acknowledged it. Walking away involves turning inward and trusting your own feelings. Part of you will want to stay just a little bit longer, to work just a little bit harder, to try a different approach, to... Unfortunately, doing so is usually dangerous. The signs above are warning signs- they are indicative that something is wrong. Problems resulting in these types of feelings are most likely in the process of coming to a head; to stay can often place you directly in the explosion. Or, oppositely, it can cause you to compromise and contort yourself, causing some sort of slow inner death. 

The decision to walk away feels right. It doesn't always feel good and it doesn't always make sense (because maybe you don't have a backup plan), but it should feel solid. Usually it takes some courage. Sometimes it may not be accompanied by a next step. I think this can sometimes be simply due to the fact that, until you let one thing go, you don't have space or capacity to see something else. 

There's a pretty awesome episode of This American Life called "Self-Improvement." The first story is about a guy who decides to walk away. I thought I'd include it just for kicks.