My friend Jillian is passionate about sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing. Around our third or fourth glass of wine something set her off. “Anyone who is at risk should get tested. I don’t care if you think you’re OK. I don’t care if you think you’re probably fine because you used a condom with that rando. I don’t care if you’ve only ever slept with one person. Get tested.” 

I sipped in shame, trying to remember if I had ever been tested. Maybe I got tested the last time I went to the doctor? Maybe I’m telling myself that so I feel less guilty when I see the health center’s “get yourself tested” signs?

I made an appointment for a few days later. I pulled into the parking lot of Planned Parenthood and hesitated. Maybe I should have just waited to get back to Bowdoin where everyone else in the waiting room would be 18-22 and well-educated and nobody would give me a once-over trying to guess if I was there to have an abortion. But I could hear Jillian in my head (“Just get tested!”) and I wanted to get it out of the way over the summer—so into the real world I went.  

The thing about the Planned Parenthood waiting room is that you can make no assumptions. I looked around trying to guess who was there for the Big Day and who was there for routine maintenance. 

My list of criteria: Is the woman alone with or with a partner? What’s her apparent age? Does she look nervous? 

But as I thought about all the scenarios in which a woman would get an abortion, my criteria seemed inappropriate.

I probably fit one mold. I’m young, career-bound and unmarried. Were the other people in the waiting room looking around and sizing me up? My palms began to sweat and a moment later the bottoms of my feet joined the party. 

Judging by their body language, most people in the room were not there for abortions—unless you have a loud conversation about who’s going to pick up the kids from day care before you have an abortion. Or maybe that’s exactly what you would do. Like I said, you can’t make assumptions—it’s a lesson I wish my congressman, Representative Andy Barr, would learn. 

Earlier in the summer he publicly denounced Planned Parenthood as an “abortion factory.” 

The minutes trickled by in the waiting room. My back got sore; I scrolled through Twitter. I guess they were understaffed. 

Finally the nurse called my name. After a moment of confusion with a woman named Juleighah, which sounds an awful lot like Julia to the untrained ear, I followed the nurse into a small, windowless room. 

“How many partners have you had in the last year?”

“Uhhhh,” I counted on my fingers. “I know it shouldn’t be this hard...X!” 

“Have you had unprotected sex?” 

“...yes.” (It’s OK—I have an IUD!)

“Have you ever had unprotected oral sex?” 

“...yes.” (Who uses condoms for oral sex anyways? Maybe I would know to do that if I had ever had an actual sex education class.)

Text to Katherine: “Nothing like talking about your sex life with a health care professional to make you feel like a slut.”

The nurse and I finished in the windowless room, and she promised to call me if the results were positive: no news was good news. 

I left the clinic, exhaled and felt my shoulders slide back down from up by my ears. My thoughts raced as I drove home. 

The stigma around abortion is part of a general stigma around sexual health and can prevent people from seeking any care at all. Many people just don’t know that clinics offer a wide spectrum of health services and serve everyone, regardless of age, gender or sexuality. 

Additionally, abortion is a medical procedure and should be treated as such. The decision to end a pregnancy is a complicated and difficult one, but it should not be looked upon differently than any other medical decision. 

My relatively mundane experience was almost prohibitively stressful, and I experienced the milder end of abortion-suspicion stigma. 

The anxiety would have been hugely magnified had there been protesters. A friend who worked at a Planned Parenthood this summer told me that the staff there is trained to mitigate the trauma inflicted by protesters before addressing patients’ needs. 

The work of removing the stigma from abortion goes beyond identifying as pro-choice. We need to have conversations with each other and with our mothers and with their friends. 

One in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Not only does the taboo surrounding abortion isolate and silence these women, but it also creates a barrier to accessing sexual health services. 

I got home and shoved a pamphlet on healthy sexual relationships into my purse as I walked up the back steps. 

“Hi honey, you’re home late— where were you?” my dad asked. 

“Oh, I was just out running some errands.” Like hell I was going to tell my dad I had been at Planned Parenthood—what would he think?