‘We aren’t all broken’

Sue Barnett got out a phonebook, leafing through it until she found the number. As calmly as she could, she punched it into her phone. An older woman answered, and Barnett broke down. She was a junior in college, bound for veterinary school, and she needed an abortion.

“I very distinctly remember calling them and saying, ‘I’m pregnant. I need help. I don’t know what to do,’ and then bursting into tears,” Barnett said. “It’s a really emotional, stressful thing to have to go through. To say it out loud to a stranger over the phone is kind of a strange thing, I guess.”

Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case of 1973, abortion has remained a contested topic. This election season, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in March that women who sought abortions should be subject to “some form of punishment,” should the procedure be banned. In September 2015, Pullman’s Planned Parenthood was forced to close for six months after it was damaged due to arson.

In Washington, there are 78 crisis pregnancy centers and 18 abortion clinics, according a 2014 report by the Guttmacher Institute. Although clinics that provide abortions are still difficult to find in some areas, crisis pregnancy centers, non-profit agencies that provide services to pregnant women but counsel against abortion, continue to grow.

As the debate goes on, women like Barnett are caught in the middle, a human pinball for religious and political groups on both sides.

When Barnett came to WSU for her residency after attending veterinary school at Kansas State University, she had only told a work acquaintance about her abortion. When she got a questionnaire from Planned Parenthood that included a question about it, she answered yes, she had an abortion and was willing to share her story on Planned Parenthood’s website.

“I feel like I was really lucky,” Barnett said. “There are probably a lot of women out there who had fairly straightforward experiences, but for those people who don’t have supportive people around them, I can’t imagine what that might be like. I wish I could help.”

Barnett had her abortion as a junior at Cornell University 16 years ago, when she was 19.

As a little girl, Barnett would bring home injured animals to try and nurse them back to health. She loved horses and learned to ride at a young age. By sixth grade, she had saved enough money to buy herself her first horse.

Driven and focused on what she wanted, Barnett knew of the other options available to her when the pregnancy test was positive, but she also knew that abortion was the only option for her. She wanted to be a vet, not a mother.

“I was a college student,” Barnett said. “That did not fit into my current plan or really my life plan I guess. It was just not ever something I wanted, not ever something I aspired to be, a mother. I had a goal and that seemed like something that would derail that or at least be more than just a speed bump. It wasn’t something I wanted.”

Barnett went to a Planned Parenthood in New York for the procedure. Once she stepped into the office, she said the female practitioner and nurse were both reassuring and calm, mirroring her own composed attitude.

The procedure for an abortion is a multi-step process, said Frances Jones, manager of clinical systems at the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and Northern Idaho. First, a woman is asked questions about when her last period was along with other general medical history questions before they’re given information on how to prepare for the procedure. Women are given the choice to have an option consultation at an office if they wish, but it is not required.

When an appointment is set up, the woman fills out paperwork and reviews it with a healthcare professional before an ultrasound and physical examination. For both medicated and medical abortions, women meet with their provider and are given post-procedure care and literature, Jones said.

Barnett’s procedure did not take long. An acquaintance went with her to the nearest Planned Parenthood in New York. She had never been to a Planned Parenthood before that, and on the way there she was anxious for it to be over.

About an hour later, Barnett walked out of the clinic, relieved. It was over.

Contested territory

Little ribbons and notes stuck to the temporary chain-link fence around Planned Parenthood, the charred parts of the building still visible through it.

The notes showed support for the Pullman health center after it was partially burned in an arson fire in September 2015. Six months later in spring 2016, the center was reopened after providing services from a blue tent for the duration of its closure.

“The community rallied around us immediately,” said Tiffany Harms, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and Northern Idaho.

Pullman has been an unlikely hot bed for the issue on more than one occasion. Representatives from both the pro-choice and anti-abortion sides held several protests over the past year.

The nearest clinic that provides abortions is in Spokane. On Oct. 21, a bus with a group from the “40 Days for Life” organization parked opposite the clinic and held a vigil while holding signs that read, “Pray to End Abortion.” The organization’s goal is to tour all 50 states. Steve Karlen, the director of the Northern American campaign, told the Spokesman-Review that they feel family values are under attack in the U.S.

Crisis pregnancy centers, or pregnancy resource centers, are non-profit organizations usually affiliated with churches which provide sexual health services but do not refer for abortions. Crisis pregnancy centers have grown rapidly in number in response to the push back from the issue. They currently outnumber abortion clinics 3 to 1 nationwide.

Although media coverage of the issue has increased the number of abortions has been decreasing. According to data from the Washington State Department of Health, 17,552 abortions were performed in 2014. The number of abortions has decreased rapidly since 1990, when 30,613 abortions were performed. Per 1,000 women of childbearing age, 6.8 women residing in Whitman county received abortions in 2014.

According to a 2008 study by the Guttmacher Institute, 1 in 3 women in their lifetime will have an abortion. That statistic could differ slightly with the dropping rates of abortion, but the updated study is not slated for release until 2017.

Campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion have grown in popularity to try to showcase the commonality of abortion and elevate the visibility of people who chose to have an abortion, according to the campaign’s website.

The fundamental differences – the view of a fetus as a human being with God-given life or the right to access healthcare in her best interest, the anti-abortion or pro-choice side – have been at the core of the issue’s divisiveness.

At the last protest in Pullman a year ago, Main Street drew a literal line between people with bright pink “I stand with Planned Parenthood” signs and those holding signs reading, “Life wins!” Meanwhile, politicians nationwide grappled over the funding of Planned Parenthood as the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ HB2 law that imposed extra restrictions on abortion clinics for its violation of “undue burden” from the Casey vs. Planned Parenthood case law.

Sue Barnett has seen the news. She has watched the election coverage and heard the candidate’s stances on abortion. She has listened to family members that don’t know about her abortion refer to women that have them as irresponsible. She has seen the portrayals of women like her, and the guilt-wracked narrative bothers her.

“People seem to love this image of this woman who is consumed with guilt afterwards,” Barnett said, “and I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience but that wasn’t the case for me and I’m sure, for a lot of people, that isn’t the case. We really are perfectly healthy, happy people afterwards.”

“Life affirming”

Michelle Ellinwood brushes her neat blond hair back from her face. She pauses before explaining in a thick southern accent the choice she made as a 19-year-old. She was pregnant. She came from an abusive background and was scared she would not have the necessary support to raise a child.

When she found that support system through her budding faith, she kept the child. She now has five children. Before she moved to Idaho, she worked as a teacher for 14 years and was a youth leader at her church for more than 15 years. In July 2015 she became the CEO of the Palouse Care Network in Moscow.

Her office and the building are immaculately kept. Every chair, pamphlet and bright painting neat is perfectly placed. The medical exam rooms and conference rooms are spread throughout the back, and a room filled with small children’s clothing and toys is situated just outside one of the larger rooms where classes are held.

In the ultrasound exam room, a poster uses stick figures to illustrate that when someone has sex with one person, they are really having sex with many people based on how many people that person has had sex with.

Little pamphlets are neatly arranged along the walls detailing what to do if you are pregnant and scared and how to be a good parent, among other things.

Ellinwood runs the Palouse Care Network and its medical sector Wish Medical. She said that while they don’t call themselves a pregnancy help center (or crisis pregnancy center), that is the image the community has of their organization.

“We don’t try to provide every service that a person would need here, but we work with a network all over this community to provide counseling services that are not cost-prohibitive for people,” Ellinwood said. “Same with medical services, for adoption services. If they have a background in faith and they want to be connected with the faith community, we refer them out. We have a large referral network for whatever the needs are.”

The organization does not refer for abortion services. A disclaimer for it is listed on the bottom of the website.

Ellinwood said about 220 of their more than 1,000 yearly patients come in seeking pregnancy services. She said their free services appeal to college students and those in the community who may not have money for traditional healthcare.

Local businesses, churches and individuals fund the organization. It is supervised by a board that includes one medical doctor to provide oversight to the medical care provided; the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an institution that helps monitor “life-affirming pregnancy help centers,” according to its website; and a national financial firm to track spending.

On the website, it lists an eight-question quiz under services that includes questions like, “I find that I am repeating the same mistakes in my life,” “I have lost things I used to love since having the abortion” and “I can’t tell I use alcohol, drugs or prescription medications once per week or more.” The page is titled “Is abortion affecting my life,” with the office email and phone listed at the bottom.

Ellinwood said that through their abortion recovery class, they learn about how women have been hurt by abortion.

“We want every woman to know that they have the support and the resources available if that’s what they choose so that they don’t feel trapped into making a decision they regret,” Ellinwood said. “Because then we meet so many women who live with guilt and shame and hurt and pain after that.”

The afterwards

Adrenaline pumps through Barnett’s veins as she climbs challenging rock formations in the wild mountains of Maine. She now leads groups on rock climbing expeditions there, chasing the thrill and sheer vastness of nature.

When Barnett is not working as an EMT, she spends her time hiking and climbing. She is still a licensed veterinarian, but has not practiced in two years. Instead, she traded her scrubs for climbing gear.

She continues to call herself lucky. Lucky to have access to the care she needed and the means to get it and lucky to make the decision for herself.

“It had all the impact in the world in that I think my life would have been very, very different if I hadn’t done it,” Barnett said. “I do think it would have totally derailed the plans that I had. So the fact that I was able to continue on with my life in the way I wanted it to go, without the massive change that having a child would have been, is huge. That to me is huge. I was able to continue on the path I wanted to be on.”

Her family still does not know, though she said she ventured to guess they may know because of her strong stance on abortion. She has several conservative and religious family members and said she has never felt the need to tell them.

Barnett is not timid. She has lived in several states since college and now climbs and assists her community as an EMT. She chose to tell her story because she wants people to know that abortion was the right choice for her.

“We aren’t all broken,” Barnett said. “We aren’t all destroyed. We’re perfectly capable of making a decision, of accepting the consequences, of living with the consequences and I think, in a lot of cases, really living well.”