You’re pregnant and you don’t want to be. You know you want an abortion, and the clock is ticking — the longer you stay pregnant, the more expensive the procedure becomes and the less likely it will be that you can obtain an abortion in the state where you live, if at all. You go to the doctor, confirm your pregnancy, and then you’re told that no, you can’t get an abortion today. You have to wait, and it’s going to be a while.
R, a teacher in New York City, was around nine weeks pregnant when she learned that the fetus she was carrying wasn’t viable. She wanted to discontinue the pregnancy as soon as possible, but was told that she needed to wait a week.
“The reason was ‘just to make sure’ and ‘most women like to have a week to come to terms with it,’” she said. When she consulted other OB-GYNs, they confirmed there was in fact no medical reason for the wait, but it was “common practice” to both advise and enforce it.
“It was pretty horrible,” R said. “Once I knew the pregnancy wasn’t viable, I wanted to end it immediately, and to be told that wasn’t an option — that I had to wait a week because it ‘usually’ takes women that long to come to terms with the news — was unbelievably frustrating. I was already in a position where I was feeling a loss of control regarding my body, and then to be told that I couldn’t even make my own decision about what to do next was actually the worst part of the whole experience.”
Stephanie waited three weeks between finding out that she was pregnant and getting the abortion. In Florida, if you’re under 18 and you want an abortion, your parents have to give you permission. Stephanie, who was 17 at the time of her abortion, could not involve her parents and sought to obtain judicial bypass, meaning a judge would decide if she would be allowed to make the decision to get an abortion herself.
She spent two days searching for options before she was given a pro bono lawyer, and together, they collected evidence to prove that she couldn’t tell her parents about her need for an abortion and that she could make her own choices about her health care. In that time, she also got an ultrasound, kept working so she could afford the cost of the abortion, petitioned for a court date and was able to have the procedure done.
“I knew that I wanted to get an abortion from the moment I found out I was pregnant,” she said. ” The waiting period I endured while withstanding these barriers placed due to my age was a state-sanctioned constitutional barrier.”
Several U.S. states require abortion seekers to wait between 24 and 72 hours before they can obtain an abortion. (If you live in one of these states, and you’re under 18, you’re not only facing the waiting period, but the obstacle of judicial bypass.) You might also be in need of the funds, not just for the procedure, but to get to the clinic, pay for child care and stay somewhere while you endure the waiting period.
Kelsea works for an abortion provider in North Carolina. In 2016, when she found out she was pregnant, she immediately knew she wanted an abortion. She also knew she would have to wait to get it because North Carolina mandates a 72-hour waiting period.
“It was insulting and confusing,” said Kelsea of her waiting period experience. “It was cruel. I spent three days being pregnant when I didn’t want to be. I was being punished by the state for my birth control failing.”
If you live in a state with a waiting period, you will also have to listen to a provider deliver a state-mandated script, which includes information about every possible risk (even if they’re not actually risks) you might incur when you get an abortion. Because of her proximity to providers, Kelsea said she’s heard this script “hundreds of times,” and it’s unbelievably stressful for the patient.
“They’re not hearing that these things are so unlikely, they’re just hearing “death” and “hysterectomy,” she said. (A reminder here that abortion is safe, normal and common, and the false medical claims that providers are forced to read in these scripts are based in abortion stigma.)
In North Carolina, the script can be read over the phone, but you still have to wait the 72 hours before you can actually obtain the abortion. Seventy-two hours can mean the difference between first and second trimester, and abortion in North Carolina is illegal after 20 weeks, so after waiting, people sometimes end up needing to travel out of state to obtain abortion care, increasing expenses and for many, making the procedure completely impossible to get.
Kelsea is optimistic, though, that the future for waiting periods is bleak. A 2011 survey of people seeking abortion in Texas concluded that the waiting period resulted in emotional and financial burdens, and in 2015, a Florida judge ruled that the state’s 24-hour mandatory waiting period was unconstitutional.
“The tide is changing. People are realizing that it’s inhumane to ask people to wait for legal health care,” she said. “We are moving towards restoring justice.”