The week before Monica Bielanko found out she was pregnant, she changed diapers at the Orem retirement home where she worked every day after high school let out. By then it was summertime. Her stint with the incontinent seniors and the still heat of July had her doubled over, dry heaving and nauseous.
One morning she called in sick, drove the white Hyundai she bought on nursing-home wages to the grocery store for a take-home pregnancy test, phoned her boyfriend and went home. Her mother, back from the graveyard shift at the state mental hospital, dozed to the murmur of the television set in her bedroom. Bielanko was in the bathroom across the hall.
Her boyfriend, who played high-school football, paced outside the door hard enough, she thought, to wake her mother. She placed the white plastic stick on the sink as it flooded with her urine and then bloomed with a pink cross'the result was positive.
For a few moments afterward, Bielanko couldn’t hear anything'the dripping faucet, her boyfriend’s footsteps and the TV sitcom in the next room gave way to the blood that flushed her ears and forehead. She tied up the test in a grocery bag, opened the bathroom door and ran out of the house, gripping her boyfriend by his T-shirt in her other hand.
Once in the car, she told her boyfriend. He cried and pounded the dashboard until it blew an air bag. A month earlier, he had prodded her on her mother’s couch.
She had kept her underwear on'they called it “dry humpingâ€'but it was enough to send them to the Mormon bishop in guilt afterward. It was also enough now, for this. Condoms and birth control were unthinkable'an admission that they were sexually active. Her boyfriend was preparing for his upcoming LDS mission and Bielanko, 17, remembered the phrase repeated weekly throughout her adolescence, at seminary and Sunday school: “Your body is a temple.
In that moment, she saw her future split in two: She could give birth and stay in Orem, or she could have an abortion and eventually make her way out.
She contacted a Salt Lake City clinic. The receptionist told her about Utah’s parental-notification law for minors and then sighed before giving Bielanko the phone number of a clinic in Grand Junction, Colo., where she could go in secret.
Bielanko knew she couldn’t tell her mother, though her mother might have understood. Bielanko scheduled her appointment for three weeks before school started. Her boyfriend offered her his company on the ride, and $90. She would cover the other $210 in cash. When they arrived in Grand Junction, the receptionist raised her eyebrows and told them that their parents had been calling the clinic all day, begging for Bielanko to phone home before she went through with it. Bielanko’s friend had told. But she didn’t call home. Instead, she gave her boyfriend the car keys and asked him to buy a soda and magazine and come back later.
When the doctor switched on the nitrous, Bielanko screamed with laughter. “I’m getting an abortion and I’m laughing,” she told the doctor. “But I’m already going to hell so I guess it doesn’t matter.
Back in Orem, her boyfriend’s father bought the two of them ice cream cones. They sat on a grassy hill. “Come clean with it,” her boyfriend’s father said. They did, and he began negotiating their last year of high school. Her boyfriend remained in Orem to try for a football scholarship. Bielanko moved to Boise to be with her cousins.
Eleven years after her experience with abortion, Bielanko, who now works for a major television news network in New York City, began a blog titled The Girl Who. A series of vignettes, daily entries and photos, the blog, at TheGirlWho.SquareSpace.com, which Bielanko is rewriting into a book, is as sassy as it is somber. Bielanko contemplates masturbation, her sex life with her rocker husband and her adolescence in the shadow of what she calls the “evil empireâ€'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the “chapters” page, she details the most disquieting and uproarious episodes of her life. “No Sex Before Marriage,” a meticulously retold account of her abortion, was meant in part for her Orem community'to “shove it down their throats,” she says. Retelling her story was a way to reject the shame she felt was imposed on her after her abortion.
Shortly after the post, Bielanko’s blog was linked to the Website ExMormon.org. The hits skyrocketed. Then the e-mails started. Bielanko received dozens of messages from young women in Utah who had gotten pregnant in high school and did exactly as she had. Bypassing Utah’s parental notification laws, they “ran to the border,” as Bielanko said'heading for Las Vegas or Grand Junction to terminate the pregnancies that could derail their entire lives. Many of the women who contacted Bielanko were high-school acquaintances and friends. For years, she thought she was the only one.
Bielanko’s story is remarkable, not because it’s a “f'king after-school special,” as she once pegged it, but because it affords a peek into what it means to get an abortion if you’re a Utah minor'an experience, as Bielanko found out, that isn’t so rare.
Utah’s teen pregnancy rate is extremely low'45th nationally with 5,660 cases a year. Seventy-three percent of these pregnancies end in birth, 16 percent in miscarriage, while 11 percent are aborted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
While the Utah Department of Health reports the number of abortions for minors in 2004 as close to 160, abortion statistics are typically difficult to track and often underestimated. The Nevada Department of Health reported that 10 Utah minors received abortions there in 2003. Eastward across state lines, Colorado reported eight Utah minors had abortions there during the same year. But the dozens of replies to Bielanko’s online posting suggests that these out-of-state abortions are also underreported.
Bielanko’s ultimate decision, to get an abortion in Colorado rather than submit to Utah’s 30-year-old parental notification law, could become a common choice for pregnant Utah teens if the Utah Legislature opts to tighten abortion regulations for minors this legislative session.
House Bill 85, sponsored by Rep. Kerry Gibson, a Republican and Ogden dairy farmer, would take parental involvement one step further by mandating that at least one parent consent to the abortion 24 hours before it would take place. The bill would also create a court procedure known as the “judicial bypass,” in which a young woman could appeal to get the abortion without consent, if the judge ruled it in her best interest.
Parental notification and consent laws are relatively common in the United States. Twenty-one states require consent and 13 require notification. As of now, Utah is the only state that requires parental notification but doesn’t have a judicial bypass option, according to the Guttmacher Institute. As the law stands, parental notification is inescapable, moving teenagers like Bielanko to seek secret abortions over the Utah border. The consent bill’s saving grace'the judicial bypass option'might be a reprieve for teens who want the procedure without the permission. But it is unlikely that Utah’s courts would be so generous, leaving many young women in a bind where parents’ decisions make or break their daughters’ futures.
The rationale behind the consent bill is to bring the decision-making process back to the family, in Gibson’s words. But, as Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Utah sees it, those decisions rarely happen outside the family'the old notification law, even without judicial bypass, was adequate in her eyes. Madhuri Shah, the abortion provider at the Utah Women’s Center, said that 95 percent of the minors she sees come with a parent. Galloway chalks the new bill up to election-year politics. “There are those on our Legislature who feel that it is important to make everyone take a vote on abortion, so they can find out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” she said.
Gibson sees formalizing consent as a way to quell the “panic reaction” that makes teens rush to the abortion clinic. Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah chapter of the Eagle Forum, a pro-life organization that credits itself with dismantling abortion rights the United States over, said that consent makes sense. After all, if a young woman can’t get her ears pierced without parental permission, why should she be able to get an abortion?
Abortion is a more vexing procedure than ear piercing, but it’s precisely because abortion is different, because the decision to have a child inevitably changes the course of any woman’s life, that it should be treated as such. Women of every age know this. “We don’t [go through with abortion] so we can sit in our prom dresses,” said Galloway.
Ironically, parental notification and consent laws may bump abortion decisions outside of the family, rather than keep them inside the family circle, as Gibson hopes. Alternately, from the viewpoint of pro-choice advocates, the danger remains that permission for an abortion can still, of course, be denied. If the new bill passes, Galloway envisions parents who might support their daughter’s decision to have an abortion but for religious or personal reasons still can’t bring themselves to sign the document granting permission.
The daughter is left to her own devices'give birth, or go through with it anyway'which might mean hopping state lines, getting an illegal, or “back alley” abortion or even doing it herself. Dr. William Adams, an abortion provider at the Mountain View Women’s Clinic in Salt Lake City said that pills inducing a spontaneous miscarriage are available at low cost in Mexico and likely over the Internet. But without a doctor to administer them, a woman is in danger of under- or overdosing. Adams saw his fair share of botched abortions at his residency at George Washington University a few years before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure. A European had capitalized on the underground abortion market in D.C. and every night the hospital admitted at least one woman sick with sepsis. Adams would treat the infections and complete the abortions, but sometimes it was too late.
At worst, parental involvement laws can lead to violence or death. Circumventing consent and notification laws, a young woman’s boyfriend recently beat her stomach with a miniature baseball bat to help her abort in Michigan. He subsequently faced felony charges. In Texas, a 19-year-old stepped on his 17-year-old girlfriend’s stomach to induce abortion and was sentenced to life in prison according to an article in Ms. magazine’s fall 2005 issue titled “Red Alert in a Blue State.”
Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to rule in a case relevant to Utah’s own notification law. New Hampshire’s abortion law states that a minor’s parent must be notified 48 hours before she receives an abortion. She could only avoid notification if her life, not just her health, was in danger. A lower court found the law unconstitutional. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously agreed not to fix the law, which they said might limit abortion access for ill minors, but encouraged the lower court to reconsider whether the entire New Hampshire law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s refusal to rule on the New Hampshire case sends a message to state legislatures like Utah’s that clamping down on abortion access for minors, even for ill minors, isn’t out of the question.
Utah has one of the lowest abortion rates in the United States. Only 6 percent of pregnancies in Utah end in abortion'evidence, Galloway says, that people here stick to their values. Nationally, 21 percent of pregnancies are aborted. And abortion rates, at least legal abortion rates, are on the decline in Utah. In the 1980s, Utah saw around 4,000 abortions a year. Today the number is closer to 3,500, despite the fact that the number of females ages 15 to 44 has increased by more than 200,000.
Pro-choicers square the dwindling numbers with Utah’s restrictive legislation, while pro-lifers say that today women are choosing birth over abortion. In truth, access to abortion in Utah has become more difficult to find. One Utah law mandates that a woman contemplating abortion must undergo state-directed counseling at least 24 hours before the procedure. Since Utah’s three advertised abortion clinics are in Salt Lake City, a woman who travels from outside the valley might not be able to afford a two-day trip into the city. Abortions typically cost around $425, and Utah law prohibits the use of public funding for abortion, except in the case of rape, incest or life endangerment.
While many of Utah’s laws mimic national trends to limit abortions, Utah differs from many states in its psychological approach to the procedure. The Fetal Pain Bill, HB222, introduced by Rep. Paul Ray this legislative session, requires physicians to tell women that fetuses feel pain during second trimester abortions, which is scientifically unproven. Women are offered optional anesthesia for the fetus, but its administration could be potentially dangerous for the woman. If enacted, the bill would seemingly guilt-trip women out of abortions'or, as Ruzicka would say, convince women that they are carrying “babies,” not “fetuses.” Each woman who attends the state-mandated informed-consent class is offered a video and a booklet produced by the Utah Department of Health that detail fetal development, abortion procedures and adoption services. The movie indicates the state’s preference for birth and adoption over abortion'and then downplays any relief a woman might feel after an abortion'a feeling, the film says, that usually gives way to depression or anxiety. Still shots of the blossoming fetus are featured in the booklet with information about when it can potentially survive outside of the womb.
Fetal rights and personhood, the kind of morality that Ruzicka calls on, is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Abortion went virtually unregulated until the mid-19th century, when middle-class or affluent Protestant women decided to have small families in urban settings. Abortion clinics were common'some historians say that as many as 20 percent of pregnancies were aborted at the time.
Anti-abortion sentiment didn’t sweep America until physicians in the newly founded American Medical Association criminalized abortion providers in an effort to distance themselves from holistic community healers whose work they considered unsafe and amateur. Doctors, plus nervous nationalists who said that abortion threatened whites as much as the blooming immigrant population did, eventually pushed lawmakers to outlaw abortion altogether. The major arguments against abortion focused on women’s health and safety. The pro-life argument that abortion kills, or “stops a beating heart,” was nascent.
Dr. Shah’s clinic is picketed weekly by Salt Lake City’s most aggressive pro-lifers, a small group that once shattered her window with a rock. “To perform this service, you feel like a criminal, not a doctor,” she said. “People look at you like you are some sort of an infectious disease.” But Shah has put in her own time picketing, marching on Washington with her friends who held “Utah for Choice” and “Mormons for Choice” signs. Shah’s clinic, which once hosted a natural-birthing center and an adoption agency upstairs from the abortion office, is the only one in Utah that provides second-trimester abortions. The complication rate at the Utah Women’s Center is extremely low. In fact, the risk of death associated with childbirth is 11 times higher than that with abortion. Dr. Shah offers a few different surgical procedures depending on the stage of pregnancy, plus the medical option, a series of pills developed to induce a miscarriage over a day’s time. Shah administers 700 medical abortions a year. Utah ranks sixth or seventh nationwide for medical abortions, perhaps because the process is less invasive, less like surgery, she said.
Shah sees the fallout firsthand from Utah’s legal and cultural message about sexuality and abortion. The 12-year-old girls who come into her office carry parental notification notes from mothers and fathers who have never talked to them about sex. One girl told Dr. Shah that her mother said she’d never get pregnant if she kept her legs crossed'she kept them crossed as she had unprotected sex. Another girl said her mother told her not to take off her pantyhose'she didn’t take them off, just rolled them down to her knees.
As the Utah legislature stiffens abortion laws, abstinence-only sex education perpetuates the myths about sexuality that could lead a girl to think her pulled-down stockings are enough to keep a pregnancy at bay. Rep. David Litvak, D-Salt Lake City, said, “What’s most glaring to me is what is not being discussed when it comes to issues of abortion. We as a state do a very inadequate job of talking to our youth about sex.” The Legislature’s strategy, tough on abortions, soft on sex ed, is brought to its knees in every one of the 5,660 teen pregnancies in Utah each year.
Bielanko knows this well enough. Her blog documents the near-silent exchange kicked up between her and her old Orem boyfriend every time they talked before sex.
“â€˜Shouldn’t we buy condoms?’
“â€˜No! We’re not going to have sex.’
“â€˜I know, but just in case.’
“â€˜We’re not. We should go tell our bishops what’s been happening. We need to pray.’”