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One Teen’s Abortion--a Marathon of Waiting

Today marks the return of Robin Abcarian. Her column will appear Wednesdays and Sundays in View

Those of us who are pro-choice were thrilled that our new President kept his word. Bill Clinton promised to rescind the rule prohibiting abortion counseling in federally funded clinics, to lift the ban on the French abortion pill, to allow the resumption of fetal tissue research. And he has.

But I doubt much is going to change for the low-income Californian who chooses to end her pregnancy. For her, obtaining an abortion is--and always has been--like navigating a maze.

Last fall, I helped a teen-age friend obtain an abortion. The experience was unsettling for me, having just had a baby myself, but it was very nearly a disaster for her. What the last two Presidents failed to do for the anti-abortion camp, the tedious requirements of an overburdened bureaucracy almost accomplished.

My friend had called to congratulate me on the birth of my daughter, and at the end of the conversation, blurted out that she was pregnant. Though she made a halfhearted reference to giving the baby up for adoption, it was soon clear she wanted to end the pregnancy. At 18, car-less and working for minimum wage, she had neither the money nor the savvy to make arrangements herself. Her parents oppose abortion; so do the friends with whom she lived. I think that’s why she called me.

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I drove her to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Santa Monica. She took a pregnancy test, and then we waited. We waited and waited. After a couple of hours, she was counseled about her options and referred to a Medi-Cal office and a clinic. We sighed with relief that this thing was almost over.

But it wasn’t. It was just beginning, the first step in a marathon of waiting.

We waited all over town--outside the Medi-Cal office, inside the Medi-Cal office, at the Social Security office, at two different clinics on four different days. Had she not had me to ferry her around, she would have had to wait for buses.

Time is money: Waiting is the price you pay when you don’t have any cash.

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And time was running out. My friend was already about 18 weeks pregnant when she called me. The procedure would be more complicated and more costly--thousands of dollars instead of hundreds--than one performed in the first trimester.

This progressive state still foots the bill for abortion for its poor and will issue emergency Medi-Cal stickers in two days to anyone who qualifies. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Lacking a driver’s license for identification, my friend was told to gather her birth certificate, Social Security card and pay stub. It took about two weeks to obtain the birth certificate.

Armed with all that, we rose before dawn one morning and drove to the Medi-Cal office on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. Arrive early, we were warned, or you’ll wait all day. At 6:45 a.m., as the raggedy line grew, a chipper county cop came out and delivered a spiel that was half stand-up, half intimidation. He told us where to stand before the doors opened and where to sit once they did. If we smoked in the building, we would be arrested. If we stood in the wrong line in an attempt to get to a window faster, we would be thrown out. If he caught us sitting in the chairs reserved for filling out forms instead of the chairs reserved for waiting, we would be shot. “Ha, ha, folks,” he said. “That’s a joke.” No one laughed.

That’s the other thing about being poor: You get patronized a lot.

As it turned out, my friend’s little pile of documents were not sufficient identification for her caseworker, who decided she should produce yet another pay stub. (Documents are easy to counterfeit; Medi-Cal fraud is rampant.) And something seemed funny about her Social Security number, too. She’d have to go to the Social Security office in Marina del Rey to have that confirmed, too.

Two more weeks passed before we were able to pick up her emergency Medi-Cal stickers. Only then was she allowed to make an appointment at a clinic in the Crenshaw area. A few days later, we went to the clinic at the appointed time . . . and waited. Hours passed. She was examined, then sent to a second clinic in the Mid-Wilshire area where we waited again.

“Pretend you’re a woman with three children and you have to take the bus everywhere,” said a Sacramento Planned Parenthood executive. “Would you go through all that?”

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The procedure would consume three days--two days to dilate her cervix, and on the third day, the abortion. By then, she was about 23 weeks pregnant.

Never have I felt such ambivalence about a woman exercising her legal right. When I was 23 weeks pregnant, my baby was a palpable presence; her kicks filled me with joy and awe. It was sad and sickening that my friend’s efforts to terminate her pregnancy had dragged out for so long. I blame my friend; I blame the system.

What the state gives with one hand, it nearly takes away with the other. But such is your lot when you are poor.

Sure, you still have the right to an abortion. But, oh, you will pay for it.


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