"An Abortion Remembered" by Terrence Halloran

The scene is a large living room in the Westwood area of Los Angeles, on a summer evening in 1993. There are two couches, a few coffee tables and about ten chairs in the room. 13 women are seated in small groups, ready for a polite but lively discussion.

ROBIN (cheerfully). 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 examine the ban on the French abortion pill, to allow the resumption of fetal tissue research. And he has.

CHILD'S VOICE (from outside the room, distant but clear). Those of us who died before taking our first breath are thankful that God keeps his word. He promises to give us love, light and peace, in measures more generous than anyone on Earth can imagine. And he does.

No one seems to hear the child's voice.

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

ROBIN. Last fall, I helped Linda 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.

LINDA. I had called to congratulate Robin on the birth of her daughter, and at the end of the conversation, blurted out that I was pregnant.

ROBIN. Though Linda made a halfhearted reference to giving the baby up for adoption, it was soon clear she wanted to end the pregnancy.

LINDA. At 18, car-less and working for minimum wage, I had neither the money nor the savvy to make arrangements myself. My parents oppose abortion; so do the friends with whom I lived. I think that's why I called Robin.

ROBIN. I drove Linda 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.

LINDA (smiling). But it wasn't. It was just beginning, the first step in a marathon of waiting.

MARY (eagerly). What a terrific person Robin must be to have spent so much of her time helping a young person who was in such dire straits. I'm sure she'll get a lot of criticism, so I'm hoping to balance it out and let her know that she is appreciated.

LEYLA (shocked). I'm appalled that Robin shrugged off the conviction of Linda's parents and took a position of authority over them. At 18, Linda is but one year away from the influence, guidance and care of her parents. Perhaps someday if Robin's daughter seeks the support of a friend over her parents, she'll know how they feel.

JOAN (confidently). Robin comes down too hard on the system, a system that does help penniless people obtain the quality services they need. For one thing, I'm sure Linda obtained an appointment at the Santa Monica Planned Parenthood Clinic within 48 hours of her request, or she may just have walked in and was seen. Because we serve walk-ins and we don't turn anyone away, patients sometimes have to wait.

ROBIN. 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.

LINDA (thankful, holding Robin's hand). Had I not had Robin to ferry me around, I would have had to wait for buses.

ROBIN. Time is money. Waiting is the price you pay when you don't have any cash.

LINDA. And time was running out. I was already about 18 weeks pregnant when I called Robin.

ROBIN. The procedure would be more complicated and more costly--thousands of dollars instead of hundreds--than one performed in the first trimester.

JENNIFER (urgently). To hear this story the day after reading an article on the sickening murder, by a physician, of a baby who survived abortion makes me wonder what repellent acts are going to be discussed next without regard to moral implications.

IRENE (not approving). Don't make it sound like a hate crime. Never equate abortion with racist beliefs or the Nazi killing of Jews. Health care providers end the lives of unborn children mainly because they're paid for their services, not because they hate their victims. The primary force behind abortion is money, not bigotry.

SANDY (puzzled). If Linda was already about 18 weeks pregnant and time was running out, was it only the cost involved that made haste so important? I doubt it. Robin, Linda and others as well must think that you're not killing a baby if you hurry and kill it before it gets too big. The moral dilemma grows along with the baby.

JOAN. Although Linda waited (and haven't we all waited in doctors' offices), she received care from trained staff and was given correct counsel, information and referrals. I know this because I've reviewed the chart. We need to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to have Medi-Cal funding for abortions in California, one of only 12 states which do this.

ROBIN. 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.

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

ROBIN (animated). 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.

LINDA. 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.

ROBIN. 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.

LINDA. That's the other thing about being poor. You get patronized a lot.

DIANE (pleading). I've been a Los Angeles County Department of Social Services employee for nearly 14 years. The last few years I've worked in the reception areas. I don't need to be yelled at because people have to wait so long for service.

LINDA. As it turned out, my little pile of documents was not sufficient identification for my caseworker, who decided that I should produce yet another pay stub.

ROBIN. Documents are easy to counterfeit; Medi-Cal fraud is rampant. And something seemed funny about her Social Security number. She'd have to go to the Social Security office in Marina Del Rey to have that confirmed, too.

DIANE. We need more staff in our department because of the continuous increase of people needing aid. I hope there will be no more layoffs because if there are, more workers and clerks will be out sick because of stress, and then service will be even slower.

JOAN. Also, as health-care costs escalate and health-care reform is here, maybe we shouldn't be too critical of the Medi-Cal bureaucracy's check on each client's need for taxpayers' funds.

LINDA (not quite agreeing). Two more weeks passed before we were able to pick up my emergency Medi-Cal stickers. Only then was I allowed to make an appointment at a clinic in the Crenshaw area.

ROBIN. A few days later, we went to the clinic at the appointed time . . . and waited. Hours passed. Linda 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. Would you go through all that?

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

ROBIN. 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.

KELLI (with hesitation). Well, welcome back, Robin. Instead of the tender piece on new motherhood I expected, I hear a diatribe against the state health-care system that made it difficult for Linda to get an abortion. Linda decided to abort at 18 weeks and finally got her abortion at 23 weeks.

JANE (surprised). If Robin was so unhappy that Linda had to go through so much red tape to obtain an abortion, and if adding five weeks to the pregnancy made the fetus more viable, and thus, harder to kill, why didn't Robin just take her paycheck and pay for the procedure? Or was she too ambivalent for that?

KELLI. If Robin had the time, energy and perseverance to help her bewildered friend through a difficult bureaucratic maze to abort a baby, couldn't she have just as easily helped her get in touch with an adoption attorney? A few short weeks in Linda's life would have brought a lifetime of joy to an infertile couple.

VRENI (speaking slowly). You've triggered memories of my involvement with a friend faced with an unwanted pregnancy. A poor mother of two, often sick, she said the expected baby was "no good" because of medication she had been taking. Her panicked husband claimed the baby wasn't his and angrily demanded drastic action. The mess left me heartsick and speechless. So I held my friend and cried with her. Then I prayed and helped her to wait on the Lord in childlike trust. A healthy baby was born, the spitting image of guess who.

Uneasy silence.

VRENI. I quit a volunteer position and spent one day a week instead with my friend and her brood. I drove them to the ocean, the museum, the zoo and my home. The "no-good baby" is now a 9-year-old charmer. Twelve years of caring for a family still poor and crisis-prone have taken their toll on me. But I don't sigh much over the system.

JENNIFER. I'm a mother of two and could never abort a child of my own. But I support the right of a woman to choose abortion as long as she does so in the first trimester, and as long as she at least considers adoption. Robin has presented a strong argument, which I doubt she intended, to restrict women's rights to abortion by the age of the fetus.

IRENE (disagreeing). Would laws against abortion be any more effective than laws against drugs, prostitution and pornography? Are war and the death penalty any less evil than killing unborn children? Is protecting new human life more important than stopping world hunger or ending the planetwide scarcity of options for women?

BARBARA (calmly). Like Robin, I'm often distressed by the red tape and waiting periods involved in many bureaucratic processes. I agree it's even worse for those who are poor. I'm more concerned about another kind of poverty, however, the poverty of the spirit that allows Robin to speak with, to use her own word, ambivalence about the termination of a life. She revealed to us that by the 23rd week of her own pregnancy, she knew that her fetus was a baby, a real life, a person.

ROBIN. When I was 23 weeks pregnant, my baby was a palpable presence; her kicks filled me with joy and awe.

BARBARA. Now let me see if I understand this--at 23 weeks in her pregnancy, Robin was calling her fetus a baby, a she, a palpable presence, kicking and bringing her great joy. But Linda at 23 weeks in her pregnancy had nothing but something worth terminating?

LINDA. It was sad and sickening that my efforts to terminate my pregnancy had dragged out for so long. Robin blames me. She blames the system.

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

JOAN. After all, Linda, who delayed seeking medical care, received what she needed and wanted: a safe, legal, second-trimester abortion fully subsidized by the state.

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

BARBARA. If Robin is so worried about the way her friend Linda was treated, let's work together to help people value each other. Let's teach Robin's baby and the next pregnant teen's baby that they were created equal whether they were wanted or not. Let's value life, that "palpable presence," that many of us find joy in. I think there would eventually be fewer lines, less red tape, fewer abortions--and I pray for all of us--less ambivalence.

All 13 women stand. Walking silently in groups of two and three, they begin to leave the room.

CHILD'S VOICE (clear, but apparently unheard). At the clinic in the mid-Wilshire area that day, I was a palpable presence. But my kicks filled my mother with fear and doubt, not joy and awe. It was sad and sickening that her efforts to end my life on Earth had dragged out for so long. Robin blames my mother. She blames the system. But what God seems to take away with one hand, he always gives with the other. We all have love, even when we are poor, and love endures forever. Sure, you can still accept or reject God's gift of eternal life, but none of us will ever have to pay for it.

The room is empty, except for the furniture and the lingering echo of the child's voice.