Planned Parenthood’s 2014 Volunteer of the Year: Bonnie Riehl

Bonnie Riehl: Planned Parenthood Volunteer of the Year My name is Bonnie and I had an abortion. I have never put that in print, so at sixty-one I guess it is about time. I was a nineteen-year-old MU student when I got pregnant—the first time I had sex. I was terrified. It was 1974, and abortion was still illegal in the great state of Missouri.  The only Planned Parenthood that I knew of was open one day a week. I had never gone there, because I would have been ashamed even to be seen getting contraception. I went to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, and I still remember being so scared that when I went to pee, I forgot to do it in the cup. They told me the only place I could get an abortion was in New York.  This entailed getting on a plane for the first time, navigating my way through the airport and the city, and taking my first taxi to the abortion clinic. I thought I would be dead before I even got there, which at the time didn’t feel like such a bad thing. I was completely—what is a word for beyond terrified? The methods were crude, the facilities questionable, and the future consequences uncertain. The clinic staff were professional, but very stern and not at all comforting.  After a heavy gauge six-inch needle was injected into my belly, I sat alone in a little room for fourteen hours of contractions and bleeding with a bell to ring when it was all over. I had never even had a Pap smear before, so the whole experience was an extreme and defining trauma. I was alone in New York for two days before returning to school to pretend like nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. My boyfriend watched football and played poker with his friends during my absence.

Fast-forward eighteen-and-a-half years. All three of my kids were in school, and it was time to pay it back. I always knew that I wanted to try to someday ensure that at least a few women would have a drastically different experience from mine. I’ve been volunteering with Planned Parenthood since. My job is to talk to abortion patients. What I hear from them is always the same and always different.

“I feel bad . . .

Because I am being selfish.”

Because I want to finish my education.”

Because I’m not ready to be a parent.”

Because I already have two kids and can’t pay the bills.”

Because my boyfriend hits me and would hurt a child.”

Because my parents would be so mad at me.”

Because I know God doesn’t want me to do this.”

“No one knows about this  . . .

Because my boyfriend would hit me.”

Because my parents would kill me.”

Because my friends would never forgive me.”

Because I was taught that abortion is murder.”

“I know this is a stupid question, but . . .

How did I get pregnant on the pill?”

Is there a contraception I can use that my boyfriend won’t know about?”

Can I get pregnant while I am on my period?”

Will my husband be able to tell I had an abortion?”

What if I say I had a miscarriage?”

These women are shell-shocked and barraged by the overwhelming amount of cultural and personal attacks they have psychologically suffered before they even walk through our doors. I ask them to articulate their lives and situations to me, and what I hear, for the most part, are thoughtful, measured, and mature decisions. But the many voices in their heads say otherwise.  We have been conditioned, as women, to believe that making a decision on behalf of our own well-being is “selfish.” At Planned Parenthood, we try to combat the stigmas associated with women’s health and to create an experience of empowerment for the patients in several different ways.

First, I keep my mouth closed and listen. Every woman has a story and a profound need to share it. Many of these woman have few or no other nurturing outlets for their deepest fears, and it never fails to amaze me how incredibly healing it is for a patient to release that weight onto another pair of ears that are understanding and nonjudgmental.

Second, I help them realize that they are far from alone. One in four women will have an abortion during their childbearing years. Next time you are in the store, or at a concert, or even with your own family, see how many times you can count to four among the women around you. There are so many of us, yet there are support groups for almost everything except this. 

My third and equally vital goal is education. It is essential that they have accurate knowledge of how to take care of themselves afterward and how to make informed choices about their future use of contraception. It is extremely helpful that women can now find lots of information about abortion on the internet. The accessibility of the web, however, also means that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation, along with outright propaganda and even misleading referrals to fake abortion clinics. I am afraid that my uncensored thoughts on these places is unprintable, but I will try to articulate a PG version!

It goes without saying that these so called “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” prey on the vulnerable and distraught by abusing the power of emotion over intellect.  They present themselves as abortion clinics to lure desperate, pregnant women through their doors where they use methods of guilt, blame, and fear to convince these women not to get an abortion. The information they disperse is biased, distorted, and incorrect; their methods would be considered malpractice in a legitimate medical setting. Their purpose is to advance their own social, political, and religious agendas, rather than to assist the needs of their customers.  I have talked with a number of women over the years who were traumatized by their experiences at these facilities. A woman will never truly forget what has been put into her head there.

Another group actively trying to undermine the efforts of Planned Parenthood are the protesters, which are unfortunately a regular occurrence.  Most municipalities now have safety ordinances that require these people to maintain a certain distance from the entrance.  At our clinic, that means they cluster at the entrance to the driveway. Several of their techniques include displaying bloody, graphic, and exaggerated photos, handing out propagandistic literature, and yelling hurtful messages into megaphones. A couple of weeks ago, a young man yelled to me when I got out of my car and asked how I could live with myself as a serial killer. I once witnessed a woman trying to throw “holy water ” onto incoming patients.  A few years ago, a protester threw bleach on staff members, and we used to have bullet holes in our windows. Death threats are not uncommon. In other clinics, staff members have been hurt by firebombs and acid.  Some doctors have been shot and killed, including George Tiller, who was killed in his church in Wichita.

Sadly, this is a time when the battle to limit and ultimately eliminate a woman’s right to make her own choices still rages on.  In the current political climate, the social and religious conservatives are gaining ground, especially within the various state legislatures. It is now absolutely necessary for Republican politicians to take a strong anti-choice position to run for office. Most anti-choice organizations honestly believe that every child and every pregnancy is a direct gift from God.  This belief lingers from centuries ago, when the survival of the tribe depended on the number of warriors that it could propagate, and the virility of a male was increased by the number of children he produced from the wives he owned. This ideology, like so many religious beliefs, has not been updated to fit modern times and knowledge.  It defies logic and reason at the expense of women.  In the end, it is all a matter of personal choice. We choose what we believe. We choose compassion or judgment. We choose knowledge or fear. We choose our legacy, and we choose our life.