Editor’s note • The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, clearing the way for Utah’s abortion trigger law to go into effect. Read more here.
In Kayla Villamor’s family, Roe v. Wade was celebrated as a “monumental” move for bodily autonomy and a “huge step for women’s rights.”
“It was an assumed for me that I made it past that part of women’s rights,” the 29-year-old said, “that I was lucky enough to be born after that.”
So reading headlines in recent weeks, about states passing more abortion restrictions and the news that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, has been “traumatizing,” she said.
Villamor has had two abortions. She’s one of four Utah women who recently shared their abortion stories with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Jenny Smith, 45, of Spanish Fork, said she’s “incredulous. I’m angry, and I’m very worried,” about the potential for abortion access to soon change in Utah.
“I’m worried about living in a country where my life is less important than ... the potential life — not even the life — but the possibility of a person,” she said.
Kelly Tschilar, 51, who lives in Salt Lake City, said, “It’s infuriating. It makes me so angry that here we are in 2022, and we’re arguing something that should clearly be settled.”
She added, “Nobody takes it lightly. ... It’s a heavy decision,” and “you can’t pass a law ... that could possibly encompass every different situation.”
Neena Earl, 35, of Orem, said she feels “like we’re going back in time.” She’s worried about a possible “domino effect.”
“If this can get overturned and overruled, then what’s next?” Earl asked.
Abortion is “not just killing kids because you were out being a harlot,” Villamor said. “I wish that was what people took out of their heads. … Nobody wants this. Nobody wants this to be their story.”
“People have strong feelings,” she added, “and I just wish that they could just take a step back and think about why somebody would have to go through with the procedure.”
Here are their stories.
Life and death
Lying in her hospital bed, 20 weeks pregnant, Jenny Smith tried to negotiate with her doctor.
“Put me on life support if you have to,” Smith remembers telling him 22 years ago. “Keep me alive long enough to save my baby.”
That’s when the doctor told her, “I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m saying. It’s not you or the baby. It’s you and the baby.”
If they didn’t end her pregnancy within the next 12 to 24 hours, “I was going to die,” said Smith.
Smith has had high-risk pregnancies, due to a blood clotting disorder and lupus, she said. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. After getting pregnant again, all seemed to be going well — until she felt a “terrible pain” around 19 and a half weeks.
At first, doctors thought the pain might be from heartburn or her gallbladder. After testing in the emergency room, “a doctor came in and said, ‘The best case scenario is that you have hepatitis.’”
“I went, ‘I’m sorry, that’s the good option?’” Smith said.
Finally, doctors determined Smith had a severe variant of preeclampsia called HELLP syndrome.
“My blood pressure was going through the roof,” she said. “My liver was enlarged and in danger of rupturing. My platelets dropped, and I wasn’t clotting.”
That’s when doctors told her, “We have to end your pregnancy.” Even though Smith understood the gravity of the situation, “I don’t think people really realize,” she said, “what it’s like … to make a decision to say, ‘I value my life, and I value my existence, and I don’t want to die.’”
Smith hoped for a D&E procedure, a dilation and extraction, because she “didn’t want to be awake” for her abortion. But her doctors told her it would be better for her body if she went through labor and delivered the baby. So, that’s what she did.
“Looking back at it,” Smith said, “it’s really easy for me to say, ‘Well, I didn’t really have any choice.’ … My situation was very clear cut. I was absolutely going to die.”
But then Smith thinks about her other pregnancies. After her abortion, she had another miscarriage. Later, she gave birth to two children and had “really severe postpartum depression” after both deliveries. “I look at that, and I think, ‘I could not do that again,’” Smith said.
Smith and her husband have discussed what they would do if she accidentally becomes pregnant in the future. Her husband has had a vasectomy, “which is great,” she said, “but nothing is ever 100%.” Smith also can’t use hormonal birth control because of her history with blood clots, or an IUD because she had an endometrial ablation.
“But technically, I am still a fertile woman,” Smith said. “And were I to get pregnant again, the odds are very high that I would die.”
She added, “I don’t want to die. I have kids. I have a husband. I have a life.” At the same time, “I don’t feel like I should be deprived of a healthy, fulfilling relationship with my husband because I can’t use birth control.”
Some state laws, including Utah’s trigger law, would allow exceptions for abortions for the life and health of the pregnant woman. Smith wonders, though, “What constitutes the health of the mother? Are we talking about just her physical body? What about her emotional health?”
Smith said, “That’s the thing. It’s so clear cut on the other side,” for people who think abortion is wrong. “But what happens when you get into these gray areas?”
Smith used to be “very strongly anti-abortion,” she said. “I saw everything as black and white.” But after having an abortion herself, “I had this realization that I didn’t know every woman’s circumstances.”
“Women are not stupid,” Smith said. “Women know what’s right for their bodies and what’s right for them. ... We don’t make spur-of-the-moment decisions about things like our health.”
‘You are not a bad person’
Kayla Villamor went to Build-A-Bear Workshop shortly after her first abortion.
“It was a really weird, visceral thing that I just wanted something to cuddle into for a couple of days,” said Villamor, who grew up in West Jordan. (She later moved to Salt Lake City and is now traveling around the country.)
Villamor was 21 at the time. She was “working at some really crappy diner, and life was not great,” she said. “I was drinking a lot.” She was also “wrapped up into a relationship” with an older, married man.
“I remember calling him up,” Villamor said, “to let him know, ‘Hey, it’s me. … I’m pregnant, but I’ve made the decision that I’m going to have a procedure, and I’m going to get this taken care of. And I was wondering if you wanted to help cover the cost.’”
“I will never, ever forget,” Villamor said, “that he immediately went, ‘Well, do you want to go halfsies?’” She realized, “Oh my God, this guy thinks it’s like a sandwich, and we’re splitting. … It was so awful.”
After waiting the required 72 hours in Utah before getting an abortion, Villamor went to Planned Parenthood.
“You feel guilty,” she said, “like … I was so irresponsible and now this is happening. … But what is the alternative? I’m going to traumatize this small person, is the alternative. And I don’t want that, either.”
Villamor said, “You just hold the nurse’s hand, and you’re just really grateful that someone’s there, willing to give you the help that you need without judgment.”
She remembers another another girl there, who was “crying so hard.” Villamor listened as the nurses comforted her and told her, “You are not a bad person.”
It bothers Villamor that “someone has to be reminded of that,” she said, “when we don’t do a really great job [in Utah] of educating men or women about sex, consent, pregnancy, our bodies, puberty. ... In schools, your health teacher doesn’t say, ‘And girls, if you can’t talk to your parents about getting birth control, you can go down to Planned Parenthood and they won’t call your parent.’”
When Villamor had her second abortion in 2015, she had been using “the pull-out method” with a long-term partner who didn’t want to have children.
“I remember going in [to Planned Parenthood] and having the exact same nurse,” she said. “And there’s no greater shame than having to look at the same person and say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t learn my lesson from one of the most intense decisions you’ve ever got to make.’”
Before she left, Villamor got an IUD. Now, she said, “I try and talk about it with every young girl that I come across about how important it is to be on your body.”
“I wish people knew the damage that a surprise pregnancy can do,” Villamor said. “My whole family is built on them, and nobody was ready to be a parent. And we all struggled for so much longer than we had to struggle with basic things.”
Villmaor feels lucky, she said, that she didn’t “have that difficult a time” getting an abortion. She could tell her family and friends, without having “to worry about getting shunned in my community or my church or whether I had to come up with the money for it.”
“I have empathy for those who are religious ... or even those who just have beliefs [about abortion] that aren’t based on religion,” Villamor said. But at the end of the day, she said, “I was born in a country that told me that I have the right to life, liberty and … the pursuit of happiness.”
‘Depths of hell’
Neena Earl has had eight pregnancies: one stillbirth, four miscarriages, two healthy boys and one abortion.
In 2019, when she was about 11 weeks pregnant, Earl went to see her maternal-fetal medicine doctor. She and her husband were excited to bring their sons along so they could see the baby on the ultrasound for the first time.
The mood shifted, though, when the doctor told them, “I have some concerns.”
The ultrasound showed that there was a sac filled with fluid on the baby’s neck. That usually indicates some sort of abnormality or genetic defect, Earl learned.
The family was quickly shuffled over to a genetic counselor, who went over a list of possibilities. It was overwhelming, trying to focus on her boys and their needs, while taking in all this information, Earl said. After getting some genetic testing done, Earl learned her baby had Trisomy 13.
Trisomy 13 involves a combination of birth defects, such as “severe learning problems and health problems that affect nearly every organ in the body,” according to Stanford Children’s Health. Most infants don’t live long after birth or past the first year, Earl said.
For the next week, Earl and her husband were in the “depths of hell,” she said, trying to figure out what to do, running through every scenario they could think of. Ultimately, they decided to terminate.
Before they did, Earl’s doctor submitted her case to a medical ethics board, made up of health care professionals, who “gave us permission to terminate the pregnancy at any point in my pregnancy.”
“So, if I did decide to move forward with my pregnancy and then at like 30 weeks, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said, then “I actually had permission to terminate at that point, as well.”
Earl decided, though, to have a D&C, dilation and curettage, before she hit 13 weeks. Lying in a dark recovery room afterward, Earl woke up crying. She didn’t regret her abortion, she said. She just couldn’t stop the “what ifs” from swirling in her head.
That’s when a nurse came over and assured her, “You did the right thing.”
Thinking back, Earl said, it doesn’t matter what that nurse’s personal opinions actually were. In that moment, she showed Earl kindness in a tough situation.
After her abortion, Earl said she went to therapy to work on her trauma. She also started telling people her story, she said, to show people a face of who has an abortion, rather than the “villain” they paint in their head.
“I need people to know that it’s people like me,” she said. “I’m your next-door neighbor. I’m your friend. I’m the mom at pick-up.”
About a year after her abortion, Earl’s mother received an anonymous, handwritten note in the mail. At the top, the sender quoted Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The letter read:
“It’s easy to remember your sadness and angst when your daughter was having a troubled and frightening pregnancy!! Your joy when you became a grandmother! Do you really favor abortion on demand?? A friend.”
At first, Earl said, she was kind of shocked and laughed when her mom told her. “Then I became angry,” she said, that someone who knew her mom took the time to write this, “shaming her for supporting me.”
Not ready for a child
Kelly Tschilar was “barely 18″ when she found out she was pregnant. She had been using birth control while dating her boyfriend — who she eventually learned had lied about his age not only to her, but his employer, and was actually 16.
“Even if he was 18, I still would have made the same choice,” said Tschilar.
Today, she has three children. But when she was in pregnant in 1988, Tschilar said, she “was not anywhere near financially, emotionally ready for a child.”
So, Tschilar went to a clinic near where she was living in Arizona. There weren’t any signs out front indicating abortions were performed there. Still, the protesters were waiting when Tschilar arrived early one morning.
“They were screaming terrible things at me and calling me names,” she said.
More than 30 years later, Tschilar can still see the posters they shoved in her face, showing doll parts in some kind of soup or ketchup “so they looked bloody,” she said.
“One woman ... held up this picture and she said, ‘This is what an 8-week-old baby looks like,” Tschilar said. “... ‘How old is your baby?’”
Thankfully, a nurse came out of the clinic, she said, “hooked her arm through mine and guided me in as quickly as she could.”
Once inside, Tschilar joined the other 10 or so women who came for abortions that day. They started with a “counseling session,” which lasted a few hours, where “they explained to us what the procedure was going to be like” and “had us all go around and talk about our situations and why we were choosing to terminate.”
Most vividly, Tschilar remembers a woman there who had recently had a stillbirth.
“A couple of months later, she got pregnant again, and she just couldn’t handle it,” Tschilar said. “She was not ready. She wasn’t healed.”
“Heartbroken” and “defeated,” this woman “had to sit there and tell her story in front of” strangers. Thinking back on it now, Tschilar thinks that was “cruel.”
One by one, the women were taken for the procedure before “we all sat in the recovery room together,” Tschilar said. The clinic staff then proceeded to give “us lectures about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and made sure we all had birth control prescriptions.”
“Basically,” she said, they “treated us like children.”
Before then, Tschilar said, she doesn’t remember many people around her talking about abortion. “But then when I found myself sharing that I had an unplanned pregnancy,” she said, “then I had all these women” tell her their own abortion stories.
“That’s something a lot of people don’t realize, is just how common it is,” she said. “How many women from many different situations, for many different reasons … find ourselves in a situation where we have to choose whether or not we want to continue a pregnancy.”
Some women may think, “Oh, I would never do that,” Tschilar said. “But you don’t know until you’re there.”
“It never crossed my mind,” she said, “until I was in the situation, and I thought, ‘OK, well, here I am. Now what do I do?’”
Tschilar said, “As far as I’m concerned — and I even said this straight to my husband’s face, and he agrees — it is nobody’s decision but mine.”
“I can discuss it with my partner,” or doctor or clergy, she said. “I can go to whoever I want to for advice. But in the end, the responsibility is mine. And I’m the one who needs to decide.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.