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Her body, her choice? More Latinas are getting abortions. One young woman shares her story.

Cold is what Coral Lopez remembers about the Planned Parenthood clinic where she had her first abortion in 1996. Not the care, but the temperature, and it made the South Central L.A. resident feel unsettled. At 17, Coral was the youngest in the waiting room. She was surprised to see an older Latina there.


Coral didn't know then that Latinas have long accounted for a disproportionate share of women who get abortions. Of the 1.29 million in the United States who had an abortion in 2002, 20 percent were Latinas.

Making the Decision

Weeks earlier, in late 1996, Coral had been like many students at L.A.'s Locke High School, waiting to graduate and hear about college applications. Recounting that time from her current job as operations manager at Natural Home Cleaning Professionals--a Latina immigrant cooperative in Oakland, California--Coral, now 26, says she used state waivers to apply to several colleges. But she had also wanted to stay close to home, where she could continue helping her mother, a housekeeper, by baby-sitting her younger sister, the only member of their family born in the U.S.

Coral, a pretty woman with olive-tan skin dotted with small moles and full plum lips, was dating a man seven years her senior. At the time, she considered it a serious relationship. Her mother, a Catholic, had never discussed sex with her. So Coral learned what she did know about sex and pregnancy in large part from sex education classes in school.

"The idea is that nothing is 100 percent sure," she explains. Nothing, that is, except abstinence, which didn't interest her. "When you're that young," she adds, "you want to experience everything. You don't want to have boundaries."

One of those boundaries--condoms--was a contraceptive method that Coral and her boyfriend had used frequently but not consistently, Though she feared pregnancy, once they had sex without consequence on one occasion, it was much easier to take the risk again. And again. "As women we're taught to want to please men. We want to be the best lovers as we can," Coral explains. "We don't want to interrupt [with a condom]".

She knew she was pregnant before she missed her period. A pregnancy test confirmed her intuition. Tears fill her almond-shaped eyes as she recounts the moment when she found out. "I knew that could've been a possibility, but I didn't want it to be me," Coral says, her quick and confident voice suddenly breaking. "You can have your decision but you don't want to make it."

The prospect of having a child was familiar because of other teen mothers in her neighborhood. But the idea of abortion was an unknown. Without much knowledge about the procedure, "it was hella scary," she says.

As the clinic nurse outlined her options--prenatal care or an abortion--Coral remembers being filled with shame. After her alcoholic father left the family earlier that year, they had relied on food stamps. "I'm going to become a welfare mother," she thought at the time. It was an alternative that Coral, who used to wash clothes in the bathtub when her family couldn't afford coins for the laundry, dreaded.

Although her boyfriend was willing for her to have the child, Coral was adamant. "We're not having it," she told him. Over the next few days, Coral revealed her secret to a girlfriend, who commiserated with her, but no one else. She describes the time as surreal: going to class and moving ahead with her plans for college as if nothing had changed.

Coral wanted to defer motherhood in part because she took it seriously. "At 17, I was worried about child care, where to live, how to buy clothing for the baby, diapers," she says. "I would see the pressure on the mothers around me." Even with greater means, Coral would not have made a different choice. "It's difficult to take that task of motherhood; it's something very serious, that requires more than diapers and milk."

Her reasoning then and years later challenges the simplified notions of pro-choice versus pro-life: "A lot of times people say that women who have abortions have selfish reasons," Coral says. "No--it was an act of love."

With no religious conviction, and a belief that abortion was "okay" because of the women's movement, Coral felt free to seek an abortion at 17. She continued with school and her relationship as it had been before. During the next few weeks, she tried to use the birth control pills supplied by Planned Parenthood, but the side effects--from nausea to intense fatigue--were awful.

Between visits to the clinic to try different brands of pills, she found herself pregnant again three months after her abortion. This time, feelings of guilt emerged. "This time I decided to continue with the pregnancy," she notes. "It was like, you made your bed, now lie in it."

This time, Coral told her mother about the pregnancy. Her mother cried but was supportive. Having been accepted to UCLA, Coral was determined to go to school and have the baby. But within a few weeks, she started spotting. At the doctor's office, she learned her fetus was dead.

"When I had the first pregnancy, the first abortion, I didn't allow myself to get emotionally attached to the idea of a child," Coral said. But her mother had already bought baby clothes and she had thought of possible names for the child. "There [was] a mourning process."

The Cost of Silences

On one side, Coral's work office is filled with vacuum cleaners, pails and garbage cans, and on the other side, signs of Coral's personal life: a postcard bearing Frieda Kahlo's image; a photo of Coral hugging a friend; the words "Que Viva La Mujer" floating across her computer screen. The items visually illustrate Coral's evolution from a naive teenager to the more mature and politically conscious woman she has become--but not before experiencing more trials.

After her miscarriage at 18, Coral got pregnant again and miscarried again--all within the same year as her first unplanned pregnancy. A combination of poor sex education, problematic birth control options and denial led to that outcome. She never imagined she could have so many accidental pregnancies, she recalls. Birth control continued to be a challenge as she tried everything from suppositories to spermicides.

Looking back, Coral recognizes a connection between her silence about her first unplanned pregnancy, the abortion, and her subsequent pregnancies. "When we're not allowed to speak about it, when we're not allowed to express ourselves, it's so easy to pretend that it didn't happen," she observes.

By this time, she was in college hoping to work someday as a doctor or lawyer. Although she did not have many professional role models, she knew she wanted to help people. But her education, including classes in women's and Chicano studies, changed her direction and her life. Coral's education helped her to see links between her gender, her ethnicity, her family's history and her unplanned pregnancies. She recognized herself as "part of a long history of feeling like only [by] being with a man can you be valued, of dysfunctional families resulting in you looking for love--desperately looking for love with someone outside, which is what I was doing at 17."

That consciousness not only clarified her experience but gave her the wisdom and strength to cope with a fourth pregnancy with the same boyfriend. Over the course of their long-term relationship, Coral had experimented with several methods of birth control. She had been using Depo Provera, which caused her to bleed every day and was transitioning off, when she conceived.

Because she was in her fourth year of college and believed that she would get a good job, the decision to abort was not clear-cut. Though her boyfriend, who had continued to work as a tutor while Coral was in school, wanted the child, she concluded that she did not want him to be the father. As a feminist and now a Chicano studies major, Coral had outgrown her older lover. "He didn't have a sense of race politics and I'm very political," Coral explains. "I can't allow my child to have a father who can be homophobic."

Despite his promise to help, even at night when the baby would be crying, she felt that the sacrifice would be primarily hers to bear. That reality, in combination with the fear of her future child being influenced by her boyfriend's ignorance, led to the decision to abort in April 2001. Two months later, the couple broke up.

Coral's second abortion was strikingly different. The first time, her boyfriend had paid for the procedure at a Planned Parenthood clinic. This time, she paid for it at a private doctor's office. "It seemed very personal, very catered to make me feel comfortable," she recalls. "It was warm. It was very respectful."

Again, she kept the decision to herself until about a year ago when her 11 year old sister started failing math. Her mother and brother were concerned but Coral was particularly upset. She argued that, unlike a man, a young woman doesn't have as many options if she drops out of school. When her mother retorted "you turned out fine," Coral told them the truth. She shared the details of each pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion to make sure that her younger sister stuck to her studies and didn't fall into the same traps she had.

"We have to be very open about talking to my sister about menstruation and about sexuality and what it means to have sex and everything," Coral insists, "because I don't want her to go through [what I did]."

Coral, a former peer counselor at ACCESS, an Oakland-based nonprofit support service for women struggling with unplanned pregnancies, felt strongly about being open about her experiences. "When we're open about it, we feel like we're not the only ones that have survived that," she explains. "It's empowering to know that you're not the only one."

Her desire to help and empower women was fulfilled at Natural Home, where the women in the cooperative earn above the minimum wage while learning to use eco-friendly products. As a manager, Coral runs the daily operations and connects non-English-speaking owners to clients. The work is something she loves and makes her feel she is making a difference.

A coworker interrupts, entering the office with a baby and carrier. "Preciosa," Coral said to the wide-eyed infant temporarily stationed on the floor. The children of her co-workers are primary motivations for her work, she notes, because it helps the women and their families gain economic self-sufficiency.

As for Coral, who has been in a relationship with a woman for several years, the issue of motherhood is still a question mark. "I want to know what it feels like to have a child," she says. But there are obstacles: college loans to repay and a family to help support. (At press time, Coral and her wife had decided to return to Los Angeles to help provide for her mother, sister and brother.)

As a still-young woman with a mission to help others, Coral explains why she has concluded that her two abortions "saved" her life. "I became the first person in my family to graduate high school, the first person to graduate from college," she says. "It saved my life because I have freedom."

Ziba Kashef writes frequently about women and health issues.
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Author:Kashef, Ziba
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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