It’s no secret why frightened looking girls walk into the social worker’s office on the second floor of the Student Health Center at UC Berkeley.
And while I sat there, vaguely nauseous and needing to pee (for the third time that hour) I avoided eye contact with the students walking by. After all, Nice Jewish Girls don’t get knocked up freshman year of college.
The social worker had a warm smile and a firm handshake. She was short and petite with close-cropped curly hair and kind eyes. She reminded me of my mom, and I tried not to let that bother me.
“So,” she said once we were seated across from each other. “You’re pregnant.”
“These things happen,” she said, “and it’s my job to make sure that you have all the resources you can to make your decision.”
“I’ve already made my decision.”
“And?” she asked, her face as neutral as the beige walls. On her wide wooden desk, she had one of those small water garden fountain thingies, and the sound of trickling water rattled the stillness between our sentences. Not very Zen. I had read somewhere that the sound of flowing water is supposed to make people feel calm in the face of chaos, but it just made my bladder spasm instead.
“I’m not ready to have a baby.”
“Have you spoken with the father?”
“Any reason not to?”
(Aside from the fact that I wasn’t really sure who the father was…) “No. There’s just no reason to involve him. Why mess him his finals schedule, you know?” I could feel my smile, shaky and lopsided, slide off my face.
“Ok. Well, we’re here to support any decision you make,” she said, reaching for a stack of brochures to her right on the desk. “Here is a list of outside doctors you can contact,” she added as I took the pamphlet. “Do you have SHIPP insurance?” she asked, referring to the student health insurance plan that most students opt into when they enroll each semester.
“Good. That that will cover some of the cost, but you will need to come up with around $250.”
“It’s actually quite reasonable,” she said when she saw my baleful expression.
I had no idea what the going rate was, but $250 seemed like a staggering figure.
Immediately after my parents and I had unloaded all of my boxes into my dorm room on the August afternoon I had moved to Berkeley, the three of us had walked down to the Campus Credit Union office where they opened a checking account for me. On the first of every month, I would race down to the mail room, eagerly awaiting the long thin envelope addressed to me in my mom’s loopy script. I’d ignore the long letter and the pictures of the garden or the cats that she’d always include, and gleefully stuff the check for $100 into my back pocket as I skipped along Durant Avenue to the Campus Credit Union.
My parents figured since I was on a flex meal plan, and my housing arrangements were already taken care of, that $100 a month would be more than enough for extra expenses like a good book or a dinner at Thai House.
“And you might even save some money!” my mom had said with a hopeful smile.
But with my penchant for a little light body modification, the occasional dime bag, vanilla cigarettes, and way-too-expensive lattes at Wall Berlin, I barely had enough extra cash to cover the month.
At that moment, I had a grand total of $12.97 to tide me over until December 1st.
And I knew asking my parents for money would break their hearts.
“Hypothetically speaking, what if someone doesn’t have enough money?” I asked.
The social worker looked at me, her eyes alighting on the silver Jewish star necklace I was wearing.
“Are you Jewish?”
I nodded. My face flushed, and I looked down at my shaking hands. I taught Hebrew school at my synagogue. I received the Rabbi’s Scholarship for Outstanding Work in the Jewish Community. I kept kosher. And I was 19 and pregnant.
“Ok that’s good, because there is a philanthropic Jewish women’s group that offers a scholarship of $250 to help cover costs. Would you be interested in that sort of thing?”
I wondered if I would have to write an essay or give them my SAT scores or show them my Bat Mitzvah certificate.
“How would I qualify?”
“By being pregnant, and by not wanting to be pregnant. And by being Jewish,” she replied. “Look, I’ll contact the president of the organization, and I can have a check made out to you by the end of the week. Sound good?”
It sounded great. And not because I had found a way to finance my abortion. But because for the first time since I found out I was pregnant, I realized that I wasn’t the first–nor would I be the last–knocked up Nice Jewish Girl.
Look. I know that some of you will not agree with my decision. In fact, some of you will be sickened by it. But I did what many other 19-year-old girls would do: I chose to stay in school. I chose to teach Hebrew on Sundays and Wednesdays. I chose parties at Hillel and ZBT and dating and weekends with friends. And I chose not to bring an unwanted child into the world. And there are a thousand different reasons why I do not regret my decision to have an abortion freshman year, and I am grateful that I was able to make that choice in a safe way.
And I am grateful that my body healed quickly, and my heart… eventually.
And I am grateful that there were other Jewish women out there who understand that when you’re young and scared, you need help.