reproductive freedom

At 16, My Mom Flew to Japan Alone to Have an Abortion

Photo: Francesco Sambati / EyeEm/Getty Images

In 1966, my mother flew from Seattle to Japan, alone, to have an abortion. She was 16. It’s strange, as a daughter, to wish you could protect your mom from something that happened so many years ago. But as aggressive rollbacks on women’s health care ensue, with Trump reinstating the Global Gag Rule and nominating a judge to the Supreme Court who could pose a severe risk to women’s reproductive rights, her experience no longer seems so far-fetched. My mother’s abortion was a footnote in an otherwise expansive and fulfilled life — a life, of course, enabled by her decision. This is her story in her own words.

When [my period was] two weeks late, I went to the doctor because my cycle was usually like clockwork. I knew right away that I was pregnant, within six weeks. I bypassed our family doctor and went to another GP. She was the only female doctor in town [Everett, Washington, about an hour from Seattle]. I thought because she was a woman that she’d be able to relate to me, but instead she confirmed the pregnancy and said, “Whatever you do, don’t get an abortion.” At that time, abortion wasn’t legally available where I lived. So my boyfriend and I — thinking there was no alternative — thought we had no choice but to have the baby.

When I told my sister what the doctor had said, she told me there was another option. She presented the possibility of abortion. Deciding was not a struggle. It was a relief. I was 16 and I wanted to go to college. I was in no way prepared to have a baby. Most girls I knew who got pregnant left high school; the teachers didn’t encourage them to stay. There were other things that I had in my mind for my life. Perhaps with a lot of investigation we could have found somewhere safe and legal closer to home, but Japan was an immediate option. It was easy to arrange and far more discreet an option than asking around as my pregnancy progressed.

My sister called my brother who was at Dartmouth at the time and had heard of a travel agency that managed [planning trips to Japan for abortions] in Seattle. [Editor’s note: Abortion in the early months of pregnancy wasn’t legalized in Washington State until 1970; “One Seattle travel agency specialized in arranging trips to Japan, where, for $1,000, a woman could obtain a safe, legal abortion, in a four-day stay that included one day for sightseeing.”]

She got a hold of someone at the agency and told them, “I need to help my sister get a trip to Japan.” They knew what she meant and they gave her the name of the doctor and a planned itinerary. My sister, bless her heart, looked up the physician and his credentials and found he was U.S.-trained but now lived in Japan.

My brother’s university had an emergency fund for students. Through his dean, he was able to get $600. I had $400 in savings and my boyfriend chipped in, too. [Editor’s note: Adjusted for inflation, the total cost of this trip would be $7,407.62 today.] I told my parents I was going to Seattle to help my sister babysit the kids — she’s older — for several days. My sister drove me to the airport, gave me all my travel documents, and told me what to do once I arrived. A year before, I had lived in Europe. So I knew how to travel, go through customs; I had a passport and understood foreign bus and metro systems. I was accustomed to being surrounded by people who spoke a different language. It never bothered me that I did this all alone — I had no choice. To be honest, I was actually pretty fearless.

When I arrived in Japan, I had an address to give the taxi driver. It wasn’t a dirty, back-alley-type place, but a typical doctor’s office in somebody’s basement. Just a nurse and the doctor were there. They started with a vaginal wash and scrubbed me out with something that really burned. It really burned. And then they put me out. In retrospect, I assume I had a typical D&C. [When I woke up,] I had severe cramping. Like I was in labor. I remember screaming, “It hurts, it hurts!” The doctor told me, “Shut up in there!” [Laughs.] In those days, doctors didn’t necessarily have the best bed-side manners. Maybe he was doing an abortion on somebody else and didn’t want her to be scared. But it all went so smoothly and was so swift. Before I left, they gave me a number to call should I have pain or bleeding or severe cramping and told me to see my primary physician one week later. The doctor gave me this package full of Japanese treats and tea as a thank-you to my family physician — whom he assumed referred me to him.

The next day, I did indeed have that one day for sightseeing. I walked around Ginza. I wasn’t dazed. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel alone. I’ve never felt remorse. I felt strong for who I was. I felt grateful that I was able to do this and I could go home and didn’t have to share [the experience] with my parents. Although I discovered recently, after talking to my sister, that our family doctor had told my parents. They just never mentioned that to me. Still, nobody ever made me feel like I had done something wrong.

From day one, I never regretted having an abortion. Nowadays the argument is “You’re killing a child.” I still don’t think that. Even to this day, after teaching ethics as a nursing professor, looking at it morally and ethically, I believe that it’s a woman’s right [to decide]. From a moral perspective, abortion’s not as black and white as everyone would like it to be. What’s the woman’s background? What are her financial means? How far along is she? Is the pregnancy putting her life at risk? There are so many variables, and every woman has a right to privacy and a right to decide what happens to her body.

I had a privileged abortion, but many women lose their lives. For the Trump administration to try to refuse federal funding for millions of women — we need access to birth control, people to talk to about STDs, and the right to safe, legal abortions.

We all kept things so quiet before Roe v. Wade. Had there been Planned Parenthood or sex education in high schools (or even earlier) my pregnancy could have been avoided. Education, and options, could have saved the lives of women who otherwise had to resort to illegal, unsafe procedures. I fear this country is backtracking to the pre–Roe v. Wade era, yes — by eliminating more and more reproductive-health resources. But millions of women are paying attention to this and fighting back. That gives me hope.

At 16, My Mom Flew to Japan Alone to Have an Abortion