A 23-year-old from Arizona learned she was pregnant shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. She ordered abortion pills online and had self-managed abortion (GettOleg Rebrik​)
A 23-year-old from Arizona learned she was pregnant shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. She ordered abortion pills online and had self-managed abortion (Getty/Oleg Rebrik)

A 23-Year-Old Had an Abortion in Secret After Roe. Here’s What It Was Like.

In post-Roe United States, countless people are about to become everyday experts in evading the law to get abortions.

The 23-year-old had planned to spend the Fourth of July weekend with her sister. They were going to hike and swim in a local lake. They wanted to watch the fireworks together.

Instead, the woman spent it holed up inside a hotel with her ex-boyfriend, binge-watching TV and having an abortion.

The irony of celebrating independence wasn’t lost on the woman, whom VICE News is calling “J.” due to her concerns about privacy. Days earlier, the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, erasing her constitutional right to abortion. In the state of Arizona, where J. lives, she could no longer get a legal abortion in a clinic—so she took pills, bought online, to induce it herself.

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“This feels like the most independent thing that I could do for myself right now,” J. said, just hours after taking a pill to start her abortion. She still had several pills and hours to go before it would be over. “If I had chosen not to go through with this and put myself through all of these very dramatic situations, I would never be independent again. My life would never be mine, and the thought of that is more terrifying than anything I’m doing right now.”

J. describes what happened to her as a “cosmic joke.” But swirling within that pithy term is a whole universe of danger and pain: Over the course of 11 days, J. navigated a gauntlet of hurdles—financial, emotional, and medical—to ultimately undergo a self-managed abortion in secret. Over those hectic days, J. figured out how to obtain abortion pills, concealed her plans from her conservative Christian parents, and encountered providers who perhaps skirted the law to help her. Several times, just as J. thought she’d figured out how to surmount an obstacle, another one would immediately arise.

In this post-Roe United States, countless people—who are likely to be disproportionately women, people of color, and poor people—are about to become everyday experts in evading the law to get abortions. And although it can be medically safe to use pills to self-manage an abortion early in pregnancy, it is far from legally safe, particularly as surveillance of pregnant people balloons alongside the U.S. carceral state. People of color, like J., are especially at risk of being targeted by law enforcement.

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J.’s determination to end her pregnancy never wavered, even after she learned that she faced an elevated risk of having an ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition where a fertilized egg has implanted in the wrong place and must be removed. As abortion bans unfurl across much of the South and Midwest, experts warn that there may be a dearth of qualified doctors who can treat ectopic pregnancies—or that they may be unwilling to, out of fear that they could be sent to prison.

“What I’m doing now would just put my body through a lot of trauma by, like, the bleeding, and I would still end up in the hospital and having to take care of it there,” J. told VICE News in the midst of her abortion. She gave a sliver of a laugh, paused, and burst into tears. “Fuck!” 

J. knows that stories like hers are about to become all too common—or maybe they already are. In the two weeks since Roe fell, how many other people have already gotten crash courses in securing post-Roe abortions?

“It makes me feel like a really shitty statistic,” J. said. “It’s not like I wanted this. I didn’t want to have an abortion at a fucking Hampton Inn.” 

“It’s not like I wanted this. I didn’t want to have an abortion at a fucking Hampton Inn.”

The overturn of Roe plunged abortion in Arizona into chaos. Like other Republican-controlled states, Arizona has passed so many abortion restrictions in an effort to undermine Roe that, after abortion opponents finally demolished it, no one could quite agree which restriction was in effect. 

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Earlier this year, Arizona passed a law to ban almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, modeled after the Mississippi abortion ban at the heart of the case that overturned Roe. At the time, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said that, if Roe were overturned, the 15-week ban would take effect. Then, after the Supreme Court destroyed Roe, Attorney General Mark Brnovich put out a press release acknowledging that the 15-week ban was set to take effect in 90 days—but the State Senate announced that, actually, a near-total abortion ban that dated back to Arizona’s territorial days was now in effect. Under that law, it is illegal to perform an abortion on a pregnant woman “unless it is necessary to save her life.”

Amid the confusion, abortion providers in Arizona have stopped performing the procedure. Then, last week, Brnovich confirmed that the near-total ban, not the 15-week ban, is enforceable. 

J., who planned to spend the summer living with her parents to save money, said she had only just moved to Arizona when the Supreme Court overturned Roe. She hadn’t yet realized that her period was late—until the day after the ruling, when she suddenly started to feel incredibly ill.

“I ended up throwing up all over my dad’s car. I was like, ‘This is not a good sign,’” she said, with a slight laugh.

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She took a pregnancy test. Sure enough, two little pink links appeared on the test’s display. 

“It didn’t register until like an hour after. I was in the shower for probably 45 minutes just sitting there because I couldn’t process anything,” said J., who provided photos and records to back up her account. “And then I was just holding this pregnancy test, staring at it in disbelief. In absolute disbelief.”

J. never wanted kids of her own. Instead, she thinks of herself as more of the “super-dope aunt” type. She definitely fits some Cool Aunt stereotypes: She reads voraciously, laughs easily, and although she doesn’t believe in astrology, she thinks that “the stars have some things to say.” J. wants to curate creative visions for small businesses–“my friends always joke that I am not settled unless everything is aesthetically pleasing,” she said–or maybe become a sex ed teacher. After taking some time off from college, J. is planning on going back to school in September. 

Her relationship with her parents has long been strained; when she was in high school, they found out that she had a girlfriend and home-schooled her for a year “as their form of conversion therapy,” she said. Not only did she believe they’d never support her getting an abortion, but J. also immediately worried they’d disown her if they ever found out she’d had one. 

J. likes neat lists and plans. So, the day after she realized she was pregnant, she made one: The next morning, she said, she sat in bed and diligently called a list of groups she thought could help her, including abortion clinics and a local abortion fund. After each call, she’d slash through another name in red ink.

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“It was so discouraging,” she said. “Every single time, just crossing those names off and crossing those clinics off, was so heartbreaking. And then I had to pump myself back up to be like, ‘Okay, this next phone call, maybe they will!’ And then again, to be met with, like, ‘No, sorry. You’re on your own. Figure it out.’”

One organization on J.’s list turned out to be a crisis pregnancy center, one of thousands of anti-abortion facilities that aim to convince people to continue their pregnancies. Abortion rights supporters have accused many crisis pregnancy centers of masquerading as abortion clinics in order to get vulnerable people in the door; they’re often located near clinics and have names like “Women’s Center” or “Birth Choice.” 

J. knew what crisis pregnancy centers were, but she was still surprised to encounter one in the wild. She said that the center tried to convince her to visit in person, to talk through her “options” and hear the “heartbeat” of her embryo. (At the time she discovered she was pregnant, J. estimated she was about five weeks along. The embryo does not have a developed heart at that point in pregnancy.)

“It made me feel pity for them, more than anything for myself,” J. said. “Pity for them that they feel the right to change somebody’s mind whenever they’re obviously in a crisis situation, and pity that you have the ability to have judgment over somebody’s choices like that. I cannot imagine having those conversations day in and day out and still thinking that I’m doing the right thing.”

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Eventually, J. called a hotline for help. J. said that the woman on the other end of the call told her, “I’m not supposed to say this, but your best option is ordering online.” So that’s what J. did. 

Medical experts widely agree that people who are in their first trimester of pregnancy and want to induce an abortion with pills can do so safely without the direction of a medical provider. The multi-pill process is simple enough, although it takes time: About 24 hours after taking a dose of the drug mifepristone, people can take doses of the drug misoprostol.

Just like pretty much everything else on the planet, these drugs can be bought online.

Aid Access, a service launched by a Dutch doctor committed to providing abortions in hostile countries, is likely the premier purveyor of abortion pills to the United States. Their wares tend to cost about $110, although the group also offers a sliding scale. However, Aid Access warns that shipping could take one to three weeks. 

J. didn’t want to wait that long. An unwanted pregnancy can be a kind of body horror: It’s a reminder, lodged in your own torso, that the body you’re trapped in is growing more and more out of control with each passing day. Soon, it could take your whole life with it.

“I don’t think I could sit for two weeks and just wait and just have this thing grow inside,” J. said. “Because it would feel too real and I would be so scared of getting caught. And I know if I were to get caught, it would be like emotional waterboarding from my parents.”

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Using a website called Plan C, which explains how Americans can obtain abortion pills, she found pills that could arrive within a few days. With shipping, they cost $289. She only had about $400 in savings, J. said, but her ex-boyfriend agreed to help pay for the abortion. (At the end of 2021, the Federal Reserve found that only 68 percent of Americans said that they could cover a $400 emergency using cash or something similar—an all-time high.) 

The pair settled on a plan. They’d get the pills shipped to J.’s ex, who lives in a state where abortion isn’t banned, since J. couldn’t shake the fear that her parents would find the pills in the mail. Then, the ex would fly to Arizona and meet up with J., who would tell her parents she was visiting a friend. They would then go stay at a hotel to carry out the abortion.

“I don’t think I could sit for two weeks and just wait and just have this thing grow inside.”

The Supreme Court overturned Roe on Friday. J. discovered she was pregnant on Saturday. By Monday, her ex-boyfriend had ordered the pills. The pair expected the pills to arrive by Thursday.

Except, then, they didn’t.

Somewhere between the post office and the delivery truck, the pills vanished. For several hours, J. and her ex-boyfriend frantically tried to figure out what had happened. J. had prepared a plan B (somehow getting an appointment at a California abortion clinic) and a plan C (flying to her ex’s home state and getting an abortion there), but both options seemed so far out of reach.

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As J. and her ex hesitated, unsure about what to try next, the ex convinced her to go to a health center to confirm how far along she was. Maybe, J. thought, it would give her some modicum of solace.

But after running a few tests—including an ultrasound, which J. said cost $180—J. said the providers at the health center gave her news that shattered her: There was a strong chance the pregnancy was ectopic. No self-managed abortion could fix that.

The providers gave her the number of a hotline to call if anything went wrong during her abortion, said J., who said she has no health insurance. They also gave her a warning.

“‘We are in this very weird middle ground, so if we give you any advice or if we tell you to do something, that could put you and us at risk. So we need you to call this anonymous hotline. Do not call us,’” J. recalled them saying. “The one place that I’m supposed to be able to go and have questions answered, my health concerns answered—they are telling me, ‘Do not call us because legally it puts us in a bind.’”

“I don’t think people understand the scope of what this really did,” J. told VICE News of the decision overturning Roe. “I can’t even have questions answered because legally, it could get me or them in trouble?” She started to cry, quietly. “Sorry.”

Given the chaos around abortion in Arizona, even that bare minimum of advice could land the providers who helped J. in legal jeopardy. That century-old law that bans abortion in Arizona also forbids “procuring” an abortion. Providers aren’t sure what “procuring” is supposed to mean; after Roe fell, two Arizona doctors who perform abortions told VICE News that they felt they couldn’t even give patients advice on where to get an abortion out of state. 

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Self-managed abortion has long lived within a legal grey area. Before Roe’s fall, it was not typically a crime to perform your own abortion—but experts warned that if a prosecutor is interested in pursuing charges, they’ll find a statute that’s elastic enough to file them. Since 2000, more than 60 people have been criminalized for either self-managing their own abortion or helping someone else do it, according to If/When/How, which has a legal defense fund devoted to protecting people facing criminalization for self-managed abortions. 

Abortion bans also tend to focus on punishing providers, while anti-abortion activists insist that they’re only interested in targeting people who offer abortions, not those who seek them. But now that Roe is gone and the confusion over what’s legal and what’s not in abortion only seems to rise by the day, there’s no guarantee pregnant people won’t find themselves in law enforcement’s crosshairs.

“I can’t even have questions answered because legally, it could get me or them in trouble?”

Eventually, J.’s ex-boyfriend figured out that the pills had been mistakenly delivered to a neighbor. She said they rushed to buy him a flight, which cost $710, and book a hotel room, for $392. 

J. broke open the foil packet of pills and, at the hotel on Sunday, took the first one: a tan and tasteless wafer of mifepristone. She washed it down with water.

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Twenty-four hours later, she tucked four small white tablets of misoprostol under her tongue. As they dissolved, they congealed into a paste that tasted disgusting. Afterward, J. felt wildly nauseous.

At the beginning of her 11-day quest to get an abortion, J. had imagined that she would have zero feelings about her decision. As soon as she realized she was pregnant, she knew exactly what she wanted. It was the exhausting, scary process of figuring out how to get the abortion that, initially, sparked the most emotion. 

If Roe hadn’t been overturned, J. would have preferred to get a surgical abortion.

“I would want to go somewhere and talk to somebody and have them walk me through the process of what it would be like for my body,” J. said, two days after she learned she was pregnant. “It just doesn’t seem like that’s an option right now, and that’s really scary. But it feels like everybody is against me, saying, ‘Well, you got yourself into this, so you better figure out how you’re going to fix it or live with the consequences.’”

“I feel like my body is being used as a punishment.”

But J.’s emotions fluctuated. She attributed some of her volatility to the effects of the pills themselves; at one point, she said, she teared up watching a History Channel show about the history of candy bars. Still, there were times when she questioned her own beliefs.

“It was a little jarring, going to the bathroom and seeing the clots in the toilet and then just flushing them, like a goldfish,” she said. “I kind of had a hard time flushing the toilet. Like I had to take a moment to myself in the shower and have a little cry.”

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At times, she felt guilty. In the middle of the abortion, she wondered, “What if this is the wrong decision? What if the conservatives are right—life begins at conception?”

Later, J. laughed at herself. “Fuck that. I just simply refuse to believe that,” she said.

During her abortion, J. said she kept listening to the song “She Used To Be Mine,” from the musical Waitress. That production also deals with an unexpected pregnancy (although the titular waitress decides to continue it). “She Used To Be Mine” is one of the musical’s showstoppers, as the waitress laments that she’s lost control of her life.

“I have been blasting it because it feels like such a recognition of who I was before this and knowing I will be a completely different person after this,” J. said. “I will never be the same after this.”

For so much of J.’s life, sex had been a source of deep shame. Getting sex ed in college was a revelation because, J. said, she’d never had it before. Finally, recently, she felt like she’d gotten to a point where she could bask in the pleasure and intimacy of sex.

Now, she feels like the government is trying to humiliate her for having it.

“This kind of hardened me a little bit,” J. said. “I I think for a little while, I’m going to be really fearful of having sex, or being involved with somebody, or letting letting my relationship with another person impact my future. I think it’s made me very wary of that and very fearful, because I cannot find myself in another situation with an ex-partner in a hotel room having an abortion.”

By the Wednesday after the Fourth of July weekend, J. thought that the bulk of the abortion was over. The bleeding and cramping had largely stopped, and she was hazily confident that the pregnancy hadn’t been ectopic, since she hadn’t experienced any of the symptoms that she’d been warned about. (To be safe, she’s scheduled an ultrasound.) 

But J. agonized over her finances. She had moved in with her parents to save money ahead of her return to school, but the abortion wiped out her savings. Between flights, hotels, pills, the ultrasound, and food, J. said she and her ex-boyfriend had spent almost $1,900.

She blames conservatives for making her abortion so arduous.

“I think they are more concerned about the possibility of life than the actual life that is here on Earth,” J. said. Abortion opponents, she said, “get so distracted with gruesome and somewhat unreal details about abortions that they don’t think about the gruesome and real details about women’s lives going forward, having kids.”

Still, she had zero regrets about her choice to not have a child.

“As up and down as my emotions have been throughout it, I still know that this was not the future or the life that I want for myself,” she said. “Point blank.”

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