'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' and My Own Work at an Abortion Clinic (Guest Column)

Angal Field/Focus Features
Focus Features' 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' premiered at Sundance this year.

It's incredible how little has changed in the debate over the social issue, writes Oscar-winning documentarian Deborah Shaffer, who worked at a clinic in New York City 50 years ago.

A woman's right to choose if and when to become a mother is once again under serious attack, this time using the fig leaf of COVID-19 regulations to shut down clinics, intimidate providers and punish women. The attorney general of Texas has ruled that abortions, unless there is an immediate medical emergency, are "elective procedures" and therefore banned. Just this past weekend, the ruling was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. If the ruling stands, women in Texas who are seeking abortions will have to travel long distances out of state, risk more interactions, possible infections and undermine social distancing directives.

This brings me to the powerful new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which sent shivers down my spine when I saw it at a preview screening recently. Nearly 50 years ago, before I was a documentary filmmaker and before I was a mother, I had a similar job to one of the characters in the film, as a counselor for women seeking abortions at a clinic in New York City.

The clinic, Eastern Women's Center, was, I believe, the first legal abortion clinic in the United States. Since there were no clinics anywhere else in the U.S. at the time, girls and women arranged to fly in to New York from all over the country. They arrived at the airport in the morning, were picked up by a special shuttle van and delivered to the clinic on East 60th Street, ironically in the same building as the Copacabana Club. They had medical intake interviews, and then saw counselors like myself, who carefully interviewed each woman about her decision to have an abortion. Women of all ages were patients. As I recall, my youngest patient was 13 and my oldest was 53.

They needed abortions for myriad reasons: Some already had several kids and couldn't care for another one; many were still in high school and couldn't possibly be a mother; many were not in a stable relationship. Several cases still stand out. There was the young girl who hesitated when I asked who the father was; she whispered that it was her father. There was the young Catholic couple who didn't have penetration, but he had "ejaculated right outside her vagina" (those energetic sperm must have swum right in!). But it didn't matter why they were there; every one of them had the right to make a decision about their own body.

I remember girls from St. Louis and Texas and Kansas City and Brooklyn. Many of them had scraped the money together for the abortion — $150 at the time — on their own. And on top of that, many had to find money for airfare. Those who couldn't tell anyone at home told their parents they were going shopping in the nearest big city for the day or to visit a friend in the next town or made up some other story that would cover their absence. They were only gone for the day; the shuttle returned them to the airport in the late afternoon and they flew home. The lucky few came in with partners or parents or friends.

After arriving at the clinic and doing the intake and counseling, the procedure, a vacuum aspiration, took only about 15 minutes. Part of my job was to stay with each patient from when counseling began through the end of the procedure. As depicted in the film, I held countless women's and girls' hands as they gripped mine throughout the procedure.

All of this was two years before Roe v. Wade was passed, and abortions were legalized throughout the U.S. I was still participating in Women's Rights marches in New York and Washington. I had only been out of college for a year, and the birth control pill had only been widely available to young unmarried women for a few years. Unmarried women had had little access to decent reproductive care before the '70s. When I was a freshman in college, I remember an older classmate throwing herself down the stairs and drinking a bottle of vodka in a hot bathtub to try and induce an abortion. Women had so few options for abortions then, and they were either dangerous or expensive, or both. Many women died from self-induced coat hanger abortions or at the hands of quack doctors.

What is incredible to me now, nearly 50 years after that counseling job, which was perhaps my first real adult employment, is how little has changed. What I learned there is that women of every demographic seek abortions for a wide variety of reasons, and each case is unique. Sometimes the decision was easy, often it was not. The film Never Rarely Sometimes Always struck a raw nerve. Why are we forcing young girls into such desperate situations in order to deal with the consequences of unprotected sex? Why should women have to wait 24 hours to obtain an abortion, as some states require, often being forced to travel long distances twice? Why should a teenager be required to have parental consent? Why is our right to make our own individual decisions about when we can and want to become parents once again under attack in the Supreme Court?

And for those who would argue that there are so many people out there waiting to adopt, I agree. But it has to be the pregnant person's choice, and her choice only, about whether to carry the pregnancy to term and make an adoption plan or to seek an abortion. I should know; I am an adoptive mother for choice.

Deborah Shaffer as an Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentarian whose latest film is Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which made its world premiere in Sundance in January, is available on VOD.