‘This is the only secret I’ve carried’: 14 business leaders share their abortion stories

July 7, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC
Leslie Schrock, an angel investor and adviser to women's health businesses including Maven and Alife. Schrock is the author of "Bumpin': The Modern Guide to Pregnancy."
Courtesy of Leslie Schrock

The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade has inspired many supporters of reproductive rights to share their abortion stories publicly—often for the first time—in an effort to destigmatize the experience. Business, always more conservative than the general public, has been slow to take part.

But executives are people too—and some are among the one in four American women who have an abortion before they turn 45. And while it’s certainly every person’s right to keep their abortion story private, choosing to share can be incredibly powerful.

Fortune asked business leaders across industries and companies—from early-stage startups to the heights of corporate America—to share their abortion experiences. Fourteen agreed to do so, and their stories are below in their own words. They shared stories of both unplanned pregnancies decades ago, before they began their careers, and deeply wanted pregnancies they were forced to terminate after finding out the child would not survive.

Businesses are playing a critical role in deciding the future of access to reproductive health care in the U.S. Employers are funding abortion procedures and travel costs for workers in states where abortion is now banned. In the months and years ahead, companies will make decisions about where to hire and where to send their state tax dollars. And businesses will be forced to more closely examine how they exert their lobbying power and which lawmakers receive their campaign donations.

Yet there is still stigma attached to publicly sharing a personal experience with abortion, particularly as a business leader. It’s notable that many of the people who agreed to speak for this story are founders and CEOs who work for themselves, rather than executives within large organizations.

As these stories demonstrate, the CEOs and leaders making decisions about employee access to abortion are not implementing abstract policies affecting theoretical individuals. These are decisions that affect real members of their workforces, and leaders they respect and work alongside every day.

Penguin Random House VP of Growth Marketing Anne Bono.
Anne Bono, VP of growth marketing for Penguin Random House.
Courtesy of Anne Bono

Anne Bono, VP, growth marketing, Penguin Random House

In February 2002, I was a junior in college and almost 21 years old. I was dating someone, and we found out I was pregnant. I was just starting out my life. I had plans, hopes, and dreams, and none of them involved me being a parent at age 20.

I had a logical, calm discussion with my partner, and I went to the Planned Parenthood in New Haven, Conn. There were protesters outside the clinic, and that was intimidating. But once I was inside the clinic, I felt supported. I was easily able to access care.

Abortion is so often imbued with external shame and trauma. But I was privileged and my experience was positive–it didn’t feel shameful at all. It was normal, and I just did it. It was health care. I have two children today; one is a girl, and she won’t be afforded that. We live in North Carolina, and if she gets pregnant when she’s 20, she’s going to be faced with tough decisions, stigma, and hardship that I never had to face.

Madison Butler, chief people officer for Grav.
Courtesy of Madison Butler

Madison Butler, chief people officer, Grav

My abortions saved my life. In my early 20s, I got into a relationship with someone who became violent and abusive. I found out I was pregnant in 2014, when I was 23, while we were living in Rhode Island. I wanted to end the pregnancy, and so did he.

I had a medical abortion; I took the medication by myself—that was the traumatic part. I was in so much pain. When I got pregnant again in 2015, I went to a reproductive health clinic so I wouldn’t be in that kind of pain alone again. My relationship was financially abusive; I would not have been able to leave the state to get the care I needed if I couldn’t access abortion near my home.

I think about the implications if I hadn’t had either of those abortions: being tied to someone who abused me for the rest of my life. Not to mention what it means to raise a child in a household that is violent. I never felt an ounce of regret—the only thing I felt is the knowledge that I retained some of my freedom. Having a child with him would have meant I never got that freedom back.

Brandon Carson, a Fortune 500 executive.
Courtesy of Brandon Carson/Claudia Hershner

Brandon Carson, VP, learning, Fortune 500 company

I was born in 1965, and my mom had my older sister in 1963 when she was 16. We grew up with her as a single mom in New Mexico in the 1970s. When she died in 2009, we read her diaries and found out she had been pregnant once before in the early 1960s and had an abortion, when she was only 14 or 15 years old. We didn’t learn many details, but the procedure was before abortion was legal and they weren’t of economic means, so we don’t think she would have driven to a larger city.

It was already hard for her to become a mom at 16, going from job to job to take care of us—if she had been forced to become one at 14, I can only imagine how difficult it would have been. We grew up in a conservative community, but my mom was always passionate about certain social issues. And this is what my mom taught me: It’s not really a political decision. It’s a human right.

Athletic Greens President and COO Kat Cole.
Kat Cole, president and COO for Athletic Greens and former COO for Focus Brands.
Courtesy of Kat Cole/Steph Grant Photography

Kat Cole, president and COO, Athletic Greens

I have two beautiful babies, but I had several miscarriages before and in between those pregnancies. One of them was not smooth sailing. I went in to my ob/gyn in late 2018, and they confirmed that I had had a miscarriage. I needed a D&C to make sure the remaining tissue was gone so I wouldn’t end up with complications that would threaten my health or my ability to get pregnant again. The procedure is very similar to surgical abortion.

I was in Atlanta, where I was working as president and COO of Focus Brands and where a six-week abortion ban is likely to soon go into effect. Now I’m thinking about the number of providers who will be nervous to perform those procedures or worry about losing their license and their ability to practice, or even jail time. Providers who might say, “Look, you need this. But we don’t do that here anymore.”

Kathy Gasperine, first VP, social impact banking, Amalgamated Bank.
Courtesy of Amalgamated Bank

Kathy Gasperine, first VP, social impact banking, Amalgamated Bank

I’ve been with my now husband for 19 years—since I was 20. We waited 15 years to start our family so we could establish ourselves professionally and financially. In 2018, I gave birth to our son. In 2020, I had a miscarriage that resolved naturally—I didn’t know I was pregnant at the time. Then in 2021, I had two miscarriages during planned pregnancies that both required medical support. The second was in December. I found out the pregnancy wasn’t viable the day before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and indicated where it was headed on the issue of abortion rights.

My doctor in Massachusetts gave me the option of using medication abortion, having a surgical procedure, or letting nature take its course. After my first miscarriage, I knew what that third option would be like; I wanted the safe and controlled environment to pass the tissue in the privacy of my own home with medication abortion. It gave me the privacy and dignity to manage my miscarriages. It acknowledged my humanity—the humanity of the person carrying the baby. I can’t imagine how painful it would be not to control that decision.

Victoria Thain Gioia, cofounder and co-CEO of the prenatal and postnatal vitamins business Perelel.
Courtesy of Perelel

Victoria Thain Gioia, cofounder and co-CEO, Perelel

At 29, I had just gotten married. My husband and I knew we wanted a large family. During our first pregnancy in 2016 while we were living in Los Angeles, I had a miscarriage. We lost the heartbeat at nine weeks along. I tried medication abortion to pass the pregnancy, but it didn’t work. I had to have a D&C quickly. I had a risk of infection, or even death, and risks to my future fertility because of potential scar tissue. I was desperately trying to have a baby, so that was scary to me. The speed with which the procedure happened within 24 hours was so important to my health.

This wasn’t technically my choice. But having access to what is technically abortion—quick access and safe access—allowed me to have three healthy children today.

Moon Mental Health CEO and Founder Linda Kim.
Moon Mental Health CEO and founder Linda Kim.
Courtesy of Linda Kim

Linda Kim, founder and CEO, Moon Mental Health

In 2001, I had just graduated college at 21 and was getting ready to enter medical school. I was a young person in love, with my whole life ahead of me, and I fundamentally was not ready to be a parent. I went to a Planned Parenthood in Boston. It was difficult. It’s a heartbreaking and painful decision already. And then going to a clinic, having protesters shout and try to scare you off.

Six years later, I had the first of my three daughters in 2007 while I was a psychiatry resident at Mass General. It was the worst possible time to be pregnant—I was on night float for two weeks at 38 and 39 weeks pregnant. And yet it was right for me. People sometimes talk about “inconvenience” leading women to end pregnancies. It’s no matter of inconvenience—each person will know when they’re emotionally ready and it’s right for them. When someone is ready, they’re able to move mountains to do the hardest things possible. When they’re not ready, it can cause such tremendous harm.

Suzanne Lerner, founder and CEO of the 36-year-old apparel brand Michael Stars.
Courtesy of Michael Stars

Suzanne Lerner, founder and CEO, Michael Stars

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when no one talked about sex, periods, even breastfeeding, or anything. To get on the pill, I needed my parents’ permission. When I left home to attend the University of Wisconsin, I finally got on the pill at a Planned Parenthood. After dropping out of college, I traveled the world and eventually started an import business in India. While I was traveling back and forth to India, getting my new company started, I met a French man, had a brief affair with him, and got pregnant.

I found out when I was back in Los Angeles in 1978, when I was 27. It was only five years after Roe v. Wade was decided, but I didn’t know anybody who had been through this. No one talked about it. But I knew I could have a legal abortion. I was lucky that my gynecologist was willing to do it.

If I hadn’t been able to have an abortion, I would’ve been in real trouble. I don’t know what I would have done. I had no money saved. My parents might have taken me in, but they were in Chicago and were older by then. Everything I’ve done in my life—I started Michael Stars in 1986 with my husband, and we employ 110 people today—would not have happened. I was very lucky to have the freedom to make that decision and to move forward with no regrets.

Stax founder and CEO Suneera Madhani with her husband, Faizal, and two daughters.
Courtesy of Stax

Suneera Madhani, founder and CEO, Stax

I’m such a public person. I share almost everything about my life. And this is something I never shared. This is the only secret I’ve carried.

It was 2005. I was 20, in college in Gainesville, Fla. Planned Parenthood was the only resource I knew of. That’s where I went with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. He and my best friend were the only people in my life who knew. I didn’t tell my parents or my closest friends.

My fear was that I wouldn’t get to do all the things I wanted to do. I just wasn’t ready. I went on to complete college—I was super ambitious. If I hadn’t made those choices, my life would have taken a completely different path. It’s not that it would have been a bad path, but it would have been different.

I started Stax in Orlando when I was 25. I have 300 employees today and we’re a unicorn company. There is zero chance any of this would have been possible if I didn’t make those choices. None of this would be here if I was forced to enter motherhood when I wasn’t ready. I got to make that choice for me. We had our first daughter when I was 30—when I was ready.

The Supreme Court decision inspired me to share this for the first time. I told my mom, and she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” But I want other people outside my personal life to know too. I’m respected as a fintech CEO by leaders and politicians in Florida, where lawmakers have advanced an abortion ban. It’s important for them to see that all this would not be possible if I were enslaved by choices they made for me.

McPherson Strategies founder and CEO Susan McPherson.
Courtesy of McPherson Strategies

Susan McPherson, founder and CEO, McPherson Strategies

In 1990, I was living with my boyfriend in southern California. I was 25, working for PRNewswire on a super fast growth trajectory. After missing my period, I had taken several pregnancy tests, and they were all negative—they weren’t very reliable in those days. I didn’t find out until 12 weeks into the pregnancy.

My boyfriend didn’t have a job, and neither of our families lived close by. I knew if we had a baby I would have to take time off work. Childcare support and family leave in corporate America were almost nonexistent at the time. We wouldn’t have had the means to live.

So I went to a clinic in Orange County. I had to cross a picket line of 50 people. I learned that in the 1960s, my dad had taught at a women’s college and actually helped students who found themselves pregnant, so I told him what was going on. He mailed my boyfriend a check for $50 to buy a lot of Ben & Jerry’s.

I never ended up having children, but I don’t regret having an abortion. It was only about two and a half years after my mother was killed in a horrible tragedy, and it was an incredibly difficult time for me. There’s no way I could have brought a child into the world at that time.

Unique Markets founder Sonja Rasula.
Courtesy of Unique Markets

Sonja Rasula, founder, Unique Markets

In the fall of 2008, I started my business—not an ideal time during the financial crash. But I had a belief in myself and in our community that supporting small, independent businesses would continue to be important even amid a terrible economy. The business started to take off. Two months later, I had an abortion.

I was 32 and living in Los Angeles. I was not emotionally ready to be a parent, and my partner and I were at the end of our relationship. I also was taking prescription drugs for narcolepsy that are not safe for a pregnancy, and because the pregnancy was unplanned I had taken them for several weeks. That worried me.

I didn’t make the decision to have an abortion in 2008 because I was starting my business. But looking back, the choice absolutely influenced what came next. I gave my blood, sweat, and tears to my company. I worked 24/7 for the first three years—similar to how my sister would say she worked in her first years as a parent. I couldn’t have grown my business the way I did had I not had the abortion. I work with small business owners, and I feel like they are my children and they’re my family. I put my time and energy into helping them grow. I feel like that’s what my purpose was supposed to be.

April Reign, senior advisor for media and entertainment at Gauge. She’s also known for launching the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
Courtesy of Gauge

April Reign, senior advisor for media and entertainment, Gauge

When I was young—under 21 years old, in the 1980s—I became pregnant. I knew I was not ready to be a mother. I worried about the maternal mortality rate for Black women: three times that of white women. I knew I wanted to have children at some point, and the propaganda put out by antichoice people made me concerned that something could go wrong during the procedure and I would not be able to have biological children.

That was not true, and I have an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old today. I would not have been able to provide for them in the way I wanted to had I kept the pregnancy decades ago. I was a completely different person when I became a parent than I was when I had the abortion all those years ago.

Bridget Russo, CMO for the fitness company CMLBR.
Courtesy of Bridget Russo

Bridget Russo, CMO, CLMBR

I’ve had two abortions. The first, I was about 23—it was an easy decision. I was working my first PR job in New York, and I was not ready for that responsibility. I felt some shame around it, and I didn’t tell a lot of people. I went to Planned Parenthood.

The second, I was 35 and with my boyfriend of five years. Right as we were breaking up in 2007, I found out I was pregnant. I thought I wanted to have children, and I strongly considered moving forward with the pregnancy. I talked to my family and friends about the decision. But my ex-boyfriend’s family made clear that they wouldn’t be involved in the child’s life, which I thought wouldn’t be good for the kid. So I decided to terminate the pregnancy. That’s been on my mind these past days: Children will now be born into situations where their parents either did not want children or were not prepared for them.

Leslie Schrock, an angel investor and adviser to women’s health businesses including Maven and Alife. Schrock is the author of “Bumpin’: The Modern Guide to Pregnancy.”
Courtesy of Leslie Schrock

Leslie Schrock, angel investor and author

I have two sons, and I’ve had five pregnancies: the first an early miscarriage that resolved naturally at five or six weeks. But with the next, we had to end the pregnancy. During prenatal testing in 2018, we found out the fetus had Trisomy 18, or Edwards syndrome. It’s a fatal chromosomal abnormality that results in miscarriage or stillbirth the vast majority of the time. There is no good life for the few babies that are born with it. Most die within days.

In our case, there was no life. It had stopped growing. The ultrasound at 12 weeks told us that this was not a pregnancy that was going to progress and was weeks away from ending on its own. We asked our OB and our genetic counselor if there was any hope, and they said, “Absolutely not.” My OB advised us to get a D&C while I was healthy and nothing else had gone wrong, like developing sepsis.

I had to go through all the same questions and protocols as for anyone choosing to have an abortion. I remember being asked, “Is anyone forcing you to do this? Is this what you want?” I remember saying, “Absolutely not, this isn’t what I want. I wanted a baby. But I have to do this.” Not much time goes by when I don’t think about it.

A year later, I had my first son. In between my first and second, I had another miscarriage and needed a second D&C. Because of complications during the birth of my second son, medically, I’m not supposed to have any more children. I could die trying to carry another pregnancy. I think about what I would do if faced with that decision now as a mother of two young children. I live in San Francisco, in a state where abortion is still legal, but so many women don’t. Doctors in states that restrict abortion won’t be trained in these procedures, and the ability to deliver timely care is already changing because they’re scared of being reported.

I am a strong believer in women’s right to choose, but I want everyone to know: Abortion is not always a choice. It is also a necessary, sometimes lifesaving medical treatment.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

CryptocurrencyLeadershipInvestingClimate ChangeMost Powerful Women