Most abortions are banned in 14 states in the country as of early January. Alaska is not one of them. The right to have an abortion here is protected under the state constitution’s privacy provision.
But that doesn’t mean it’s equitable for all Alaskans to access one. Due to Alaska’s vastness and limited number of providers, traveling to an abortion provider can be a big barrier. Other obstacles include cost and logistics.
In 2015, Niviaaluk Brandt, a mom of two, had to overcome all these barriers to get an abortion.
“It seriously saved my life. Especially emotionally or spiritually, I think that I would’ve died. I think I would just crumble into myself,” said Brandt, who uses the pronoun they.
Growing up in Nome
Brandt, 30, is originally from Nome and is part of the King Island Native Community. Growing up, the most influential person in Brandt’s life was their mom, who was 19 when Brandt was born.
“My mom had me when she was really young and I just got to watch her go from meeting to meeting, just zooming all around the community, just so intertwined in it, and I loved it,” they said.
Brandt followed their mom almost everywhere.
“She was working for medical records and, like, getting people to come and sign their doctor’s notes. And then she was on several different committees for our tribe and there was always meetings to go to, things to do, potlucks to go to, dances to go to, new programs to start up, grants to write,” they said.
Brandt, the oldest of four, was “No. 1 helper” and “became second mom” to their other siblings.
Brandt was also heavily influenced by the community: “There was never, like, a separation between, ‘Oh, that’s not my kid. I’m not gonna stop whatever’s going on.’ It was, ‘Oh, that’s my niece’s daughter,’ or, ‘That’s my grandma’s mom’s sister’s daughter.’ You know, it was … never a thought to whose kid it was; it was, ‘our kid.’ And I got corrected a lot by anyone who saw me doing anything suspicious. They’re, like, ‘What are you guys doing? Where are you going? I’m gonna tell your mom what you’re doing.’ It was never a dull moment and always a way to create safety and community across many generations.”
Brandt grew up Christian. When it came to the topic of abortion, they don’t remember anybody at their church talking about it, or anybody at school for that matter.
“There was no education at all around sex ed,” except the message of abstinence, they said.
So Brandt, who was a teenager in the late 2000s, turned to the internet. It was the early years of YouTube.
“This awesome sex educator, Laci Green, was somebody who I was always watching, learning more and more about sex ed. And then I also found Dr. Lindsey Doe with Sexplanations and that was another awesome education output. And, like, during all this time, I’m figuring out I’m nonbinary. I’m figuring out who and what I’m attracted to and why, and so it’s kind of all jumbled up in there,” they said.
“They talked about abortion. They talked about gender identity. They talked about different types of birth control. So much. There’s so much great content on those two channels alone,” they said.
The closest thing to talking to an adult in their life about sex or pregnancy or the option of abortion was when Brandt’s mom made them get birth control when they were 16.
“My mom and I had a very short discussion about it,” Brandt said. “She said, abortion is an option, but you really have to think about it. Adoption is an option or just taking care of your baby is an option. She said it would be really hard, though. And I knew she was speaking from experience.”
At age 18, Brandt did get pregnant. And she turned to friends to talk about the option of abortion.
“It seemed very scary to all of us. Like, we didn’t know what it would look like or what would happen. And growing up in rural Alaska, there’s no medical center that you can just go up and ask,” Brandt said.
The Norton Sound Regional Hospital, which is in Nome, serves the entire Bering Strait region, but it doesn’t offer abortion services.
To get one, “we would have to go and be sent down, away from our family, away from our community to see what would happen,” Brandt said.
At that point in time, Brandt said abortion was not right for them. They decided to have the baby.
Six weeks after the delivery, Brandt found out they were pregnant again
“And then less than a year later, I was pregnant a third time. And then on my fourth pregnancy, I did not want to be pregnant anymore. I cried so hard. I was so devastated,” they said.
Brandt was just under 21, working four jobs, and already taking care of kids, “and that’s when I knew that I would want an abortion,” they said.
When Brandt had an ultrasound in Nome, they found out the fetus was not healthy and it would’ve been a difficult pregnancy and delivery, mentally and physically.
In addition to being young and working all those jobs with multiple kids, Brandt had had traumatic experiences delivering their kids – including one birth where they labored for 53 hours, and another that resulted in an emergency c-section.
In December 2014, Brandt’s third child, a son, died of sudden infant death syndrome. He was 2 months old.
On top of all that, Brandt was in an unhealthy relationship, they said, and had been for several years.
And Brandt had a lot of financial responsibility and was the primary caregiver for their children.
When Brandt found out they were pregnant, they were already in the midst of planning to leave their partner, “and, like, working toward financial independence and a bunch of other things, like planning to go back to school and getting a better job and just so much that I couldn’t— I couldn’t be pregnant again. It would have been one more thing to make me stay or another way for him to have a power over me at that point in time.”
Brandt said their two kids were old enough to where they could have a babysitter or go to Head Start, “and I could have alone time to plan out how I was gonna get out of my …situation.”
Barriers to abortion
The year Brandt had an abortion – in 2015 – there were about 1,300 abortions done in Alaska. That’s according to the state’s Induced Terminations Report, which the Alaska Department of Health puts out every year. About 33 percent of abortions done in the state were paid by Medicaid – like Brandt’s. That percentage has increased to 44 percent in recent years.
In all of Alaska, there are only three main locations to get an abortion – at Planned Parenthood health clinics in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. That means people who live outside these centers have to travel away from their home community – often by plane – to get an abortion. Like Brandt. She had to fly from Nome to Anchorage.
Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates gives a rough estimate that just over a quarter of its patients – 26 percent – travel at least 30 miles for their abortions appointment.
On top of travel, other logistics have to be figured out, like food, lodging and transportation from the airport to the clinic.
And there were more things that made getting an abortion challenging for Brandt, like dealing with their partner’s opinion and insistence that Brandt continue the pregnancy, finding someone to watch the kids and someone to travel with from Nome to Anchorage.
Brandt asked their mom.
“I’m glad I told my mom about it. She was, like, ‘Oh, OK, I will take care of the food and finding a place to stay, and the car rental and all these things, and I’ll pay for someone to watch your kids.’ And she did. And it was awesome,” Brandt said.
Brandt had been talking about leaving their partner on and off for some years and Brandt said their mom just knew that an abortion was needed.
“She could just tell from her experience that this was absolutely necessary for me to leave that person and for me to have some sanity and then she was just so happy to provide for me in that way,” Brandt said.
Still, Brandt was scared and had a lot of questions. And they said staff at Planned Parenthood were knowledgeable and informative and answered all their questions.
‘A bubble of love’
After the procedure, Brandt and their mom stayed at Brandt’s aunt’s home.
“They just surrounded me in a bubble of love afterward and it was so beautiful,” they said.
Brandt’s mom and aunt shared stories of other people who had gotten abortions, people who said it was OK to share their story. For Brandt, knowing that they weren’t the only one made them feel normal.
Brandt’s mom and aunt helped get them pain medication and made sure they were comfortable.
“They told me silly stories and reassured me that they loved me still because that’s something I was so afraid of. Now I know that it’s super silly, right? Just super, super silly of me to think that, but they were super overwhelmingly supportive,” they said.
That fear Brandt now calls silly was rooted in something though.
“There’s a lot of colonized and ingrained patriarchy inside and around the church that has just been passed on through intergenerational trauma,” Brandt said.
At that point in their life, Brandt said they were “already different.” They were out of the closet, didn’t drink and were considering a different religion.
“And in my brain, I thought that because I didn’t go to college – because it was my dream for years – that I was a failure. And I thought emotionally, not cognitively, that having an abortion would somehow make me a failure,” Brandt said. “And that’s super wrong thinking, but that’s what I thought and what I felt at that point in my life. And so to have these swept-under-the-rug stories come out by these safe women, it just made me realize that this love, or this world is a lot more forgiving and a lot more understanding than I had put a lens to.”
The abortion, Brandt said, saved their life. Six months later, Brandt left the unhealthy relationship they were in.
“The amount of freedom that I was given by my choice was enough to secure me in my decision to leave,” they said.
After that, Brandt applied for college and returned to school, something they’d tried doing on and off for years when their kids were younger.
During the pandemic, Brandt and their kids moved to Durango, Colorado, so Brandt could attend Fort Lewis College and study biochemistry. They lived there for two years, then returned to Alaska, and now live with their mom and Brandt’s three siblings in Fairbanks.
“And I have never been happier with where my life is at right now. Ever. And gosh darn it, I am 30 and flirty and thriving. And my kids are beautiful and they’re old enough to, like, make their own lunch, which is so great,” Brandt said.
Brandt has about a year and a half left of schooling before their next chapter – medical school. Brandt wants to become a doctor, a psychiatrist specifically.
“They’re the doctors that have helped me the most … deal with my mental health,” they said.
Brandt’s dream is to start a recovery center based out of Nome so people in the region don’t have to leave their community, family and culture to get help.
Brandt knows what that’s like. For some years, Brandt has been battling addiction.
“I had to leave Nome and find recovery in Anchorage through a recovery program. So I was away from my kids, and I was away from my culture, and I was away from knowing the land and people who would support me,” they said.
Brandt knows that they’re not the only one who’s lived through challenges, like a bad relationship, losing a child, and addiction.
Back in 2015 when Brandt had their abortion and their mom and aunt told them stories of people in the community who also had abortions, it made Brandt feel normal and loved. And Brandt wants others to feel that. Brandt said people in difficult situations have the ability to change their lives, but it takes time.
“Change doesn’t happen so instantly as we love to think, as it is portrayed in movies and books and things. It happens over the course of six months, nine months, years. But whatever your goal is, and whatever your situation is, you can always achieve your goal and find a way out of any harmful situation you’re in,” they said.
Brandt doesn’t want anyone to feel alone: “There’s more support around you than you think, and I just want them to please continue to keep reaching out.”
This article was first published in the Alaska Beacon.