Groggy, I brushed my hands over my deflated stomach. Eyes welling with tears, I mumbled, “She’s gone.” Soon after, warm blankets covered me in the recovery room, and the attentive nurse ushered my husband to my bedside. As the IV pumped fluids into my right arm, I dialed my sister’s number on the cell phone with my left. I sensed her relief at my cheeriness–it was over and her younger sister was safe. The past twenty-one days were the most heartbreaking of my life; the past forty-eight hours were excruciating. At twenty-two weeks, my first pregnancy ended in sorrow with an abortion.
The heartache began on what would have been the most thrilling day of my pregnancy–at nineteen weeks, it was our first sonogram. What I had expected to be a routine examination mushroomed into an exhausting day of probing until, finally, at dusk, independent diagnoses confirmed a Dandy-Walker malformation or variant (fetal brain defect). A whirlwind of tests and consultations ensued during the following week, all determining that her quality-of-life outlook was markedly low. Alarmingly, two parts of her brain were missing completely, other areas were malformed and there was a heart defect, as well as acute limb irregularities. My heart sank in disbelief, as time began to tick… By that week’s end, less than three weeks remained to consider termination, including information-gathering about procedures and locations, finding money to cover the cost, scheduling and awaiting appointments, and planning for my care and recovery. Seeing the deadline fast approaching (and my belly continuously swelling), we decided to terminate as soon as possible. I was already twenty-one weeks pregnant.
My husband thoroughly researched our abortion options, querying clinics, counselors and hospitals. He discovered that the D&X was a safe, outpatient procedure, conducted in a clinic. The only safe alternative was an expensive procedure involving two nights of hospitalization and a harrowing and lengthy induction of labor. We opted for the D&X, scheduling it for the following week.
The D&X abortion was undeniably painful. I squeezed the nurse’s hand and tried to draw long, calm breaths as the obstetric gynecologist inserted four rigid, dry seaweed sticks (called laminaria) into my cervix. After the appointment, I sat huddled on the curbside, too stunned to cry, as my husband ran to get the car. The comforting familiarity of home reaffirmed my decision to forgo the hospitalization. I curled up under a blanket on the sofa and allowed Silvia the cat to knead the soft fabric before nestling against me. Despite popping prescribed pain pills and passing a heating pad between my abdomen and lower back, the sharp cramping mounted throughout the day.
The next morning, I pleaded with my husband not to return to the doctor–who I knew would remove the expanded laminaria and insert twice as many. How could I endure twice the pain of the previous day? That night, I tossed and turned in the dark, worrying about what new agonies were in store the following day. Finally, hopeful dreams of being anesthetized before extraction of the laminaria lulled me to sleep. My dreams came true the next afternoon, as the anesthesiologist put me under just seconds after I crawled onto the examination table. On awakening, a bewildering combination of relief and loneliness filled the void left by the retreating pain. My abortion took place in September 2003, a mere month before the Senate voted to outlaw so-called “partial birth” abortions, including the D&X procedure.
Having an abortion in an advanced state of pregnancy is often a painful, intimate and difficult experience; women should be supported, not targeted, at such a time. In their haste to appease antiabortion zealots, lawmakers have either failed to see or chosen to overlook several consequences of the “partial birth” ban, which will affect the fate of thousands of American women. First, finding fetal defects in a wanted pregnancy is devastating. I needed the empowerment of simple choices–which exams to undergo, which specialists to consult, what type of abortion to choose–to gain some semblance of control in a helpless situation. With the ban, I worry that choiceless women (maybe including me in a later pregnancy) will be forced to undergo the dreaded induction-of-labor abortion–if even it remains legal. (The broadly written law might also be applied to that procedure.) Worse still, they may be pushed into C-section abortions, which are more dangerous for women.
I also worry that prohibiting late-term abortions could have the effect of forcing some women to make choices that aren’t right for them, while discouraging others from getting pregnant at all. If a pregnant woman is low risk (as I was), she may not undergo a sonogram, let alone amniocentesis, before eighteen weeks. If defects are discovered, will she be forced to make an immediate decision between abortion and delivering the fetus regardless of the defects’ severity? This is an extremely complicated, emotionally fraught decision that a woman cannot make in a split second. Surely, some women will opt out of pregnancy altogether in the face of this dilemma. (Certainly, I am considering it.)
Furthermore, if Congress recoils at the gruesomeness of some abortion procedures, I can attest that we who abort are even more appalled by our limited options. Lawmakers should encourage doctors to research better abortion alternatives, instead of abandoning women before accurate, early prenatal care and safer, more humane second- and third-trimester abortions are available.
During the grief that followed my abortion, I appreciated that I was able to move forward only because I had the abortion. After all, what kind of life would my fetus, my husband or I have led if she were born? That choice belonged to my husband and to myself, and I pity the 2,000-3000 women each year who will not have the liberty of choosing as we did if the ban is upheld.