I will not apologize for my abortion. I am not ashamed. I know without a doubt that my choice was the right choice for me. People who know me probably know this, because I am not shy about discussing my story. I have told this story before, and I will likely tell it again. I will tell it as long as I feel it needs to be told. I will tell it as long as women’s reproductive rights and freedom to control their own bodies are at risk. This is my abortion story. Twelve years ago I found out I was pregnant; I was happy to be pregnant. I was much sicker than I had been with my son a few years earlier, so I was concerned that something was wrong. My biggest fear was that I was having twins. Understanding my concern, or maybe simply trying to relieve my stress, my doctor ordered an ultrasound a bit earlier than usual. I was around 10 weeks along at the time.
On March 9th, 2004 I went to my ultrasound appointment, excited to see my baby. The tech pointed out body parts, normally at first, and then she seemed oddly quiet and rushed. She gave me a printout of images from the scan and asked me to sit in the waiting room. While we waited my (now ex) husband and I looked at the images, and joked about how the head looked funny. Black and white ultrasound images are sometimes difficult to make out, and we assumed that was what we were seeing.
The tech told us that she needed to get better measurements and took me back for a vaginal ultrasound. Still unaware of what was to come, my main concern was the discomfort of being violated by a medical instrument. I quickly realized that something was not right. The tech was much quieter than during the first scan. She quickly said, “I need to get the doctor,” and rushed out of the room. My mind raced through the possibilities, my ideas limited to club foot, cleft palate, or Down Syndrome. All of these were problems, sure, but not insurmountable problems. I would love my child, no matter what. We would overcome any birth defect or developmental disability.
And then we learned what was really going on. When the doctor arrived the tech resumed scanning my uterus through my vagina, while they discussed me and my pregnancy as if I were not in the room. “Yes, that measurement… try it from this angle…Let’s get another look…” Panic was setting in, while tears streamed silently from my eyes – into my ears, because I was flat on my back, feet in stirrups, with a medical wand impersonally inserted into my body.
I can’t remember when they first said, “anencephaly.” Maybe it was while I was still prone on the exam table, maybe it was as we sat in the tiny quiet room with the muted colors, the loveseat and chair, and the tissues – because everyone cries in that room. The doctor sat across from us and explained what anencephaly with acrania meant. I had never heard either of these words. I had no idea what a neural tube was, or what happened if it did not close correctly long before you even know you are pregnant. I learned, without ever having known I should be afraid of it, that the baby I wanted would never live. Her (most cases of anencephaly occur in females) skull and brain had not fully formed, and the small amount of brain tissue was being exposed to and eaten away by amniotic fluid. My baby would never live.
The doctor was very kind and explained that I would have to choose. I could carry the baby to term. For me, that would mean six to seven months of “Congratulations!” and “What are you having?” and “Is it a boy or a girl?” – each idle pleasantry a reminder of what would never be. It would mean frequent procedures to remove excessive amniotic fluid, as the swallowing reflex would be affected by the brain abnormality. It would mean a high likelihood of fetal death or stillbirth. It would mean all of the pain and discomfort associated with pregnancy and none of the reward. It could possibly mean a few minutes or hours with a baby who I would hold and love only to see them die.
For me, a continued pregnancy would mean feeling more kicks and movement than normal, as amniotic fluid touched brain tissue causing involuntary spasms. It would mean a baby being literally washed away from the inside out – and the potential for an experience of nothing beyond pain, discomfort, and death. After an evening of devastation, crying, and research, I made a choice. I made a choice based in love and compassion – both for myself and for my child that would never be.
I chose to have an abortion, although I could not bring myself to say that word at the time. As a child, I was raised in the Pentecostal church. I was exposed to Operation Rescue’s horrific anti-choice tactics, including graphic (and what I now know to be inaccurate) depictions of what abortions were, and how they were performed. I was in elementary school at the time. As I grew older, and grew away from the church, I moved into the “Abortion as birth control is wrong, and I only support it in the case of rape and incest” camp. I was one of those who said I could never. It was not for me. I could never. Absolutely not. Until I could, and it was, and I did.
When I chose to have an abortion I was lucky to live in an area where an abortion provider was accessible. I was lucky to have discovered this congenital defect at the end of my first trimester. Had my doctor not ordered an early ultrasound, I may have been 16 – 22 weeks pregnant before the anencephaly was discovered. It would have been near the end of my second trimester – potentially beyond the legal limits of abortion in some states. Like most women who opt for the much maligned “late term abortion,” or “partial-birth abortion,” this procedure may have been my only option – if I could reach a provider who provided abortion services at that later gestational age, and if I could afford it.
Despite being able to legally access the medical care I needed, there were still many hurdles. I had to overcome my own aversion to the word “abortion.” I had to call and say, “I need to make an appointment for an abortion.” I had to endure being pregnant for five days from the day I made the appointment until the day of the procedure (the mandated 24 hour waiting period caused me to miss the next available appointment) – knowing the pregnancy was doomed. I had to choose between paying for a very expensive outpatient procedure out of pocket or having insurance pay for me to go into the hospital, be induced, have contractions, push, and go through delivery – only to leave without a baby. Only with help from family, concerned for the psychological impact of my choice, was I able to have the more expensive outpatient procedure.
A police officer escorted me into the clinic, past protesters with placards showing graphic images of what they claimed were aborted fetuses on one side and the words “Jesus Saves” on the other. I was forced to have yet another ultrasound, presumably motivated by the idea that a woman having an abortion could possibly forget why she is there. Instead, my ultrasound confirmed that there was a deadly birth defect, visible even to an untrained eye. While the “Christians” outside the clinic viewed me with judgment and hate, I was treated with nothing but kindness and compassion from the staff of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Augusta, GA.
Even realizing I was making the right choice, going through with it was difficult; I was in mourning for what might have been. I cried as I walked in, as I registered, as I waited, as I was taken into the procedure room, as my legs were strapped into stirrups. I cried to the nurses and doctor and told them that I did not want to be there. They stopped immediately – they wanted me to be 100% certain of my choice. When I explained why I was upset, they comforted me and held my hand as I said goodbye and the anesthesia took me away.
With many proposed restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, my very difficult and personal choice would not be legal. I was not raped. I was not a victim of incest. At best, many would have me seek approval (likely from a man, given that of every three state and federal judges in the United States two are men) to make this choice. Again, that added burden would have pushed me into a later term abortion, with a cost both financial and psychological to me. For some people, my reason is not good enough – no reason is good enough. It would not be impossible to carry an anencephalic pregnancy to term. For some, I should have endured whatever it took to continue. At any cost.
Over the years, as I have told this story, many people have told me that my case was special. My reason was good enough. Whether my pregnancy should continue was my choice because it aligned with their ideas about my body. I am not interested in having an exception granted by anyone who would judge any other woman for her choice. Every woman’s case is special to her. Her reason is good enough for her.
What hubris, to presume that your opinion matters at all in a woman’s decision about whether to become a parent, or whether to spend 40 weeks waiting for a baby to die in her arms. What audacity, to believe that you understand anyone’s experience other than your own. How privileged you must be, to never have been in a situation where such a choice was necessary.
I do not regret my abortion. For me, it was a difficult experience, but I do not regret it, and I will not apologize.