“My support for reproductive choice has been firm – even strident – from the time I was cognizant enough to form an opinion on the topic. Until last summer, though, my commitment to a woman’s right to choose remained purely philosophical, theoretical.
In August of 2016, I made the choice to experience the reality of that conviction when I had my first of three appointments required by Ohio State law in order to obtain a medicinal abortion. A mere week prior, I had openly scoffed at the idea that I might experience an unplanned pregnancy. Throughout my (sometimes reckless) twenties, I experienced nary a single pregnancy scare despite a rather shocking paucity of preventative measures.
Rather than adhering to the commonsense collegiate mantra espoused by Student Health Services: “Use a condom every time, as well as a backup form of birth control,” I devised my own personal protocol of sexual responsibility. I would (try my best to) only sleep with men whom I was in a relationship with, whom I verifiably knew to be free of venereal disease, and whom I trusted to practice withdrawal unfailingly. I reasoned that, if any of these three conditions were not met, I ought not be sleeping with that particular man in any event.
Naturally, any break with this protocol involved the use of condoms and, because I am riddled with guilt and anxiety by nature, repeated STI testing over the course of the ensuing months. It was unquestionably an imperfect protocol concocted by a young woman who had yet to grasp the great fragility of this one life, but, miraculously, it worked.
Eleven lovers and zero pregnancies later, I moved into my thirties with an unblemished health record and a burgeoning sense of self. It was not long after my 30th birthday that I met and promptly fell in love with the man who is now my husband. To borrow a line from my wedding vow: falling in love with him felt to me like coming home or revisiting a cherished novel that transports me to a vision of the world as I wish it were. In brief: he is, in every way, my match.
We are well matched even in the sense that have felt ambivalent about the idea of becoming parents and are both afflicted with relatively damning reproductive handicaps! For his part, my husband has a varicocele, an enlarged vein in his scrotum about the size of his pinky finger. This means that there is an undesirable abundance of heat circulating around his testicles, menacing his sperm. Though otherwise harmless, the condition is a leading cause of male infertility.
For my part, I have advanced endometriosis: a condition where painful, estrogen-fueled lesions have formed on and near my reproductive organs. In addition to creating chronic discomfort, endo is also a leading cause of female fertility. For women with disease as advanced as mine is, the chances of ever conceiving, either naturally or with the assistance of reproductive medicine, are scant. Endometriosis is theorized to be a disease of embryonic origin, meaning that I’ve had it since birth.
In the months prior to my experience of abortion, though, my symptoms had developed aggressively to the point where I was virtually bedridden about half of the time. Everyday activities that were pure agony for me included: wearing pants with a waistband, riding in a car, and urination. Through exhaustive research and the great good luck of living in a city with health care resources as rich as those available through the Cleveland Clinic, I was months away from receiving the best known treatment to improve my quality of life: excision surgery with a specialist.
So, given our mutual physical impediments to reproduction, the fact that we are both in our thirties, and our years-long record of athletic, continuous, and mostly unprotected sexual congress relying solely on withdrawal as means to prevent pregnancy, my husband and I laughed to ourselves that we had wasted our effort in trying to evade pregnancy. Mirthfully, I said to him that, once I had received proper surgical treatment for my endometriosis and had begun to feel better, we might reconsider opening ourselves up to the idea of children by engaging in completely unprotected sex in order to find out if we were, in fact, physically able to conceive.
At this juncture, I cannot overstate the importance of clear and precise communication in marital dialogue. While I thought that I had underlined the future tense in my proposed timeline for coital abandon, the very next time that my husband reached the point of climax, he could not, in that moment, recall the nuances of my remarks and he did not pull out.
I scoffed once again. Apart from any other barriers, I was 2 weeks past my estimates time of ovulation, taking us, in my mind, from a nebula of improbability to a black hole of impossibility. I laughed again, “It’ll be fine. We don’t have anything to worry about. For now, though, let’s hold off, stick to the standard protocol, okay?” Then we packed a picnic and headed out to Blossom enjoy an evening performance by the Cleveland Orchestra, forgetting the matter entirely.
That is until, 5 weeks later with my period 8 days past due, we stood in the kitchen together hovering over a positive home pregnancy test, stunned and furiously unpacking each of our most recent episodes of sexual intimacy. The foggy memory of that one lapse in judgment then came rushing back to us both in vivid detail. We spent the remainder of that evening – and well into the night – discussing our feelings and our thoughts about what had transpired.
Here, our being well matched to one another was once again evident: when we had both processed our emotions, it was clear that neither my husband nor I was prepared to continue with the pregnancy. While, in many respects, we were perfectly well equipped for parenthood, the idea filled us both with dread.
My thought process was inextricably linked to the state of my reproductive health related to endometriosis. I immediately began to read about the complications related to pregnancy in women with Stage IV endometriosis. Not only is there a sharp increase in the risk for harm to the fetus and to the mother, the risk of miscarriage for my pregnancy would be an estimated 76% higher than it would be for a healthy woman. By the time I found out I was pregnant, I had been in daily, crushing abdominal pain for about a month.
So, the way I perceived the situation was this: I could continue on with what would either be a dangerous and painful pregnancy that was likely to end in my body rejecting the fetus at an unknowable point in the future – or – I could make the choice to end the pregnancy immediately and focus on my health and recovery. I gave due time and thought to the idea of continuing with the pregnancy, but the thought brought me no joy and when I made up my mind upon waking the next morning to terminate the pregnancy, my dominant emotions were resolve and relief.
That same afternoon I drove to the clinic at Preterm for my first visit to initiate that process of ending my pregnancy where, by Ohio state law, I was subject to mandatory counseling and asked if I wished to hear my baby’s as-yet nonexistent heartbeat. These measures served only to add insult and humiliation to what was already a deeply fraught emotional experience.
At this point in the story, I would like to address two of the presumptions that seem to underpin the views of those who might oppose reproductive rights: 1) that a woman might take the decision to have an abortion too lightly or give it too little thought and 2) that her mind might be changed through persuasion or manipulation once she has come to her decision. If I could say only one thing to an anti-choice lawmaker or activist based on my experience, it would be this: No woman casually chooses an abortion. Indeed, though I was quick to make my decision, it was neither callous nor capricious and, though I was resolute in my actions, their emotional consequences were deeply felt.
Sitting in the waiting rooms at the clinic, observing the women passing through the halls, I feel certain that not a single one of them would have chosen to be there if, after thorough consideration, she hadn’t deemed it her single best option.
After my initial consultation I chose to receive a medication abortion as opposed to a surgical one. This decision was based largely on the fact that I did not wish to be in a public place while experiencing a state of such extreme emotional vulnerability as an abortion inevitably induces. I wished to be alone – and that wish was fulfilled in spades!
Though I was glad to have the option of passing the pregnancy in the privacy of my home, it was as lonely an experience as any I’d had before in my life. Not even the intimate cloister of my loving marriage gave me solace as I clutched and writhed during the 72-hour experience. In my pain, I had a new understanding of the birthing room trope of a woman in the throws of labor bitterly cursing her husband for, in those hours, when I looked at the man who is my partner, my soul mate, I had one overwhelming thought, “You did this to me, you son of a bitch!” A feeling of resentment welled up inside be, unbidden. Despite his kindness and support, in a very real way, I was experiencing the pregnancy and its loss all by myself.
Right or wrong, the emotional strife and physical pain of abortion temporarily overwhelmed my sense that my husband and I were going through it together. For a time, only my own experience felt real to me. Even after the abortion was complete, this perspective was slow to shift. Given how committed I was to the decision to end my pregnancy, the lingering agitation and melancholy I felt in the weeks following took me somewhat by surprise. Though I did not feel regret, I nevertheless hated the fact that the experience of unplanned pregnancy and abortion had occurred in my life.
When my husband spoke to me of his guilt and apologized for his part in creating the pregnancy, I couldn’t hear him. A chasm opened up between us that took months for us to heal completely. The isolation I felt was exacerbated by the fact that, due to the taboo nature of abortion, I felt I was unable to rely on my social support network for encouragement as I navigated the unexpectedly jagged emotional path before me. I automatically internalized the shame and guilt sometimes associated with abortion and shied away from reaching out, making those first weeks all the more lonesome and difficult.
When I eventually chose to confide the fact of my abortion with a few, select, close friends, I was surprised by their overwhelming support and compassion. To feel that my experience was validated went a long way toward quelling my angst, but I couldn’t help but wonder if but for my extenuating medical circumstances I may not have been received so kindly.
Two months after my abortion, I underwent the excision surgery of my endometriosis in which so many of my hopes were placed. The recovery process was long and emotional as I healed from the surgical removal of my many deep lesions and from the psychological wounds left by years of the wrenching pain that they wrought.
Now, though, for the first time in my adult life, I feel strong and healthy and am virtually pain-free. It makes the experience of everyday life so delicious; I sleep more soundly, exercise with gusto, and make love to my husband with relish. Even a simple task like driving to the grocery store and loading my bags into the car is enjoyable as I marvel at how I am now able to do it without pain! It is my great hope that this will last, that my disease won’t slowly reemerge, but that’s not guaranteed.
I can say with certainty that if I were to find myself pregnant now, whether by choice or by accident, that I would feel differently about it than I did last August. With my vitality restored, I can imagine taking on parenthood with excitement rather than with trepidation. That is the gift that abortion has given to me: the gift of making the awesome, life-changing choice to become a parent from a place of joy rather than a place of dread. It’s a marvelous gift and I would want no less for any other woman.” —Bethany