"In 2008, my husband and I decided it was time to try for baby #2. We were thrilled when I quickly got pregnant. The afternoon after our first ultrasound appointment we shared the news and picture with our family and friends. We shared our joy on Facebook. I told my boss.
The next afternoon while lunching in the park with coworkers, my doctor called. “We need you to come in for a second ultrasound. We found a cystic hygroma and need to take a better look.”
“What does this mean? Is our baby going to be ok?”
"We need you to come back in so we can give an accurate prognosis,” or at least that’s what I remember hearing as panic and confusion set in.
“There’s something wrong with my baby. I have to go home.” I said to my lunch companions. They quickly accompanied me back to our office. I gathered my things, and I went home. I don’t remember the rest of the day or even telling my husband. Everything was unreal.
The next ultrasound confirmed our fears. There was a large cystic hygroma at the base of our baby’s brain. There was a small chance that this malformation of the lymph nodes would grow smaller as the baby developed in the coming weeks. If it didn’t, the prognosis would be definitive. The baby would not live.
As friends, family and coworkers started to congratulate us, we met them with the sad news. We had a few weeks wait before we’d learn if I’d get to meet the baby that I had begun to feel wiggling in my belly. Every conversation hurt. Every moment of not knowing was torture and a blessing of hope.
We discussed our options with my doctor. If the next results showed significant improvement, the prognosis was good. If there was little or no improvement, the baby would not survive outside the womb. There was no way of knowing if the baby would die in utero, or at birth.
“This defect is not compatible with life” she said. “With that prognosis, you will have two options. You can continue the pregnancy and follow it through to its known conclusion, or you can terminate the pregnancy.”
Those were our options. Living up to 6 months waiting for the life in my belly to extinguish, or have an abortion. An abortion—that medical procedure so stigmatized that we associate it with irresponsible whores. I would have to choose between daily physical and emotional torment and something that my childhood religion deemed worthy of eternal damnation. Add on the ticking clock. The laws of the land decreed the time table for when abortions are allowed, even for medical grounds such as ours. The doctors pushed the last ultrasound as late as possible while keeping our options available.
The news came. The doctor wouldn’t use the term “impossible” because we were in a catholic hospital. But the results were “not compatible with human life”. We relinquished the thread of hope we had clung to.
We debated our choice. Would the baby suffer less if we terminated? What did God want us to do? Could I live through a pregnancy knowing that this growing person was not going to live? It still feels surreal, like I watched it in a movie.
Our doctor practiced at a catholic hospital which refused to allow an abortion or even discussion of the procedure no matter the medical circumstance. My doctor was sympathetic and referred me to a colleague at a neighboring secular hospital to discuss our options.
We learned that a hospital abortion would cost $8000 out of pocket. My employer, like most, excluded coverage of abortions except when the mother’s life was in imminent danger. Our options were to pay $8000, or I would have 6 months living through a terminal pregnancy. We did not have $8000. We didn’t even have a line of credit that could handle that. I fought with the insurance company. I didn’t dare tell my employer. Suddenly I did not have a choice at all.
“There is another option that I extend in situations like this,” the second doctor said. “I have privileges at Planned Parenthood. I can do the procedure there and it is much less expensive, $900. It’s not a desirable option, but it is at least an option.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Planned Parenthood, let me share this with you. Many uninsured women rely on their services for regular medical care, wellness checkups, basic contraception and preventative diagnostics. Some locations also provide abortions. They have strict protocols to preserve a woman’s anonymity and safety. Strict protocols that are necessary because you can be denied employment if the wrong people found out. Strict protocols because of the bombings and murders and threats that are a real danger.
“If you decide to go to Planned Parenthood, this is how it will go,” she advised us. “When you arrive at the clinic, there will be a line of protesters. They may yell terrible things at you. They will have gruesome signs. They will have their children with them. These people are legally allowed to follow you from your car to our door but they cannot touch you. If they touch you, we have them arrested.
“Once inside, you will go through our security screening. Anyone accompanying you will have to pass security as well. No one will be able to accompany you past the waiting room to ensure the anonymity of all patients. Your husband will not be able to be with you as you are prepped. Also, by law you must undergo an ultrasound within 24 hours preceding the procedure and you are required to be advised that the fetus has a heartbeat and may experience pain during the procedure.
“You will be able to stay in the recovery room until you wake up. At that time, you will be escorted back to the waiting room to meet with whomever is driving you home. Usually the protesters are gone by midmorning so you probably won’t have to deal with them on the way out. Again, if they are there, they are not allowed to touch you or hurt you.
I wish things were different, but this is what we have to work with. Can I provide any more information to help you with your decision?”
“No,” I struggled to breathe. “We will let you know tomorrow what we decide.”
I’ll end my story here.
I share my story so that you can understand what it means when it’s said that American women’s right to reproductive care is endangered. This is not just the problem of the faceless women living in poverty or sex workers or irresponsible sluts. This middle-class, married, law abiding, tax paying, white woman did not have access to care with dignity which she should have had. That was in 2008. My options would be more restricted today. Is this what we want when we talk about freedom of speech or religion? I believe America can do better than this.
My hope is for congressmen and judges to consider real lives, like my family’s, while making laws around women’s reproductive rights and legislating access to care. I fear that the first amendment rhetoric has fooled us into thinking in abstractions, as if these laws couldn’t impact our own lives. Truth is, none of us knows what we may face or what our choice will be when real life confronts our ideology. I hope that American finds the path to compassion instead of judgment." —Gail