The Politics of Women's Health
My Late-Term Abortion
He explained the procedure to us, at least the parts we needed to understand. Unlike a simple first-trimester abortion, which can be completed in one quick office visit, a second-trimester termination is much more complicated, a two-day minimum process. He started it that day by inserting four laminaria sticks made of dried seaweed into my cervix. It was excruciating, and he apologized over and over as I cried out in pain. When I left the examining room, my mom and my husband were shocked -- I was shaking and ghostly white. The pain lasted throughout the night as the sticks collected my body's fluids and expanded, dilating my cervix just like the beginning stages of labor.
The next morning, Dave and my mother took me to the hospital in Boston. I was petrified. I had never had any sort of surgery, and I fought the anesthesia -- clinging to the final moments of being pregnant -- as I lay in that stark white room. As I started to drift off, my doctor held one of my hands, and an older, female nurse held my other, whispering in my ear, "You're going to be OK, I've been here before, lean on your husband." It was my last memory. When I woke up, it was all over.
Dave had to return to work the next day. He didn't want to leave me, and he certainly didn't want to return to the furtive stares of his co-workers, all of whom knew that we had "lost the baby." I really don't know how he did it. My mother stayed with me at home for the next week, trying to glue my shattered pieces back together with grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. I had no control over my emotions. I felt like a freak in a world full of capable women having babies, and I couldn't stop whimpering: Why did my body betray me?
For months, I hid from the world, avoiding social outings and weddings. I just couldn't bear well-meaning friends saying, "I'm so sorry." So I quarantined myself, and would try to go about my day -- but then, bam, heartbreak would come screaming out of the shadows, blindsiding me and leaving me crumpled on the floor of our house. It wasn't that I was questioning our decision. I knew we did it out of love, out of all the feeling in the world. But I still hated it. Hated it.
I wrote my doctor a long thank-you note on my good, wedding stationery. I thanked him for his compassion and his kindness. I wrote that it must be hard, what he does, but that I hoped he found consolation in the fact that he was helping vulnerable women in their most vulnerable of times. He keeps my note, along with all the others he's received, in a large bundle. And he keeps that bundle right next to his stack of hate mail. They are about the same size.
The trio of lawsuits that has been filed points to the Supreme Court's decision three years ago that overturned a similar so-called partial-birth abortion ban in Nebraska. The court, in Stemberg v. Carhart, ruled in a narrow, 5-4 decision that the ban was unconstitutional on two grounds: the lack of an exception to protect a woman's health; and the fact that the ban would prohibit even the most commonly used and medically safe abortion procedures throughout the second trimester of pregnancy. Many legal scholars think that this federal ban will also be ruled unconstitutional on those same grounds.
Because of the lawsuits, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 cannot be enforced, though it could be years before the abortion debate winds its way through the system and heads back to the Supreme Court. By that time, the composition of the court could be entirely different. "We are looking for a permanent restraining order," says Petra Langer, the director of public relations and government affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. "Who knows what the long-term situation will be? If George Bush is reelected, all bets are off, unfortunately."
But even the short-term situation is bleak. The doctor who performed my termination has stopped doing the procedure, worried that he might get caught up in a lawsuit. He is not a lawyer or a politician, and he doesn't know what this law means for him right now. "I may go to jail for two years," he tells me. "They can suspend my medical license. It would cost me a fortune to have a lawyer to defend me."
His fears are justified. "There are bunches of doctors out there who could be prosecuted today under this legislation," says Roger Evans, a lawyer for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The three injunctions cover only doctors who are affiliated with Planned Parenthood clinics, who are members of the National Abortion Federation, or who are one of the individual plaintiffs in the Nebraska suit. This leaves "scores of doctors who, if they perform an abortion that falls under the very broad definition of the banned procedure, could be prosecuted," he says.
The doctor who performed my termination talks about the women he has helped through the years -- the pregnant woman who was diagnosed with metastic melanoma and needed immediate chemotherapy, the woman who was carrying conjoined twins that had only one set of lungs and one heart, the woman whose baby had a three-chambered heart and would never live. Now, he is turning these women away. "Now, today, I can say no, but what is she going to do?" he says sadly. "What is she going to do?"
Way too nervous to sleep on that frigid morning this past November, I snuggled my bloated belly up to my husband and curled into a little question mark. Sixteen weeks pregnant, today we would finally have our full-fetal ultrasound, finding out whether our baby was developing normally. Given what happened the last time, I had every reason to be nervous.
The last four months had been a sort of emotional no man's land where the baby was concerned. While we were elated to be pregnant again, we were also terrified. It was hard to become fully attached to this pregnancy, knowing that it could be taken away from us. Instead of shopping for layettes, we were consulting genetic counselors. We now knew all too well that pregnancy was a hope, not a promise.
In the lobby at Beth Israel, I shoved my face into a tattered Redbook, waiting for Dave. As soon as he walked in, I started crying. "I'm so scared," I said. "I know, but everything is going to be OK," he answered, and gave me a hug.
Dave held my hand tightly as I lay down on the examining table. This time, the technician was chatty and jokey, while I was silent and concentrating. She pointed out the kidneys and the stomach, the two hemispheres of the brain, and the four chambers of the heart. I started to feel more optimistic. Everything looked fine, she said. She printed out pictures for us. She asked us if we wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl. She never left the room.
My doctor said the ultrasound was completely normal. Completely normal. They were the words I craved to hear, but at the same time seemed almost impossible to believe.
As the rest of our prenatal testing results started to pile up, all of them completely normal, we began to let hope back into our hearts. Of course, we know that anything can happen at any time. We'll never forget that. There will be many more months of worry -- and then, I guess, a lifetime more. At least for now, though, things look hopeful for our son. But I worry about my friends who are planning to have children now and in the near future, friends who are as naive as I once was. It's a different world these days. "Now, it's like the Stone Age, it's like a Muslim country here," says the doctor who performed my procedure. "This is the most backward law, it is not for a civilized country. If this was Iran, Iraq, I wouldn't be surprised. But to pass this law in the United States, what is this government doing?"
Gretchen Voss is a freelance writer.
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