We are talking about abortion. Representative Todd Akin from Missouri made his absurd, infuriating, depressing remarks about “legitimate rape.” The Republican National Committee released its 2012 platform calling for an amendment to the Constitution and legislation to outlaw abortion. In all cases.
We are talking about abortion. Almost forty years ago, in January 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that a woman’s right to privacy extends to her right to have an abortion up to a certain point in her pregnancy but we are talking about abortion. Still. Again.
It is time for me to share a deeply personal story.
In late August 2007, I was thrilled to be 12 weeks pregnant. I was happily married and enjoying being at home with my then 18-month old son. My husband and I very much wanted another child. Because I was 35 years old, I elected to do a first trimester screen, a relatively new, noninvasive evaluation that combines a maternal blood-screening test with a fetal ultrasound to identify risk for specific chromosomal abnormalities.
I arrived at the doctor’s office for my screening appointment, signed-in at the desk, and sat down in the waiting room with “Parents” magazine. Within a few minutes, an ultrasound technician called my name. I rose, put “Parents” on a table, and followed the technician to a large, cold room where she instructed me to take my clothes off and put on the thin paper robe waiting for me on the examination table.
The technician gave me a few minutes to undress and then came back into the room. I lied down on my back, and placed my legs into the stirrups at the end of the table. The technician lifted my paper robe and inserted an ultrasound wand into my vagina. The technician looked at her screen. She looked at me. “Will you wait here, please,” she said.
I waited. My heart beat a mile a minute. Clearly something wasn’t right. She had only looked at the screen for a few seconds. A few excruciating minutes later, the technician came back into the room with a man who introduced himself as Dr. L, the head of the high-risk pregnancy department. Dr. L re-inserted the ultrasound wand into my vagina and took a look at the screen. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a compassionate voice, “Evelyn, will you please get dressed and come talk to me in my office.”
“Your baby has what is called an omphalocele,” the kind doctor said. He went on to explain that an omphalocele is a fetal abnormality where the contents of the abdomen (small and large intestine, stomach and liver) protrude through a hole in the abdominal wall, right where the belly button would be. Omphalocele occurs in approximately 1 of every 5,000 live births and is associated with a high rate of mortality and severe malformations, such as cardiac anomalies and neural tube defects. A high percentage of live-born infants with omphaloele have chromosomal abnormalities.
My baby has a hole?
I crossed my arms over my belly, hugged my baby gently and cried.
Then I wiped my eyes and asked Dr. L whether he would mind if together we called my husband to explain the situation. My head was spinning, my belly hurt, and I wasn’t sure at that moment whether I would be able to do more than cry and say “ our baby has a hole in her stomach” when I left that office. My husband is a pediatric intensive care physician and I wanted to make sure we had full medical knowledge. I called Larry, and prepared him briefly for the fact that I was going to put him on speaker so Dr. L could deliver some unfortunate news.
Can you imagine being Larry at that moment?
I left Dr. L’s office and drove straight over to Larry’s. As soon as Larry closed his office door, I released the floodgates of my grief. We held each other. We cried. Larry talked a little about the babies he’d seen born with omphalocele in the PICU. I talked about getting home to our son.
Later that evening, I called my rabbi. He is an insightful, delightful man and he came right over. We sat in my living room, my rabbi and I, talking about Judaism’s view on abortion.
“If a woman suffers hard labor, the child must be cut up in her womb and brought out one limb at a time, for her life takes precedence over [the fetus’] life. If the greater part has already come out, it must not be touched, because one life does not supersede another. (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6)”
Judaism has always accepted that life begins at birth, not at conception, and that abortion is permissible, or even mandatory, when the mother’s life is in danger. When the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards addressed abortion in 1983, its conclusion was as follows: “An abortion is justifiable if a continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.”
I had an abortion. I had an abortion in part because my faith says it is permissible. I had an abortion in larger part because my husband was on board with my decision. Mostly, however, I had an abortion because I knew that as much as I might want to be a stronger, “better” person, I would not be able to handle the particular challenges of having a baby with an omphalocele in my life without it adversely affecting my mental health, and, thus, my ability to care properly for my precious son. I'd suffered from post-partum depression after his birth and had recently recovered. I’d left my job to stay at home to nurture him, and I was finally feeling like I was doing a decent job. I did not want to spend the third year of my son’s life in the NICU, in and out of surgeries, or grieving for a dead child.
The vulnerability I feel in sharing my story is overwhelming. I am terrified of your judgment, or worse, your indifference. I am pushing past this. I am sharing because I believe in the power of storytelling and I am hoping that there might be some other average American women out there like me who have their own raw, messy abortion stories to tell.
Yesterday, Esquire posted a piece on its blog entitled “The Democrats Problem with Abortion,” in which the author states:
No more enabling. No more wishful thinking that the whole icky business would go away so we can all talk about The Economy, or, worse, The Deficit. No more clinging to "rape, incest, and the health of the mother." No more Clintonian caveats about safe, legal, and rare. ("Safe and legal." Full stop.) No more pathetic attempts to reach "common ground," when, at least in our politics, there plainly is no common ground to be reached. (If you want to argue that there is, take it up with Planned Parenthood.) No more, "Well, I respect the beliefs of the other side" goo-goo rhetoric. Just a simple demand that the conservative opposition respect the settled law.
I would like to see the Democratic Party make a national campaign issue out of the fact that this perfectly legal medical procedure is unavailable to women wishing to exercise their legitimate constitutional rights to it in most of the nation.
We are talking about abortion and I have a funny feeling that the only way we are ever going to be able to stop talking about abortion is if for the remaining 74 days until the 2012 presidential election, we don't. Please don’t stop talking about abortion. If you had an abortion, please tell your story. If you agree that the decision whether to have an abortion is one to be made between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her god, please say so. Say it to yourself. Say it out loud to friends and family. And please say it with your vote.