I used to think about killing myself.
When I was pregnant with my youngest child in late 2018 and early 2019, I would drop my older children off at school, drive home, and sit in the car for an hour before I could get up and go inside the house. I used that time to think about how I could do it: Car accident. Medication. A knife. I saw a therapist every week.
I feel like I am dead, I would think. I feel dead all the time. “I am mostly fine,” I would say. “A little sad.”
I didn’t particularly want to die. I simply thought it might be preferable to living if I needed another third-trimester abortion and couldn’t get it. The dread of that possibility, stoked by President Trump’s constant fearmongering on abortion, consumed more hours of my pregnancy than I like to remember. I was afraid someone would murder the one doctor in the country I knew would help me. I was afraid the law would change. I was afraid the clinic would be bombed. I carried these anxieties on top of the emotional weight of a new pregnancy after the one before it had ended in ashes. In the end, the baby (now a toddler) and I were both fine.
But in October 2017, I was 28 weeks pregnant. It was a boy. He would have been our third child. A team of specialists told us if he was born, he would either die or be severely brain-damaged. There was one man they trusted to help us end the pregnancy safely if that was what we wanted. He lived in Colorado. We went, we came back, we carried on. I became part of the community of people who have traveled to end their pregnancies in a small clinic in Boulder, Colorado.
The Boulder Abortion Clinic has withstood terrorism, vandalism, lawsuits, shootings, and garden-variety harassment for nearly 40 years. It is one of a mere handful of facilities in the country where a third-trimester abortion can be performed safely and legally. It is the only one obstetricians routinely know about and the only one to show up reliably near the top of a Google search for “third-trimester abortion.”
The clinic is owned and operated by Dr. Warren Hern, who, in those 40 years, has seen multiple colleagues gunned down and their homes burned to the ground. His clinic is the end of the line for many who walk through its doors: a last chance at choosing how the worst day of your life is going to play out.
This June, an extremist anti-choice group called Due Date Too Late gained enough signatures to get Initiative 120 on the ballot. Now, on Nov. 3, 2020, Colorado will vote on whether to ban all abortions after 22 weeks. If passed, it is veto-proof. The Boulder Abortion Clinic will close. And the good Catholic citizens of Colorado and others who voted for this initiative will sleep well at night, having kept the evil baby-killers at bay.
“The Boulder Abortion Clinic has withstood terrorism, vandalism, lawsuits, shootings, and garden-variety harassment for nearly 40 years. It is one of a mere handful of facilities in the country where a third-trimester abortion can be performed safely and legally.”
I spoke to six women, who, like me, traveled to Boulder, Colorado, for an abortion after 22 weeks. Because Dr. Hern specializes in later abortions when something has gone terribly wrong with a pregnancy, the rough contours of our stories are the same: the troubling finding during a routine ultrasound. The follow-up ultrasound, followed by an MRI. The team of specialists in a too-small room. And then, a doctor who mentions Colorado as a final option.
While I have removed specifics to protect their identities, the women I spoke with are Black, white, Asian, Christian, Quaker and atheist. I am Jewish. This is what we want you to know about what it would mean for Colorado to ban later abortions.
Taylor, who has elected to use a pseudonym out of fear for her job and the safety of her children, had had five miscarriages before her “miracle baby” was diagnosed with “Trisomy 5q, a hole in her heart, and a cleft foot” at 22 weeks. Two months ago, she learned her home state of Texas would not allow her to end the pregnancy, so she began “researching ways to force a miscarriage” before finding out about the Boulder Abortion Clinic. “I could have truly hurt myself,” she told me. “I was desperate [...] I was considering hurting myself.” After traveling to Colorado for her abortion at 23 weeks, she says her “heart still hurts but they helped me move forward.” She wants you to know that her abortion was done out of “love, not selfishness.”
In 2012, Kate Carson discovered the 35-week fetus she was carrying had such severe brain damage that, if born, her baby would not even be able “to sleep comfortably” or to swallow. But she could not get a clear answer on how much medical intervention would take place after her baby, Laurel, was born. Desperate to avoid forcing Laurel to suffer painful, fruitless interventions, Carson started to make plans to deliver her “off the grid.” That such a delivery would likely have either killed Carson or severely harmed her seemed irrelevant. When she was referred to the clinic in Colorado, Carson first thought she had been sent to an illegal, back-alley provider. She assumed she would at best lose her fertility and at worst, her life. She got on a plane to Denver two days later anyway.
Kathryn K. was 32 weeks pregnant when she sat in a room with “six doctors and medical professionals” at Denver Children’s Hospital. Kathryn told me, “My baby’s brain was only about one-third to half there and the surface was extremely smooth — indicating that her ridging was very, very tiny and that she would suffer up to 100 seizures per day [...] she likely wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own or swallow [...] at some point after the birth, we would not be able to refuse life-saving measures for her. We were told we could hope that nature would take its course during delivery and not monitor her. We were told that the delivery could become very difficult for me and could potentially endanger my own well-being.”
The team referred Kathryn to Dr. Hern, who first reviewed her file with the doctors in Denver and then performed his own ultrasound and exam before euthanizing the fetus and inducing labor at 34 weeks. If Colorado had not been an option, neither Kathryn nor her team knew of any other provider that would have seen her. She wants you to know that she is “disgusted” by the ballot initiative.
Erika Christensen has widely shared the story of her 2016 abortion, at 32 weeks, at the Boulder Abortion Clinic. In the years since, she has become a national advocate for abortion rights and compiled an open letter with many of our names and stories.
She wants you to know: “This is personal for me. Nobody should have to travel to get an abortion, but I was able to go to Colorado to get compassionate care when I needed it. I have friends who did as well, each with a unique story. I think people in Colorado will realize they don’t want to make such a big, life-changing decision for someone they don’t know, which is what this measure is asking them to do. People across the country are in the streets right now demanding less criminalization for individual behaviors that are logical results of our cruel, inequitable systems. That conversation has to include pregnancy outcomes, including abortion.”
“If Colorado passes this law, I do not know what future women like us will do.”
Just over three months ago, Robin, who is also using a pseudonym to protect her job and family, was 34 weeks pregnant when her fetus suffered a severe stroke in utero. Two weeks later, her parents drove her and her husband to the airport to travel to Colorado. At the clinic, she “talked with the doctor and counselor for hours.” Robin remembers thinking, the longer I talk, the longer she gets to live. Robin sang lullabies and held her rosary during the procedure. If Colorado had not been an option, Robin told me, “I would have had a C-section. The doctors would have tried to stabilize her and she would have had an MRI. There was no surgery or medicine that could fix her or save her. If she didn’t die at birth, I would have held her in my arms as she died.” She wants you to know that she is scared of what will happen if she needs an abortion in a future pregnancy and cannot access one.
Margot Finn was 29 weeks pregnant when she traveled to Colorado after finding that her fetus had lissencephaly, an incurable brain disorder. Finn has shared her story widely and written about our community and support groups. She wants you to know that she hopes anyone “who votes for an abortion ban that would prevent families like mine from accessing safe and legal medical care at the hands of willing providers has to suffer as my baby would have: clenched by seizures, choking on her own saliva, and laboring to breathe through chronic pneumonia while her parents watched her die. If that doesn’t seem like an appropriate fate to wish on someone, perhaps lawmakers shouldn’t leave families like mine with no other options.”
At this moment, no reliable studies exist that examine the emotional response to abortion among those who end a wanted pregnancy, as we are a relatively small subgroup of those who seek later abortion. Anecdotally, however, after over four years of speaking to others who have been through the same experience, I have learned that my thoughts of suicide and self-harm when I did not know if I would be able to access an abortion are not rare. They are also distinct from the intense grief most of us feel. Rather, they represent a desperate response to the lack of control pregnant women have over their own bodies in what is supposedly a civilized country. If Colorado passes this law, I do not know what future women like us will do.
Because a dying or severely disabled fetus exists within the set of reasons America has deemed marginally morally licit for later abortion, you will be inclined to sympathize with us more than with the other people a 22-week ban will hurt. You know ― those “sluts” who got an abortion at 25 weeks because they didn’t have the money at 12 weeks. Or because their husband beats them. Or because they lost their job. Or because they were homeless. Or because they took drugs and drank.
Since we are the “sympathetic” cases, I need you to listen to me, now. We are no better or worse than those others. The reasons for our abortions are not your fucking business. If that makes you uncomfortable, we understand — we have wrestled with these choices more than you will ever know.
Most of us would prefer to heal in private. The only reason we open our veins for you is in the event it changes your mind in the voting booth. If eating our pain lets you rationalize giving all pregnant people bodily autonomy, most of us reckon it a fair trade. But make no mistake about what is going on here: The public appetite for our grief and pain is obscene and we feed it in exchange for our rights.
When I was a child, a coyote got stuck in a trap near our house outside Los Angeles. It chewed its leg off. Then it got stuck in another trap. Then it died. That is what this country — and this legislation — does to those who need an abortion.
Abortion is liberty — even when it makes you uncomfortable. That is all you need to know.
Now, will you fight with us?
T. S. Mendola is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. She has published in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lilith, and Rewire.News, among others. Her work has won Best of the Net, a Best American Essays notable, and has been nominated for a Pushcart. Find her on Twitter @tsmendola or at tsmendola.com.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.