On a cold October morning, before the sun is up, my husband and I stand by a cartoon play set in the lobby of the children’s hospital, waiting to be called on. I’m 23 weeks pregnant, and my world has just been shattered.
They call on us and escort us back to a waiting suite just for us. This might be the hardest day of our lives, but at least we’ll get to cry in peace. I see a plaque next to the window that overlooks the city. “The Window of Hope” was donated by a family that is now welcoming us into a club that we want nothing to do with.
I’m called to my first appointment of the day, an MRI of my abdomen that will take about an hour. Because of the pandemic, I’ll have to go alone.
I’m in a giant metal tube that sounds like a construction site. A movie is on in the background to distract from the noise of the machine. It’s a movie I’ve seen many times, but it feels completely foreign and I just stare.
The tech gently tells me, “this next image we’ll need to take with you staying completely still.”
“Ok.” I think I say it out loud, but I’m not sure.
A recorded voice plays, “take a deep breath in ... now out ... now hold ...” and I do. I am a statue ― no breathing, no moving. I think maybe if I’m still enough, they’ll be able to see the part of my baby’s brain that they say is missing. Maybe if I’m still enough, they’ll run in and say, “We were wrong! Everything is fine! Finish planning your baby shower!” But they don’t.
The rest of the day is littered with cameras and wires and dark rooms with bright screens. It’s invasive and uncomfortable and there’s an unspoken tension in the air. Something’s wrong, but we have to wait for the big reveal at the end of the day to find out exactly how wrong it is. We put on a movie in our waiting room and I fall asleep.
Then, it’s showtime. We walk slowly to a socially distanced conference room. A team of very smart doctors and specialists — thankfully, all of them women — explain what they know and predict what they can.
I hear snippets of what they say, phrases like:
“Structure of the brain is missing”
“Fluid in the ventricles”
“More than one anomaly can mean genetic disorder”
“70% chance of this ... 45% chance of this ...”
“There’s just no way to know...”
I oscillate between sobs and asking questions and then sit in silence waiting for them to tell me what to do ... until I realize that they aren’t going to.
Seeing the anguish and confusion on our faces, one of the doctors asks if we want to chat alone. She explains the process of termination and what we can expect.
Then she gives me the advice that makes it OK to move forward. She says, “Think about it, go over it, talk about it and make a decision. Once you’ve made the decision and it’s final, then don’t go back. Don’t try to renegotiate the past. Decide and never look back.”
So we did.
The next day, we’re in a different hospital. It’s hard to navigate and far too crowded for a pandemic. We stand in a taped circle on the floor. Someone asks if I would like to take their seat and smiles at my pregnant belly. I start crying.
We’re called back to a tiny room and I lie down on the table just like it’s another sonogram. A doctor and his assistant can’t seem to look me in the face, or maybe that’s just how it feels. We are all deeply reverent of the grim reality of what’s about to take place. I see a giant needle and bury my face into my husband’s chest and we cry.
And just like that, it’s done. His heart stops instantly.
“In the end I thought about what I would choose if it were me and I can confidently say that I would not choose a life of suffering for myself, so I would not willingly inflict it on someone else. I have no regret and would make the same decision if I had to do it over.”
That was the saddest moment of my life ― I can pinpoint it and still feel it. I can see what I was wearing and hear the machines beeping. It feels like part of me never left that room.
It took two days in the hospital to deliver. The doctors and nurses were incredible. I will never forget the understanding and compassionate care I received from those amazing humans.
Every day we live with the decision we made, one that was reached only after experiencing unimaginable grief and making desperate phone calls, research and consulting with experts, and crying with our parents. In the end, I thought about what I would choose if it were me and I can confidently say that I would not choose a life of suffering for myself, so I would not willingly inflict it on someone else.
I have no regret and would make the same decision if I had to do it over.
And, while my story is harrowing, I feel it’s important to point out that abortions performed after 21 weeks account for fewer than 1% of total abortions. Yes, my choice was devastating, but at least there was a pretty clear path forward for me. The same cannot be said for many other women who are considering an abortion. Often, their decision is complicated by factors outside of their control.
I was very lucky to be living in a state where the abortion laws work to empower women instead of seeking to deceive, deflect and deprive. Many women do not. But abortions don’t stop when access is restricted, and with fewer providers comes longer waits, which force women to continue with a pregnancy they are trying to end as early as possible.
In some states, a woman must have an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, then wait days before she can obtain an abortion, increasing the risk to her health. Politicians in Kentucky have passed an amendment to eventually ban abortion with no exceptions for incest, rape, or even if the mother’s life is in danger. Politicians in Georgia and Texas have attempted to enact laws making the act of obtaining an abortion punishable by death. These measures aren’t pro-life, they are anti-woman. It’s not about saving life ― it’s about control.
In the end, it was my choice. It was a decision made between me and my husband and my doctors, and if anyone not personally involved thinks they or a politician on a moral soapbox deserves a place in the conversation, they are profoundly mistaken. If anyone thinks it is easy or fun to make this kind of unthinkable decision or that it’s made hastily, they are wrong.
Still, regardless of why someone goes through what I just went through ― even if it’s for a reason that we do not understand or agree with — they should have the choice. They should have the right.
It’s been five months since my abortion, and I still cry every day. I haven’t gone back to work and I’m in therapy even though I know I will never again be the person I was before this happened.
The finished nursery still sits untouched like a time capsule from when everything was still OK, and I can’t begin to describe the deep gut-wrenching ache that I feel when I step inside. But there’s a little more sunlight with each passing day. It’s not the first thing I think of when I wake up anymore, and I’ve started reaching out to the people I love.
We’re starting to think less about what happened and more about what happens next. The pandemic has been a convenient reason for not trying to get pregnant again, but as the end of it nears, I’m finding I’m not as ready as I thought I was. I don’t know what the future holds for me and my husband, but I know we are stronger for enduring this together.
P.S. To the woman reading this who is experiencing something similar, I’m with you and I support you. There is no right answer, and this isn’t fair to you. But I want you to know that one day, you’ll wake up and notice that you aren’t suffocating anymore. The crying bouts will become fewer and you will come out of this with a strength you’ve never known before. One morning, you might even sit down and write about it as a love letter to all of the women that follow you.
Kelly Perry is a designer and artist. She formerly worked in elementary special education and volunteered in the Down syndrome community. Kelly continues to be an advocate for choice and a voice for change.