I Didn't Worry About Abortion Law — Until I Needed an Abortion at 32 Weeks

Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Erika A. Christensen is a patient advocate for reproductive rights in New York state. Read more about her work at RHAVote.com or follow @RHAVote on Twitter. Opinions expressed here are her own.
I got the call from my husband. The genetic counselor he’d spoken to over the phone had shared our files with other geneticists in the obstetrics office who all confirmed our baby’s fatal condition. He also said, with confusion and disbelief in his voice, the counselor had mentioned Colorado as a possible option for obtaining our termination. His voice grew raspy as he said it again into the phone: Colorado.
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We lived in Brooklyn. Our world-class maternal fetal medicine doctors were in Manhattan.
It is hard to overstate the shock upon realizing your government has the final say over whether or not you can receive a medical procedure and, therefore, what you can do with your body. It is actually a little embarrassing to admit my naiveté now since, as a 35-year-old college-educated woman, I should have known.
But to know this kind of thing, you need to be paying attention.
Last month, we learned of a pregnant 17-year-old girl being held in the state of Texas after fleeing to the U.S. from Central America. This young Jane Doe was firm in her decision to seek an abortion, which she was repeatedly denied. And to be clear, she was not asking the government for an abortion. She was simply asking for a brief leave to receive an abortion paid for by private funds. Ultimately, a D.C. appeals court ordered the Trump administration to stop blocking Jane’s health care, and she was finally able to receive an abortion, albeit weeks after she first sought it.

It is hard to overstate the shock upon realizing your government has the final say over whether or not you can receive a medical procedure and, therefore, what you can do with your body.

It also turns out that Jane is kind of a badass. In a statement, she said, “No one should be shamed for making the right decision for themselves. I would not tell any other girl in my situation what they should do. That decision is hers and hers alone.”
As we watched this situation unfold in horror, we also learned the Trump administration is forcing deliberate anti-abortion policy and that there are more Janes.
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While, at first glance, it might seem I have nothing in common with this young girl, and indeed I have absolutely no idea what it is like to flee my home under unfathomably abusive conditions and travel to a foreign country in search of amnesty only to be taken hostage and denied a private, personal medical procedure while a bunch of white men in suits preach to me about Jesus. But I do know what it is like to be denied abortion care by the state, in my case the state of New York. And it is horrifying.
In April of last year I was pregnant for the second time with a very wanted baby boy after my first pregnancy ended in a devastating miscarriage at 10 weeks. I finally reached the third trimester of pregnancy after what felt like an endless litany of complications, an experience I recounted to Jezebel last year. Our baby had bilateral clubbed feet, velamentous cord insertion, and his hands were tightly clenched in every ultrasound. He rarely moved.
As the bad news racked up, we were also given small crumbs of hope in the form of growth — incremental, but growth nonetheless.
At 30 weeks, we went into our high-risk maternal fetal medicine office for a routine appointment, excited that we were getting close. We believed we were finally “out of the woods” and ready to be parents to a little baby boy, who we knew would have some issues, but we were so ready to meet. He was our little fighter already.
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But now our doctor found a new, alarming condition. I had developed severe polyhydramnios, or high fluid levels and, most crucially, our baby had stopped growing. Completely. All of the complications taken together told our doctors our baby had a fatal muscular condition that prevented him from being able to swallow. Swallowing is how a fetus practices breathing.
We asked our doctor what this would mean for our baby boy if we made it to term. He explained that the baby would live a very short time, likely minutes, before choking to death.
All of the hope we’d been desperately clinging to for eight months was gone in an instant.
Please hear me: If you have not been in this situation, you have no fucking clue what you would do. If you have never been told that the baby you’ve been carrying for eight months and want more than anything is so sick that there is no future, no hope, no life for him possible, then I assure you: You have no possible idea what you would do.
We could not imagine a scenario where I would carry this pregnancy for another two months only to watch a little baby suffer and die. And listen, maybe your religion or your personal philosophy does not allow you to see this situation as we did. But again, are you speaking from a place of first-hand knowledge or a theoretical? Because if it’s theoretical, again, you have no actual idea.
In “the old days” before my abortion, I’m embarrassed to admit I used to think, What kind of woman gets an abortion at 6-7-8 months? Or I would make ignorant, self-righteous statements, such as, “Oh I’m pro-choice absolutely, but I would just never personally have an abortion.” Now I look back at that dumb-dumb-oh-so-dumb woman and equate it to saying I’d personally never get chemo. Yeah, bitch? You’ve never had cancer!
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Or my favorite “old me” uneducated opinion: Sure, limits sound like a reasonable compromise. People should be able to decide they want an abortion by, say, four months. Yeah, that sounds right.
You see, at the time I was grappling with abstractions. I was pro-choice theoretically, but I’d never had a crisis pregnancy, or even considered crisis pregnancies in general, so I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was quite literally ignorant.

We could not imagine a scenario where I would carry this pregnancy for another two months only to watch a little baby suffer and die.

And thanks to internalized sexism, I’d allowed my brain to contemplate a narrative of the absent-minded woman who up and decides to get an abortion at 40 weeks out of…”convenience.” The word “convenience” now makes my skin crawl. I am embarrassed that I would ever sell my fellow women up the river like that, even if just by entertaining the idea.
But now, I know. I know it deep inside my bones. Any “belief system” that relies on you having to cast women as evil, callus, or incapable of making their own decisions is a system hell-bent on selling you a steaming pile of patriarchal bullshit.
After receiving our final, horrible diagnosis, we, along with our doctors, decided that the best course of action would be to terminate the pregnancy. This decision was made to spare everyone involved as much suffering as possible.
But when we went to the maternal-fetal medicine office for what would be our last appointment, the doctor explained that there was a 24-week cut off for abortions in New York State, with no exceptions for the health of the pregnant person or in cases of fetal non-viability. If we wanted to terminate the pregnancy, we would have to travel across the country to Colorado, far away from our regular doctors who had been with us every step of the way.
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And that’s when it first really hit me: It wasn’t enough that we were losing all hope we had to raise this baby boy. I was meant to feel shame too.
If I sound angry, it is because I am. I can always touch that acute, burning sensation of fury I felt in the doctor’s office, because it remains so close to my throat. It’s just kind of on simmer until I meet yet another woman who had to travel for an abortion, or when I meet a doctor with horror stories about patients who were not as lucky as me and had to carry their doomed pregnancies to term, or when the news introduces us to someone like Jane Doe.
I remain furious that women’s health decisions are ultimately being made by dudes-who-aren’t-doctors, but who have a whole lot of opinions that, by design, fly in the face of science, medicine, and compassion. And please spare me your compassion for the “unborn child.” When anti-choice advocates are waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to throw grotesque little baby dolls and shout, “Shame!” at the men in Congress who have let the Children’s Health Insurance Program expire, they might be able to make a credible claim to caring for “life.”
It has been a month since Jane received her abortion. So where are we now with the GOP’s dangerously aggressive anti-abortion agenda?
Earlier this month the justice department, led by Jeff Sessions, filed a petition to the Supreme Court accusing Jane’s ACLU attorneys of “misleading the government over the procedure's timing in an effort to evade a review by the top court.” In layman’s terms, the Trump administration was out-lawyered by Jane’s counsel who knew the justice department was trying every delay tactic in the book to try and get Jane past Texas’ 20-week cut off.
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The GOP’s new tax plan, essentially a cash-grab on behalf of our nation’s most wealthy citizens, includes “personhood” language for fetuses, allowing them their own savings accounts. Of course, this has nothing to do with savings accounts and everything to do with sneaking anti-choice language into a tax plan.
And in the federal Senate, there is a push to bring a 20-week abortion ban to the floor for a vote. It is not based on science. It is not based on widely accepted medical knowledge. It is based on fear and ideology.
While this bill has little chance of passing (though I’m not sure how any of us can think that about anything, ever again), it will give Republicans a chance to go on the record as being pro-shame. They’ll get to make long speeches and wheel out their ultrasound machines, focusing on the mighty powerful fetus, however small, while women further fade from the conversation.
Like the “before” me, the girl who existed in my body with my name who was ignorant to the invisible thumb of the government pressing against her uterus, we are all starting to see what happens when threats to our rights move from the abstract to the acute.
If we do not fight these attacks with the full weight of our strength as relatively privileged people, our angry daughters will wonder what the fuck we were all doing while the American government was holding teenage girls hostage as tactical practice for their war against all women.
So now, we are all Jane Doe. Whether we know it or not.
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