Elizabeth* is 35. She grew up in the South, currently lives in Brooklyn, and has been married for two years. After a previous miscarriage at 10 weeks, she was overjoyed to find herself pregnant for a second time. At 31 weeks, she found out that the baby boy she was carrying wouldn’t be able to breathe outside the womb and would not survive. And at 32 weeks, she flew to Colorado to get a shot that would start the process of a third-trimester abortion; she then flew back to New York to finish the delivery. We talked on the phone two weeks into her recovery.
Have you always been pro-choice?
Yes. I grew up in a pretty liberal family, or at least, my mom’s side of the family is liberal. My dad’s side is more conservative. They’re divorced now, and my dad’s family doesn’t know this part. I’ve had to tell the abridged version of the story to a lot of people.
The abridged version being—
That we lost the baby at 32 weeks. Which is true.
Do you get the sense that people want specifics when you tell them that?
Well, it’s so recent that I’ve mostly been in a cocoon. I know I’m not very good at pretending to be good when I’m not. My instinct is to always just be by myself, be miserable, and then when I’ve gotten through it, then I’ll come out. But we’re lucky. People have been great with giving us space, letting us know they’re there when we’re ready.
How many people know that you got the abortion?
My mom and our very closest friends. Probably 10 people, if you don’t include the people at work that my boss told, which is a bad little side note. I have really amazing insurance through one of my day jobs, in a small department of an investment bank. When this all started to happen, I told my boss, because I didn’t know how long I would be gone from work. He took it upon himself to tell our department.
Yeah. I’m a very private person—Facebook didn’t even know I was pregnant—and I feel humiliated. It’s a blatant HIPAA violation. In retrospect I shouldn’t have told him anything, but either way, everyone knows now, and I feel like I really can’t go back.
I want to go back in time a little. You said in your initial email to me that you’d been pregnant before, and then miscarried at 10 weeks.
That was last summer. I got pregnant on our first try, last July. We were really excited about it. Everything seemed to be fine at first, and then we found out at 10 weeks that there was no heartbeat. That was September 2015, and I had a D&C.
Had you told anyone?
Our moms knew, but that was really it. Most of our friends we told later: “Hey, just so you know, we were pregnant and lost it.” They found it all out in one shot.
People don’t know how to react to either miscarriage or abortion, I think. There’s a lot of projection. What was your read on the way people talked to you about it?
I think there are a few camps. First, there’s the “everything happens for a reason” camp. “There’s a plan for you,” that general line of bullshit. You always appreciate where the person’s coming from, but it’s not very helpful if you’re a person who just fundamentally disagrees with that, like I do. Somebody said once that, after a tragedy, if what you’re compelled to say starts with “at least…” then you should just shut up. I think that’s pretty true.
Then, there are the religious people who felt the need to pray for us, which is fine, and I can appreciate that, too. Then, there were a lot of people who shared miscarriage stories that we hadn’t known, who told us, “I had 1 or 2 miscarriages before I had my baby.” Those stories, you really appreciate. People are trying to commiserate with you.
What was the conversation like with your doctor after the miscarriage?
Just that it happens. Miscarriages are so common, and 90 percent of the time they’re because of some random genetic abnormality. They don’t do an autopsy or anything until three miscarriages, generally. I have a wonderful, very fancy Upper East Side OB who told me, “This is awful, and it’s especially bad emotionally because it’s your first one, but it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.”
When you’re ready, they always recommend that you wait one cycle and then try again. So we waited one cycle and got pregnant again on the next try, in October.
Before this, you’d never been pregnant before?
No. I’d spent 15 years with the pull-out method, and that shit works.
And with this second pregnancy, there were complications.
Yeah. It was normal at first, through the first genetic test, which they call a CVS. It’s a pretty common test for women of a certain age or women who have had a history of anything in their families. They’ll basically stick a needle through your stomach—and it hurts, by the way; anyone who’s had it knows that it feels terrible—to take fluid out of the sac, which they test for genetic abnormalities, for Down’s, all kinds of stuff.
That test happens at 13 weeks, which is earlier than the amnio, which is our other big genetic testing option these days. Everything came back negative, meaning everything was good. They did, however, figure out that I had a weird-shaped uterus: a normal uterus is shaped like a pear, but mine was shaped like a heart. They call it “bicornuate.” It’s rare, but not necessarily bad news; it just meant the baby would stay on one side, in essentially a studio instead of a one-bedroom.
That’s also when we found out we were having a boy. We had a really fancy 4-D ultrasound, and he was waving at us.
What was the first sign of a problem?
It was around 16 weeks, I think, when we got the scan that looked like his feet were turned in—like club feet. Our doctor said he was OK, that we’d just keep watching it. Then, also around that time, we found out that I had a weird umbilical cord, or velamentous cord insertion. Normally, an umbilical cord is implanted in the center of a placenta; mine was way on the edge. That affects blood flow, affects how blood and nutrients get to the baby, so they put me on rest. And, unrelated, I was also bleeding—these huge bleeds that looked like I was having a heavy period.
None of these things, by the way, are related. They’re all random and rare, and on their own, they’re manageable problems. So I just kept going back every two weeks, and he kept growing, and everything looked good.
How would you describe your state of mind at this point?
Nervous. We weren’t really telling people. I’m tall, and I have a long torso, and it was winter, so I could cover myself with layers. I told my close friends, but I was always saying, “It’s really dicey.” We were braced for the worst.
Then, they did a blood test and found really bad news. Really bad. When my OB called to tell me about these results, she sounded like someone had died. Basically, there’s a certain protein that exists inside the fetus, and a tiny bit is supposed to get into the mother’s blood, but very little. I had four times the median of what’s normal.
So they immediately thought about muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, things like that. They rushed me in, did a full scan, measured everything. And they couldn’t find anything. He looked fine. My doctor said all we could do is keep checking. We kept getting all this troubling information, but as long as he looked good, what are you going to do? Some people probably would’ve aborted earlier, maybe based on projected bad news, but…
After that blood test, you mean.
Yeah, some people would’ve terminated at that point. It was still legal in New York. We had until 24 weeks.
Was that ever suggested to you?
No, no one ever said it. Even later, when the situation was getting obviously very dire, no one brought it up. Or if they suggested it, it was very carefully. After all, it’s very rare to have all these bizarre things happening at the same time, but still, people experience worse things and then give birth to normal babies. Our doctor kept saying, “As long as he grows, this is good news.”
We get, somehow, to the second trimester. Then we find out that his feet really are clubbed. I was so upset at first, because he was officially not going to be perfect. I know that sounds crazy, especially in retrospect—but you have that hope that he’ll be perfect.
But our doctor didn’t really care about the club feet. People get casts when they’re babies, and grow up to be fine. I did my research, and soon I was telling anyone who would listen, like, “Kristi Yamaguchi had club feet!” It all became part of this kid being even more special, in a way. He was getting through all these crazy challenges and continuing to grow.
Then, in the 20s, week-wise, they get concerned that his hands are closed in every scan. And at this point, I was getting scans every two weeks. So now it was both his feet and his hands. But there was no diagnosis, and he was still growing. And limbs are secondary. You can have surgery, as long as the brain and the digestive system and the heart are fine.
It must have been such a quietly difficult thing to keep adjusting your expectations.
Our doctor had told us, “Look, if your baby gets to 28 weeks, he has a 75 percent chance of being born and being normal. If we can get him to 32 weeks, he has a 95 percent chance of being totally fine.” So we were just concentrating on that, hanging on to the idea of getting him to 32 weeks.
I’m wondering what you told yourself through all this that allowed you to be prepared for the worst and also hopeful.
There were certainly dark moments. There were months where, every time we went to the doctor, we learned something new and terrible. Every single time. And so at first, I told myself, “Don’t get too attached.” Every single thing we learned, I would Google what it meant, and the risks, and I’d be upset. And then, eventually, I would absorb it into the narrative of this pregnancy and just tell myself, “You know what? This kid is coming from a long line of fighters.”
Right. The bottom line is the hope of getting through.
But then what happened was like—let’s say you’re looking for traffic down a one-way street, and you’re only looking in one direction, and then you get hit by a biker coming down the other way. I was so concerned with his growth, and him making it to a certain period, that it didn’t occur to me that something completely unrelated might come down the pike. Do you know what I mean?
You mean that the abnormality you found out about at 31 weeks was, again, totally random.
But before then, you’d have hit your viability mark. What was that like?
It was getting very obvious. People were getting up for me on the train. Strangers were starting conversations with me about pregnancy. We were even warming up to the idea of some sort of baby shower, which we’d felt like was a jinx. Even if you’re trying as hard as you can to not invest in the idea, at a certain point, you just do.
Did you have stuff for the baby? Names?
We did start to talk about names. We were researching great warriors, because it felt right that this guy should have a warrior name, considering the odds he was fighting. His working name was Spartacus, which was supposed to be a fill-in until we came up with something else. On my Google calendar, my due date said “SPARTACUS!”
We did have some family members get us some things as gifts, some friends who gave us hand-me-downs. We took classes, because neither of us know shit about babies. We took baby CPR. We were starting to tentatively plan that this person was going to show up, and once we hit 30 weeks, we got very excited. We thought, “Even if I go into labor tomorrow, he has a very strong chance of making it.”
What happened at 31 weeks?
We went back to get a growth scan, and we saw the growth had fallen off a cliff. And this was the first time that we had been presented with this idea that there was something deeply wrong with the baby that had nothing to do with me. Until that point, all the really bad news had been with me, and my weird body. He had been thriving despite the environment.
But on this scan, he’d gone from the 37th percentile to the 8th. And he wasn’t swallowing.
Was your husband with you at every appointment?
He didn’t miss a single one.
And this is the one where the doctor told you that the baby wouldn’t be able to breathe.
Yes. With the feet turning in, the hands clenched, the not swallowing, the doctor told us that he suspected there was something muscular going on—something deeply, deeply wrong.
I want to say, also, we were at a high-risk medical center in New York City. We’d been long ago passed off by my regular OB. All the doctors are highly published; we really trusted them. So there was no ambiguity when they realized something was really, really, really deeply wrong. They had been really optimistic the whole time; they see the worst cases and often still get good results. When they were upset, we knew it was bad.
What happened after that appointment?
The doctor said, “Let me talk to the geneticists. Come back in a week.” So actually, this was about 30 and a half weeks. He told us we’d make a decision the following week.
So at that point, we knew that it was probably not going to work out. But at the same time, of course, I was still holding on to hope that, maybe... I don’t want to use the word miracle, but maybe it was a bad scan, I thought.
And you hear the word “miracle” so often in these stories.
Yeah, and I’m Googling everything all over the place. Lots of miracles, so to speak. But so we went back and met with the team. They did an amnio, they did a micro-array. We were looking for a diagnosis, my husband and I: we wanted to be able to call it something, mostly to make sure that there wasn’t something underlying that might happen again. The doctor reiterated that my previous miscarriage had nothing to do with this, but of course a part of me wondered.
In the week previous to this second appointment, I had taken a freelance job just to keep my mind off the waiting. So I was out of town when my husband talked to the geneticist, who said that there was no diagnosis, but that any outcomes would be severe. That’s when he realized that from a medical standpoint, the situation was bad, and terminal. He didn’t realize initially what that meant in terms of our options—that the laws in New York meant we couldn’t do anything in the state. I was shocked too, for some reason, when he told me. I thought, “We live in New York, this is crazy.”
So then we talked about Colorado, and then I came back from that job, and we went back to the doctor’s and got the final, final diagnosis.
This baby was unviable, basically. That’s what they say. They say that the baby is “incompatible with life.”
Did you consider carrying to term despite that?
This is another fun side note. I was already going to have to have a C-section no matter what, because two years ago, I’d had brain surgery. And my doctor checked with the neurosurgeon, who wouldn’t sign off on a natural birth. They were afraid that if I pushed, something might go on in my head, so the delivery had to be a C-section. And so we were considering putting me through major abdominal surgery for a baby that’s not going to make it, or risking that I go into natural labor and something pops in my head and I die, basically.
To be clear, if the doctors thought there was any way he might make it, I would have taken that chance. I truly would have put myself through anything. What I came to accept was the fact that I would never get to be this little guy’s mother—that if we came to term, he would likely live a very short time until he choked and died, if he even made it that far. This was a no-go for me. I couldn’t put him through that suffering when we had the option to minimize his pain as much as possible.
So you’re going to Colorado.
There are a few doctors in the country—four of them, you interviewed one of them—who will do this. But my doctor had previously referred patients to Dr. Hern, who’s in Boulder. He’s this 78-year-old man who’s been doing this for decades, who developed a lot of the abortion procedures that we know to be the most safe. He’s had 37,000 patients and he’s never lost anyone. And he’s a zealot, but he has to be. There are websites dedicated to offering money to kill him; his practice has four layers of bulletproof glass. They’ve been shot at. He was there during the Roe v. Wade decision. He’s been through it all. And the only other peer he had at his level was Dr. Tiller, who was killed in 2009.
He’s got no trainees, either, you said.
He has one other guy who is studying with him right now, but that doctor is an old man as well; he’s a guy who was practicing in Texas until Texas passed that slate of restrictions.
My doctor told me: “We’ve worked with Dr. Hern. We know he’s amazing. People who have gone to him have gone on to have healthy pregnancies, and that’s what’s most important to us. We want to make sure you’re healthy and intact at the end of this.” They gave us the clinic’s information, and they told us to let them know what they could do.
So I called the clinic in Boulder, and talked to this amazing woman—the kindest, most patient woman on this Earth, who is used to talking to people in really bad situations—and I told her everything that was going on with us. She immediately said she needed to get Dr. Hern involved because of the history of with my brain. And then it took almost another full week for my doctor in New York, Dr. Hern in Colorado, and my neurosurgeon in New York to all get on the same page about the best course of action.
What was that week like?
Terrible, and sad. I just wanted to be done with it.
How did your emotional relationship to the baby change once you realized he wasn’t viable? Your instinctive sense of what was inside of you?
I got numb. The night that we found out that he really wasn’t going to make it, my husband and I came home and drank bourbon. We raised our glasses and my husband made a toast “to Spartacus.” And when I had a sip of bourbon, it was over. Do you know what I mean? I had been so careful. I had been a health nut throughout the entire pregnancy, and at that point, it was like, fuck it, I’m trying to keep my sanity the best I could.
Of course, I’m still having to walk around looking pregnant and people still commenting on it. And you don’t want to make people feel bad, so you’re going along with it when the guy at the grocery store congratulates you. It feels fucking terrible. I wanted it done as quickly as I could.
What took your doctors a week?
The time difference, the fact that there were three of them, and the fact that Dr. Hern said, in the end, that he didn’t feel comfortable doing the whole procedure at his practice, which is a clinic and not a hospital.
Doctors will tell you: this push to make all abortions happen in hospitals, it’s ridiculous. There’s just no need, normally. When you do need a hospital, your doctors will make sure that you’re in the right place where you need to be. So they decided that the best course of action would be for me to fly to Colorado, and get a shot of this drug that they put through your stomach to stop the baby’s heart, which only Dr. Hern could dispense; then they would give me another drug to keep me from going into labor.
God. And then you got on a plane?
And then I got on a fucking plane back to New York.
How long were you in Colorado all told?
36 hours, give or take.
Before we get to the details: you’d never had an abortion before this, right?
No, never. I’d had a D&C when I miscarried at 10 weeks, but I’d never gone to an abortion clinic.
What were your first impressions of that day?
It was surreal. We didn’t know what to expect. The first thing: their security is super-tight. You can take absolutely nothing in there with you. They don’t even let you bring a Kindle or anything electronic. You can bring a book and your method of payment and your ID, that’s it—and one person, which for me was my husband.
The whole thing felt strangely like going back in time, partly because they can’t take insurance. I don’t totally know why—I think it’s just very hard, with different laws in different states—so they take cash only, which is also a crazy thing.
Will your insurance retroactively reimburse you for anything?
Today, actually, I sent a request for reimbursement to my insurance company. But I have no idea whether they’re going to accept it or not. Either way, the clinic is really good about working with you as far as your own insurance situation goes: they help you fill out all the paperwork, they make it as clear as possible that this is a medical issue.
I have really good insurance right now, so I do have the hope they’ll reimburse for something. Because here’s one thing you should know. If you get the entire procedure done at the clinic at this late date, it’s $25,000. Cash.
Sit with that. If you get the whole thing done and you’re late-term like me, it’s a four-day procedure and it costs $25,000. That was another reason I was freaking the fuck out in the lead-up to this. My mom was looking into money she might move around to try to help me pay for this.
How much did you pay that day?
For me, to get the shot only, it was $10,000.
$10,000. I had to give them my check card and pay $10,000 on the spot.
That would be it for most people. Most people are forced to carry to term because they can’t afford that. I’m very lucky to have been able to afford last-minute plane tickets, hotel rooms, and a $10,000 shot. I’m global 1% lucky. And by the way, people are flying to this clinic from all over the world and all over the country. There was a 16-year-old in the room next to me, and there was a woman from Finland. If you’re desperate enough, you’ll scrape it together, I guess. There are also third parties, organizations that will help you pay for at least a portion of it if you truly cannot.
In my case, my mom gave me the $10,000, and I still have some hope that we’ll get something back. From what I understand, my insurance company will probably reject me at first and then it’ll go into appeals and then, eventually, they should pay something.
Can you tell me more about the clinic?
Inside, it feels very much like the ‘70s. There’s wood paneling, wicker furniture, a super-old sonogram machine. They don’t have a lot. The clinic is clean, but it’s old. They try to stretch the money as much as they can. I made friends with a nurse who was from Brooklyn, and she told me that the reason that the procedure is so expensive is because, first, their insurance is so crazy high, and second, the whole staff—the nurses, the front desk—is paid really well because they’re risking their lives to be there.
So between the insurance and the good staff salaries, the money’s gone. $25,000 sounds like a lot for a procedure, but these procedures are rare; it’s not like he’s doing a lot of these. They are not profiting. Right now, they’re in desperate need of a new roof. That’s the kind of situation Dr. Hern is working with.
And then, inside, everyone is extremely kind. Everyone treated us with respect and sensitivity. There’s a lot of people saying “You’re doing the right thing,” which is something that we hadn’t really heard yet. It is an empowering place: there are pamphlets there that say, “You’re a woman. You know what’s best for you.” They’re just there to help you get through the worst day of your life as easily as possible, basically. That’s really how it felt.
What’s the first part of the procedure?
Preliminary testing. They test your blood, your pee. They want to make sure that you have no other drugs in your system, not even weed, though that’s legal in Colorado. They want to make sure you’re making a sound decision.
Then they do the sonogram. They put the screen behind your head so you don’t have to look. And then it’s time for the shot, and this was the only time my husband wasn’t with me throughout the entire eight months. He couldn’t come in. I felt like maybe they are really careful about people being forced to do this; you can tell they are conscious of all the possible scenarios.
They want to get you away from the partner.
Yeah. They want to make sure that you’re alone for some time, which I can appreciate, but not having my husband with me for arguably the worst moment of the entire eight months of pregnancy, was very hard. (Also, to be fair, the room was very small.)
So they took me into the room, and there were two nurses in there with Dr. Hern. He’s this tall, older man, with a deep voice that sounds like Tom Brokaw. He’s really matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I asked him if he thought the baby would feel the shot, and he said no. I mentioned an article I’d read about tests where they prick a baby in utero, and the baby jumps. I asked him, “Doesn’t that mean that the baby can feel pain?”
He said, “No. If you prick a frog, it jumps because it has reflexes. A fetus does have reflexes, but doesn’t mean that they can feel and contemplate pain.” He told me that whatever that fetus feels is not like the pain they would feel on the outside.
“That’s real pain,” he said. “And whatever he might feel, it doesn’t touch the pain you are feeling as a grown, thinking, feeling woman.”
It was interesting to me, as a liberal, non-religious person, to see how much of that anti-choice rhetoric I had internalized. I can already hear the other side saying, “Well of course he’s going to say that. He’s a fucking abortion doctor.” But I think he’s really honest. He’s a brilliant doctor with 40 years of information, and he was giving us really no-nonsense information the whole time.
I imagine he understood, also, that you were there for the procedure no matter what. I guess I mean that I assume he knows most of his patients are there to terminate a pregnancy. They are prepared for an event more difficult and final than pain.
I think so. I’ve gone back and forth, but I think so. When I asked him, I said, “Not that this would change my mind, but.”
Are you on an IV at this point?
No IV. You lay on a table and they numb out an area on your stomach. They have a sonogram on you so that they can place the injection directly through your stomach into the baby.
Were you scared?
I was very scared. It was really awful. I had a nurse holding my hand, talking me through it.
Where were you looking?
I was just looking up. She was talking me through everything he was doing. He gave me one shot to numb the area and then one more to stop the baby’s heartbeat.
Did it hurt?
It did. It wasn’t as bad as that CVS test that I was talking about earlier, but it was maybe a little bit worse than an amnio, if anyone knows what that feels like. But it was pretty fast, and then it was over. They turned me on my side and just gave me tissues while I cried for a long time. Then, they put you in these little private waiting rooms. My husband was waiting for me. We just sat there while they checked every 15 minutes, and eventually, the heart stopped.
They had a name for that. I want to say “stasis” or something; it’s interesting psychology. They kept saying that they were looking for something to happen as opposed to looking for something to stop happening. So instead of “We’re waiting to get the heart stopped,” they were saying, “We’re waiting for stasis,” or whatever term it was that tricked you into thinking it was not as bad. I don’t know.
An event and not the end of an event.
How long did it take for the heart to stop?
They tell you it can take anywhere up to four hours. For us, it took, I think, maybe an hour and a half. We were just trying to distract ourselves. They laid me down on this bed, and nurses were coming in to talk to us. Dr. Hern came in for a minute and my husband talked to him about political policies for a while.
That’s when my husband asked him, “Given the current political climate and what’s happening to reproductive rights, do you feel hopeful at all about the future?” Dr. Hern was like, “No, I really don’t.” It was pretty depressing, and again, that’s how he is: he’s very no-nonsense, very, very honest. He was like, “Look, the fact of the matter is, who wants to go through med school and all that work and all that debt to come out of it not making any money, having threats on their life? Having to deal with leaky roofs?” And of course, the answer is no one. No one wants to sign up for that. You would have to be as much of a zealot as he is.
How long were you at the clinic, all told?
Probably six hours with all the testing, the waiting, the shot, all of that. Then, we still had a lot of time until our flight. We were taking a red-eye, so we got a airport hotel, took a nap, and then took the flight back to New York. We got in at like 6 a.m., and then my procedure in New York wasn’t until 10 p.m., because they induce labor overnight because it takes so long.
Are you okay? This is a lot.
Oh—are you okay? This is much easier for me, I think. I’m just listening.
I’m fine. We haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet, although getting the shot was pretty bad. So we came back to New York, and my mom was in town. As luck, I guess, would have it, she’d already planned to be there that week to help us get ready for the baby. I am so grateful; I could not have gotten through the week without her. We spent the day distracting ourselves, and then that night, we went into labor and delivery at Mt. Sinai.
It was the normal labor and delivery department. There were pictures of babies everywhere. There was a pregnant lady in labor and she’s like a cartoon, making all the “Hee, hee, hoo,” noises, giving me solidarity face. I had some deeply uncharitable thoughts.
Yeah, I can’t imagine that sense of alienation.
Tactfully, they put us in a room pretty quick, but then a nurse came in who had no idea, all smiling and talking about where we would put the baby. After that, one of the nurses went out and put the sad sticker on our door, as we called it—this purple sticker, which basically means, “be cool in here because bad shit’s going down.” After we got the sad sticker, everyone was very sensitive.
One of the OBs from the high-risk practice was there. He talked us through the process: they would induce labor, basically, which he said would take some time. Then they would give me an epidural, and I’d go to sleep, and then after I woke up—I couldn’t push, remember, so they’d be using forceps to basically pull the baby out. The doctor said, and I quote, “Once we give you the epidural, you won’t feel a thing.” And, because I was not delivering a live baby, I was allowed to have morphine. They were giving me anything, offering me Xanax. I had a really sweet nurse who was from our neighborhood and so we were just talking about it, trying to be as normal as possible.
So they gave me the epidural, and I passed out. I woke up super-early the next morning with contractions. It hurt really badly. They were like, “Huh.” And so they basically topped me off. There was a little thing where they could inject more medicine directly into the epidural into your spine, and they kept giving me what they called “top-offs,” but I kept feeling the contractions, and they were getting worse and worse and worse.
They told me that maybe the epidural had slipped out, or wasn’t in correctly. They said they’d have to take it out and put it back in. I was scared; it really, really hurts to get an epidural. But they said they needed to. So they took it out, put it in a second time. I had two good hours where I didn’t feel anything. And then it wore off again. I was feeling all of the contractions. They were getting worse and worse and worse. The doctors on the shift were men, with big hands, and they were checking my cervix, really getting up there. It hurt so, so, so bad.
Then a female doctor came on, with smaller hands, and her exam didn’t hurt as much. I felt lucky that I had a woman on when things were really happening. She was like, “Look, we really can’t wait anymore. Your contractions are really close, and I don’t know why this epidural is not working. We’re going to have to just go for it. We have to do it.”
So basically, the combination of the epidural not working and me not being able to push meant that this doctor essentially had to pull the baby out. So she was inside of me. She was inside of me almost up to her elbow.
Induced labor for a baby that wasn’t alive, and two epidurals that weren’t working—it’s hard to imagine a woman’s body fighting anything more.
It was beyond. I almost don’t even remember. I know it was blindingly painful, so much so that I asked for a break because I was sure I was going to pass out. She gave me five minutes, and then she said, “I’ve got to go back in there.” All told, I was in labor for 24 hours.
How long did it take her to pull?
Hours and hours. I don’t even know exactly, but forever.
This sounds horrific.
It was a delivery. I felt every body part coming out. I felt the whole thing.
The whole time, also, I had been dealing with violent shivers. At first I thought it was a seizure, but my doctors told me it was adrenaline trying to fight the epidural. My husband had to put weight on my chest. I thought maybe I was just cold, but I was sweating. I shook and shook and shook.
Then finally, she got the baby out, but she needed to get the placenta, which hadn’t dislodged itself yet. She tried to yank it out, but it was so painful that she said, “Look, we can’t do this. This is too much.” And so in the end, they had to take me in for a D&C anyway to get the placenta out. They gave me anesthesia at that point; they surgically removed the placenta and cleaned my uterus out.
That’s awful. That’s so awful.
I know. And there wasn’t another way to do it. I had to have those contractions to give birth. I just wasn’t supposed to feel them. Shout out to that woman doctor, though: when I went in for my follow-up appointment, it was with a nice big bottle of Woodford for her efforts.
What happened with the baby you delivered?
At some point, a social worker came in to see if we wanted to see the baby after birth, basically. They have a lot of different options for this, most based on religion or just on people’s wishes. Some people want to hold their baby, or they want to dress it up, or do rituals. We didn’t really want any of that, but I was still really torn about whether or not I wanted to see the baby.
I had mentioned to the nurse that I wasn’t sure, and she said, “Look. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never heard anyone regret looking. They’ve only regretted not looking.”
And so you did?
We did. After the D&C was done and they wheeled us into a room, they did bring him in for a second and it was terrible. It was so hard. He didn’t really look like a baby at all. He was so, so, so small.
I actually asked the nurse, “Could you look first and just tell us how bad it is before we look?” And she said, “Well, what we can do is wrap him very well so that you’re only seeing the face,” which suggested to us that there was definitely something going wrong with his body—that he was deformed. So they wrapped him really well and all you could see was his face, but still...
It was still bad.
He was gray. I’m glad we looked, because otherwise, I think I would’ve wondered. But it’s not like we got to have some deep, spiritual moment with this.
It’s not like you were like, “Oh, an angel.”
There were no angels. Again, if people need that or see that—fine.
It’s hard for me to imagine how a person would take this last 36 hours emotionally and physically. Were you just on autopilot, survival mode?
I was so out of it. At this point, I was recovering from the anesthesia. I’m pretty sure I had some morphine in my system, and those two failed epidurals. At my follow-up appointment, my big question was why the epidural didn’t work, and they said, “We don’t know. What happened to you is very rare, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
And I thought, cool. Just like everything else.
Anyway, then I was in the hospital for a couple days. You bleed a lot, post-delivery. They let my husband stay with me—my poor husband, who had taken a nap in my delivery room when I was wheeled into the D&C, who had cleaned up all the blood on the floor before anyone got to it. He slept in the room, on a chair, on a camping thing. I continued to take Xanax and just numb out a little bit. Then they let us go two days later, and I kept busy trying to stop my milk from coming in, looking up all these remedies to stop it.
Did it work?
It worked pretty well. I’ve just kept a super-tight sports bra on for two weeks, and I’m icing them and drinking anti-milk tea and putting cabbage leaves on my boobs. I’ve also been in a sweatsuit, because I’m carrying so much water weight. I got out of the hospital [two weeks ago] looking four months pregnant.
Now, I’m just managing physical symptoms. I had some stitches, because I had some tearing during delivery; they sent me home with pretty basic painkillers, and now I’m just taking Advil. Physically, I’m over the worst of it. Emotionally, it’s just general doom and gloom.
Hearing you tell this story, I’m just thinking about how female biology in itself is incredibly unfair and unpredictable without any of the political barriers. It was already so difficult to try and become a parent; you tried so hard, and it didn’t happen, and there are a lot of factors that framed this experience as pure punishment for you when the actual biological fact of it is punishment enough. Have you felt bitter?
I’m not really a “why me” person, honestly. Horrible shit happens to people all the time. So why not me? I guess I’m just baffled and upset right now—first and foremost over the political shit. And also, personally, we still don’t have a diagnosis, which is really, really hard for me.
In terms of thinking about the future.
We did opt to have an autopsy done, but it might be another two months before we find out. We’ve had so many genetic tests done, and all of them have come back negative.
Which means, on the one hand, that maybe we just had bad fucking luck. Maybe the next time—if we do it—will be normal. But ultimately, I did make a really hard decision, and I can’t help but worry that it was the wrong one. Having some kind of a term or diagnosis that I could hang onto would make it a little bit easier.
It’s possible that they’ll do the autopsy and they won’t find anything there, either; it’s very possible that whatever was going on is so rare that they don’t have a name for it yet, and our doctors are trying to brace us for that. They’re like, “Look, you might not get that diagnosis that you want, and it still doesn’t mean the outcome would’ve been any different.” And I don’t know why I need this thing to hang on to, but I do think it would give me some comfort.
Right now, the not knowing is really, really hard. And I do feel tired. Because we had the miscarriage right before this, I’ve essentially been pregnant for almost an entire year and I have nothing to show for it except an extra 15 pounds that are going to be hell to lose.
Yeah—and all of the energy and hope that you expended on effectively nothing but the knowledge of what it’s like to have to do this.
Part of me would like to take some time to get back in shape and maybe take a trip, travel. To do something for myself, because I’ve felt like an incubator for the last year. But then…
You’re also thinking about trying again.
I don’t want to wait too long, I guess. I don’t have that many years left. I don’t want to do it so soon that we’re not ready emotionally, but I also know we’re going to be freaked out the next time we try to do this no matter what. I’ve let go of the idea of a happy pregnancy. That’s just never going to happen for me. And that’s fine.
There’s no way you’re going to even hope for that?
There’s just no way. Next time, I’ll probably not tell anyone. I will go in a cave somewhere, and if it works out, see you in nine months. Truly, that’s the best-case scenario.
I don’t know. I don’t want to have residual weirdness if we do give birth to a normal baby. I don’t want to be a weird mom who can’t be in the moment. Because you go through all this, and then maybe you have a baby, and then there’s all kinds of other shit to be stressed about. I don’t want to put even extra pressure on this unborn person because of what went on before they were even born. I don’t know if time makes that better or not. I don’t know at all.
The constant in this, I guess, to me, is that nobody should be making this harder for you.
Yeah. I can’t help but think about other people who have been through late-term abortions. I know that it’s not common, but it does happen. It makes me feel angry that we can’t just have an honest conversation about it—that we can’t talk about it scientifically or practically. It all has to be talked about in these couched terms that are ultimately religious and it just makes me crazy.
Another thing I want to say is that yes, I had this very particular, horrible situation—but if I had had an abortion at 20 weeks just because I didn’t feel ready, that should be okay, too. Like it or not, all of our rights are intertwined. Maybe there’s some woman who has had four abortions and maybe that feels really wrong to you. But my rights are wrapped up with hers, so I have to fight like fuck for her to have as many as she wants—not just for her sake, but for mine, too. If I ever have a daughter, the way things are currently going, she’s going to be fucked if she ever goes through this.
One of my mom’s best friends is this guy from the Middle East, a very pro-America conservative immigrant who thinks that rightful immigration ended with him. He’s a Fox News watcher. He was telling us once how we can’t allow refugees into this country because we’ll end up with Sharia law in small-town America. And I keep thinking about that—that crazy idea—because what do we have now? Abortion law is Christian Sharia law, based on religion and emotion.
Also, what you did was legal, despite the fact that you had to pull together 10 grand and go behind bulletproof glass.
Right. I texted my best friend when we found out our options, telling him we had to go to Colorado. He responded, “Oh, is this below board?” I was like, “Oh, no, it’s above. This is just what you have to do.” He kept saying, “Oh, is this a shady thing? Your doctor’s helping you do this shady thing?” I said, “No, no, no. This is actually what our doctor in a very good high-risk pregnancy center in New York told us we should do.”
Again, I’m so lucky. I’m really lucky that I had a mom who could scrape together that money, and I’m lucky that we could fly there.
You feel lucky?
I do. The whole time this was happening, I felt really, really lucky. I just think of all the ways it could have been so much worse.
*Name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Illustration by Jim Cooke