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April 15, 2007

Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

The Hardest Choice

Photo Credit: E. Von Weber/Getty Image

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In Washington DC, on the same day I decided to terminate my pregnancy, lawmakers gathered to discuss a new bill-one that would effectively outlaw so-called partial-birth abortions, the term preferred by pro-lifers to put a decidedly graphic spin on abortions that occur after the first trimester. It wasn't an issue I'd given much thought to, since I'd long been ready to have children of my own. Although I'd always considered myself pro-choice, I just assumed that meant choosing whether or not to keep a baby after an accidental pregnancy-not whether or not to terminate a pregnancy after you'd already fallen in love with your child.

Looking back, I'm not sure which was worse: the three days leading up to the procedure (like most women who have gone through it, I've never called it an abortion) or the rip current of emotions following it.

Walking around with a belly full of broken dreams, I felt like I was drowning. I couldn't shower, because I didn't want to touch my stomach and accept that there was life in there; yet I couldn't bring myself to have a glass of wine to calm my nerves, because, of course, I knew there was.

My decision tortured me. This wasn't some mysterious clump of cells that would simply be sucked away in a vacuum. This was a 19-week-old baby, one that I desperately wanted, that would be pulled out of me bit by bit-that's the way it works through the "dilation and evacuation" procedure.

I asked over and over, Are we doing the right thing? Our family-even my Catholic father and Republican father-in-law, neither of whom were ever pro-choice-assured us that we were. Politics suddenly became personal-their daughter's heartbreak, their son's pain, their grandchild's suffering-and that changed everything.

My regular obstetrician, who only handled healthy pregnancies, refer-red us to someone else. I was glad. Where-as she'd seemed cold and dismissive upon learning of my decision to terminate the pregnancy, I felt nothing but compassion from my new doctor, who re-mind-ed me in looks and manner of Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules. His eyes, the kindest, saddest I'd ever seen, teared up as Dave and I cried in front of him.

In his cramped and unfashionable private office in Brookline, he started the two-day termination process by inserting four laminaria sticks made of dried seaweed into my cervix. The pain was excruciating, like needles piercing my abdomen, and he apologized over and over as I cried out. Afterward, ghostly white and shaking, I could barely walk to the recovery room. The pain increased through the long night as the sticks collected fluids from my body and expanded, dilating my cervix as though I were in the beginning stages of labor. The next morning in the operating room, I was petrified and fought the anesthesia, clinging to my last moments of pregnancy. As I finally started to drift off, my doctor held one of my hands and an older, female nurse held the other, whispering in my ear, "You're going to be OK, I've been here before, lean on your husband." It's my last memory of the experience. When I woke up, it was all over. I was empty.

For the next week, my mother tried to bring me back to life with grilled-cheese sandwiches and chicken-noodle soup. But I felt like a freak in a world of capable women having babies-Why did my body betray me?-and for months I quarantined myself from the world. I just couldn't bear well--meaning friends saying, "I'm so sorry."

I took that nurse's advice and leaned on my husband. He seemed so resolved in our decision, in a way that I just couldn't be. Perhaps it was guilt-it was my body that had failed us all: my husband, myself, our baby. Dave was strong where I was weak. But then I found him one night, all alone, kneeling on the floor of our bathroom with the light off and the door half-closed, doubled over, bawling. It nearly killed me, and I realized then that I did not own this pain alone. In an effort to pull myself together, I wrote my doctor a long note on my good wedding stationery. I thanked him for his compassion and said that it must be hard, what he does, but that I hoped he found consolation in the fact that he was helping women at their most vulnerable. When I went in for my six-week checkup, he told me that he kept my note, along with other letters of appreciation, in a large bundle, to remind him of why he does this difficult work. And he keeps that bundle right next to his stack of hate mail, which is about the same size.

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