The interviewee, a relative of the jGirls interviewer, had an abortion in California in 2003 when she found out the fetus she was carrying was not viable. The interviewee has a background in social work and public health.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
These are her words regarding the choice to remain anonymous:
“Part of the problem is that when people aren’t out in the open, it perpetuates this secrecy. At one point I was thinking about publishing something, but I’ve heard from other people that they’ve gotten death threats and things, so I think I am going to have to ask for more privacy on how I’m identified in the article.”
SL: Can you describe what stage you were in your life when you realized that you may need to get an abortion?
Interviewee: So I had a much loved and wanted 4-year-old at the time, who had taken some time to conceive, and when we decided we wanted to have another one, it was also taking some time. Eventually, we got pregnant after having a procedure to check if my fallopian tubes were open. This was my second pregnancy. I have very rough, nauseous first trimesters, so I had gotten through that and as many women do after the first trimester, there’s this notion like “oh, now you’re safe” and people start telling everybody. I had told everyone in our synagogue community, all my friends, my first daughter, her little friends, everybody.
So at the time, your second ultrasound, where they check that all the major organs in the fetus are developing properly, was always done somewhere between 16-and-a-half and 18 weeks. Because I’m sort of a pessimist and I was 34 at the time, I scheduled our ultrasound at exactly 16-and-a-half weeks, gestational age, because part of me was afraid that there would be something wrong. Not that I had any sixth sense about it, but that’s me. We go in there and the ultrasound technician, she’s finding the fetus and looking at it, and she’s all chatty. And all of a sudden she goes completely silent and she’s no longer talking to us at all and right then I felt my stomach drop and felt like I was about to throw up. And then she said, “excuse me, I’ll be right back.” And I said to my husband, “Honey, I think she’s going to get the doctor, I think there’s something wrong, that’s why she got really quiet and stopped talking.” And the look on my husband’s face. He said, “You don’t know that! It could be something else.” But, I knew.
The doctor came back and looked, and they said something was significantly wrong. The head and neck and shoulders look quite abnormally developed. He said it would be extremely unlikely that this would lead to a live birth, and if it did, it would be a live birth followed shortly after by a newborn death. He said, or you could naturally miscarry at some point late in the pregnancy. Right away, my husband and I looked at eac hother and I said, “Well, we want to end the pregnancy then.” And the doctor asked, “Do you want a few days to think about it?” My husband and I had talked about this kind of thing theoretically before and both of us are very emotional people. I didn’t want to, one more day, carry a pregnancy that was almost certainly going to lead to either a late-stage miscarriage or a live birth followed by death. I did not feel there was anything to be gained by that. The doctor explained where it would be done and that they would call over there and get me in right away. He explained that it would be a two-day procedure.
What kind of procedural abortion did you receive?
Because the fetus is bigger at this point, they put in what look like tiny matchsticks, they call them laminaria. They put them in your cervix the day before the main procedure, and then they absorb bodily fluids and they start to get slightly larger and help open the cervix to get the medical instruments in there and to also be able to dismantle the fetus before pulling it out. A few years after I had my abortion, this actually became a big national issue when people heard about what are called “dilation and evacuations” because it’s so horrifying to picture that—dismantling the fetus inside and then pulling it out piece by piece. But for women’s safety, that’s what you have to do because a C-section is major surgery and you don’t want to do that and the other option is to use labor-stimulating medication, which is what has to happen in even later failed pregnancies. Then you have to go through an entire labor and delivery process to deliver a dead fetus and that is very traumatic.
What were some of the thoughts going through your head between the time when you found out you would need an abortion and when it happened?
We went back to my husband’s parents house and had to tell them and our 4-year-old daughter what was going on and of course we were intermittently crying. Despite these painful discussions, it’s such a blessing to be able to have a safe, legal abortion, in California. From the time of the ultrasound I think for two more days, I had to actually walk around pregnant, and I was now visibly pregnant. I had to drop my daughter off at preschool and pick her up from preschool and tell people at work. I had told everyone at work.
At this point I had been living for a few days with knowledge of what was to come still having to walk around and look pregnant and start telling everybody. And in the process of telling people, especially people who were just 10 years older than me even, it was shocking how many people revealed their own late pregnancy losses. I felt equally horrified that this was happening and blessed that I had safe, legal access and a compassionate doctor and that I wasn’t being forced to have to carry it to a later stage and go through an entire delivery.
What was your experience with the abortion itself?
The morning after the laminaria insertion, it was uncomfortable at times. I was feeling cramping, like bad menstrual cramps as it was forcing my cervix to begin to open up. The procedure itself was under anesthesia, so I wasn’t awake. I remember kind of crying as I was going under. One memory I have in those last few seconds of being awake was “oh my god, what if they pull it out and it looks fine” and then immediately telling myself like “no that’s not possible, they could clearly see on the ultrasound that things were dramatically wrong.”
How was the recovery process for you?
My next memory was waking up, and I was sobbing. I remember this so clearly. And a nurse came over and she said something like “are you in pain, dear?” She said something like “you’re in a recovery room with lots of people, do you think it’s possible to calm down and stop crying?” And I remember I immediately stopped crying. In the ideal world, I should have been able to cry if I needed to, but at the same time, I was like “OK, pull it together, calm down. You’re in a room full of people, they don’t need your vicarious trauma.”
I was very lucky in the coming days physically. The first three to seven days was like a very heavy period, but I really didn’t have any cramping after that. And they bring you in for an after check and they said everything looked good and to give it two months to let everything heal.
How did you get support from your friends and family? You mentioned you had told everyone in the synagogue already, so how did you go about that?
I mean I was able to be open about it. My thinking is that I wanted to proactively tell people before I got the well meaning “oh! How are you feeling,” “how’s it going?” “did you find out the gender?” blah, blah, blah and those kinds of questions. So everybody was very supportive. My rabbi at the time, he also shared that they had lost a pregnancy very late. He was about 15 to 20 years older than me, so of course of the generation where they thought everything was fine until she went into labor around 8 months and then suddenly a dead fetus, so it definitely felt like he knew what it was like to go through this. He was very compassionate.
I’m a talker, I needed to, with my friends, keep telling the story over and over, and that process is how I grieve and heal. That continued after the procedure, in the coming days and weeks. And I remember once when my husband walked through the room and after I got off the phone he said “How can you keep telling that story over and over again?” And I just said “I’m sorry if it’s traumatizing for you, you certainly don’t have to listen, but that’s how I process and get support.”
Did you feel like there was anyone who didn’t fully support your decision and did you receive any backlash, or were people just kind of quiet if they didn’t agree?
I’m assuming they were quiet if they didn’t agree, but definitely the vast majority of people were overwhelmingly, verbally supportive saying things like, “I’m so glad if this is what you want to do that you have access to this.”
In the play group that I was in with my daughter, there was one fundamentalist Chrsitian woman and a Catholic woman, so my choice would be fervently against their religious beliefs. The evangelical women, at one point, in my mind insensitively, but I think she meant well, talked about someone at church who had been told the same thing that the baby would not be born alive. She talked about how they had 24-hour care and they give it tube feedings and it just sleeps most of the time. She presents that as some sort of wonderful miracle and to me it was like hmmm, that confirms why I didn’t want to do this. And I frankly think that it’s unfair. Not only do I disagree with her perspective, I believe the exact opposite. I think it’s selfish of the parents to force a baby into this world if it’s just going to suffer. I don’t think that’s right, just as she, I’m sure, didn’t think what I was doing was right. The Catholic mom, she once said to me “I’m so incredibly sorry, and I can’t imagine what I would do because you know my beliefs. But at the same time I imagine I would have trouble having to go through an entire pregnancy.” I appreciated her honesty and her humility, knowing it’s hard to know what you would do until you’re in the situation.
Was it easy for you to get time off work and were you able to get paid sick leave for the time that you were recovering?
At the time, I was a per diem medical social worker, which is kind of like being a substitute teacher. So because I wasn’t in a regular status job, I wasn’t eligible for sick leave. I was paying into state disability, but that was for disabilities of a week or more. And, like I said, by a few days later, I was fine. I don’t remember how soon I went back to work, but luckily that wasn’t an issue for us. For some women even taking a few days off work is an extreme hardship. God forbid what’s coming if they overturn Roe v. Wade and women have to travel out of state, and pay for a hotel, miss work, and find childcare if they have other kids. It would present a tremendous burden to the majority of women in America.
How do you feel about the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned for yourself and your family? How do you feel about what the court decision could mean for America as a whole, and do you feel a certain allyship with the women who would be completely denied access from abortion?
Absolutely. I mean it’s just beyond horrifying. I remember having this conversation with my mom in the 1970s when I was a teen. For years the anti-choice people have been fighting Roe and her saying, “no we will never go back, there is no scenario where the government would ever change that ruling.” How appalled and shocked she would be now. I remember at the time saying, “never say never.” I mean look at the Holocaust. German Jews thought they were so privileged and safe and secure. And you don’t know what is going to happen in the future, nothing is guaranteed. So, yeah, it’s super horrifying what may happen to Roe now. I know how lucky I am in our circumstances and that we would always be able to get a safe abortion. Being in the socioeconomic situation we are, we would always be able to do whatever our family needed to have a safe abortion. But for most people, that’s just not possible.
It’s also appalling that some of the people who are so anti-choice also deny adequate support after birth for kids so they have enough to eat, safe shelter, parents having stable jobs, childcare. It’s a cruel, cruel irony that most anti-choice people are also anti- all of those things by not supporting policies that would provide them. So where does that leave a woman? The people who I can have a shred of respect for that are anti-abortion are the ones who support policies, like free childcare, adequate food and housing and adequate jobs for adults wanting them. Walk the walk if you want these pregnancies to be continued.
What are your feelings now that you’ve had some time to reflect back?
I definitely don’t think about it too often anymore, but I’m certainly thinking about it more now because of what’s happened since that court document was leaked. Sometimes it feels almost like it happened to a different person, like it’s some sort of book I read or movie I watched about somebody else. But I think that’s also possibly because I went on to have a healthy pregnancy and I can’t imagine us without our second daughter. We all obviously love her and we would have just been a very different family. So yeah, I definitely get quite emotionally wrapped up when I start picturing, even in the general sense, when we talk about all these women who have no time or money or sick leave to do this, who are going to have to go out of state or be forced to have pregnancies they don’t want.
What is your knowledge regarding the Jewish views on abortion rights?
We’re blessed that, though Orthodox Judaism is certainly not pro-abortion, there’s no question in the Talmud that a fetus is not a full person and I’m glad our tradition and our peoplehood recognizes that. The Talmudic scholars might differ slightly among themselves, but my understanding is there are multiple texts that seem to recognize that an early-stage pregnancy is not the same as one right before birth. It’s interesting how they were able to make that differentiation at a time when nothing was understood about fetal development.
It’s interesting too, the words the rabbis used. I can’t remember the exact phrase, but it translates to something like “evil pursuer,” when they talk about a pregnancy that’s threatening someone’s life. And that also tells me that the rabbis saw that if a pregnancy is an “evil pursuer” and something that is going to potentially hurt the mother, that implies that the higher value is the pregnant woman’s safety. And I hear that contemporary women will go to their rabbis for consent to receive an abortion when it’s not just “evil pursuer,” like literal physical safety, but also your emotional safety.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I want to say it’s beyond my understanding that someone would be forced to do something with their body. To not be able to have a safe and legal abortion is just as bad as what China did all those years forcing women to have abortions to control the population. China compelled women to have abortions through financial penalties, but also by literally kidnapping them, drugging them, and giving them abortions against their will. It’s just as evil to force a woman to continue a pregnancy as it is to force her to have an abortion. It’s inherent to the feminist principles that if you don’t have control over your body, that’s a denial of personhood.
For more information about abortion and reproductive health, check out our resources page.
This article is one of four published in our Pro-Choice: An Interview Series. See the introduction and all four interviews here.
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