Author’s note: I am sharing this story honestly and using my real name because I hope to break the silence that surrounds this issue.
I am on my knees, my face in the seat of a rocking recliner. The clock passes midnight and it’s just the four of us—me, my husband, our baby and a nurse—inside an abortion clinic 90 miles from our home and friends. There is no bed or doctor to ease my way toward delivery of my son, whose life I am ending as my first true act of motherhood.
The nightmare began unfolding for my husband, David, and me on Halloween 2006, the day I answered a call at the office from my doctor informing me of the far-from-optimal results of my prenatal Quad screening, a series of tests I’d agreed to due to my “advanced maternal age” of 35. We were a solid, mature couple reveling in the joy of my growing belly and the limitless possibilities of this much-wanted first pregnancy. A negative outcome was something we’d never considered, nor been prepared for by my doctor.
My OB’s office sprang into action, securing me a same-day appointment with a high-risk doc who would provide a level II ultrasound and an amniocentesis, if I wished. We felt secure in our doctors’ care.
Two days later, the genetic counselor called us in to deliver the news of our son’s chromosomal disorder, which would present a series of major physical and emotional challenges and possible surgeries down the road. My husband and I agreed that life is difficult enough without being dealt a bum hand from conception. The counselor squirmed when we asked about the possibility of termination, and handed us a fistful of printouts about his diagnosis. Then she whisked us through a back door that opened into the parking lot.
At the follow-up appointment with my OB, she told me, “I support your decision, but I cannot help you.” She explained her privileges at the hospital—despite it having no religious affiliation—do not permit performing an abortion if there is any chance of a live birth, even though abortion is legal in Florida until 24 weeks. Her only advice was that I find a clinic to provide an induced delivery, because “the other option is barbaric.” She did not tell me what that option was or what either of our choices entailed.
I was at the end of my 18th week of pregnancy and the clock was ticking. My husband and I were completely terrified, devastated—and alone. Terminating a much-wanted pregnancy due to a poor prenatal diagnosis is the ultimate taboo topic and we couldn’t think of anyone who’d been through it.
In a near catatonic state, I stumbled through the internet until I found an out-of-town clinic ninety miles away that would induce a second trimester pregnancy. Leaving the safety and comfort of home is more common than I realized, since 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have local access to abortions, even thought they have been a legal right since 1973.
I made the appointment, arranged for a funeral home to pick up our son’s body for cremation, picked up a preemie hat and blanket from a friend, then drove to another city and checked into a hotel, as per the clinic’s instructions.
I arrived for medical intake the next day. Money was exchanged. Forms were signed. The doctor entered the room, his eyes on my chart. No hello or introduction, no exchange of names. He spoke only to the nurse. Then began the first step toward inducing labor by inserting laminaria, a stick made of a type of dried seaweed, into my cervix to begin softening it and promoting dilation. I felt like livestock.
We left the clinic before noon, filled the prescription for a mild painkiller and returned to the hotel, where I spent the rest of the day and night writhing in nearly unbearable pain. We considered a trip to the ER, even to another state where a friend suggested we could receive care in a hospital. But I felt it was too late to turn back on this path.
I began taking the labor-inducing drug Cytotec, as instructed, in Friday’s early morning hours. My body revolted with violent chills—so severe I was sure my son’s heart couldn’t have survived them—vomiting and diarrhea. We drove to the clinic at 6:30 a.m., with a stolen hotel towel on my lap in case I threw up. At the clinic, Cytotec tablets were inserted vaginally. I was on course for an afternoon delivery, but then I spiked a fever and all meds were stopped.
The doctor examined me around 4 p.m. and said I hadn’t dilated at all, and we’d need to start the process over. I asked for something for pain, but he ignored me. The nurse stepped forward; “She asked for pain meds,” she said, unwilling to let me be bullied. He acquiesced with a shot in the arm before manually pushing more laminaria sticks into my cervix. I thought I’d pass out from the pain. He then inserted an IV line into my hand to be used for Pitocin, a labor-inducing drug, in the event I didn’t start on my own by 8 p.m.
The Pitocin-drip began on schedule, administered by the nurse who stayed through the night with us. With no doctor or anesthesiologist present, an epidural was out of the question. Each contraction kicked me to the floor of the hallway I’d been pacing. I thought for sure I’d deliver by midnight.
Only when the doctor arrived early Saturday morning was I given meds to sleep—on an exam table with my feet in stirrups, David in the chair beside me with his head against the table. I woke around 10 a.m. feeling an urgency to go to the bathroom. It was there that I felt pressure in the birth canal and felt certain my baby was on his way out. I yelled for a nurse who placed a tray in the toilet. And that is where I delivered my son. He was whisked away.
Hours passed before the doctor could examine me. My husband and I waited, exhausted, in the recliner chairs in the same recovery room being used by a steady stream of women there for early first trimester abortions. I was bleeding a great deal. At some point I left to clean up a bit. When I returned the room was empty and David’s shoulders were heaving in that silent way men cry. “Did you see him?” I asked, meaning our son. He nodded. “Should I?” Another nod.
The nurse brought Robert John in for us to hold in private. At 19 weeks, 6 days, halfway through my pregnancy and one day shy of requiring a death certificate, my baby lay in my arms. He was fully formed, like a tiny doll. I had to push the preemie hat back in order to really see his face. I took in his long straight nose and the way his perfectly formed hands were tucked beneath his chin. I had to remind myself that the errors in his genetic blueprint wouldn’t have been apparent until his toddler years. Exhaustion overtook me and I couldn’t unwrap his body any further. I drifted to sleep, Robert in my arms. My husband later told me it was the only time he saw me smile in all those dark days.
Our ordeal wasn’t over. An ultrasound performed a few hours later showed that the placenta had not separated from my uterus. The doctor gave me a shot for pain and performed a D&C (dilation and curettage) to detach and remove the placenta. Fifteen minutes later I awoke to a room full of paramedics. One explained that my uterus had been ruptured and I was being transported to a hospital. Five hours of surgery later, after the surgeon warned my husband of a possible hysterectomy, the bleeding was stopped and my uterus successfully repaired. David endured this, the fifth day we’d been away from home, without sleep or support, completely alone.
While I recovered from my surgery in the hospital, I quizzed every doctor: How could this have happened? Why couldn’t I have received care in a hospital from the start? The answer stunned me: conservatism and funding. Most hospitals in Florida, I was told, could not afford to allow their doctors to perform legal abortions for fear of losing funding. And that is when I realized that in acting in the best interests of my son and our family, my own life had almost been taken by politics.
I have begun sharing our story in the hope that other parents who find themselves on the short end of the statistics will not be as isolated as we were. I also want people to know that safe, affordable and compassionate access to abortion saves lives. If you believe this doesn’t affect you, think again. According to the non-profit Guttmacher Institute, one in three American women will have an abortion by the age of 45. That’s likely someone you know and love.
I will forever be grateful to the friends I made on the private discussion boards I found via the online support of aheartbreakingchoice.net for helping me navigate the grief, my subsequent two miscarriages, and healing between Robert’s death and our daughter’s birth. I only wish I’d found the support when we’d first learned our son’s diagnosis.
Today, we are parents of a 3-year-old who has healed our hearts and filled our lives with light, joy and bountiful love. In summertime, we hike to a high mountain pass in California where we scattered our son’s ashes, and we sit awhile with him while he shows us his view.
Megan Padilla is the former executive editor of Babytalk magazine.