'I Never Talk About My Abortions. Only Three People Know.'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader shares a long, harrowing, and deeply personal story:

I’m 41, married for 18 years, a mom to two boys (15 and 5), and a very successful executive. I’ve had three abortions.

I was 26 when my oldest son was born. When he was nine months old, we learned I had passed an unbalanced chromosome translocation to him. The result was a severe developmental disability. It’s complicated, but it meant my husband and I had a 75 percent chance of having a disabled child with each pregnancy. I longed to grow our family and to give our son siblings. We explored all our options, from adoption to pre-genetic testing, out of pocket costs ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.

When our son was two and a half, we discovered I was pregnant again. We naively hoped all would be fine. An early ultrasound showed I was carrying twins. A genetic test could be performed as early as 11 weeks to know if I had passed the genetic anomaly, but my OB thought it was too risky. She refused to do it and said we had to wait for an amniocentesis at 16 weeks. The results took two weeks and we learned I had passed the anomaly to each fetus in my 28th week.

We decided to terminate the pregnancy. We lived in Phoenix, and my OB gave me two choices: Planned Parenthood, with all the protestors, or a private clinic, discrete and private. I chose the later only to learn after the fact it was a black market provider.

The date was April 19, 2003. We paid $1,000. Only cash was accepted.  I was 19 weeks pregnant, there was no anesthesiologist on staff. I woke up half-way through the procedure, received an array of medications that resulted in severe cramping of my uterus, and was diagnosed with genital herpes a month later. The doctor and his staff treated my husband terribly, as if this were his fault. It was a horrifying and very scary experience.

My OB’s nurse told me later that my doctor referred me there because she didn’t agree with my decision. My husband and I decided I would never get pregnant again and I never saw my OB again.

When we met with our pastor to seek his counsel and support, he wrapped his arms around me and my husband and told us we did the right thing. He felt our marriage wouldn’t have survived three disabled children.

Five years later, we were living in Minnesota and were at at the Mayo Clinic with our son. He had an appointment with a geneticist, who asked if we planned to try to have more kids. We said we longed to but felt we could not afford it. We shared our abortion story, which stunned the doctor. He encouraged us to try again, stressing that the support of the medical community in Minnesota would be quite different. He reminded us we had a 25 percent chance of success.

My husband and I discussed trying again for many months. I consulted with my new OB, who held my hand and said he would do everything in his power to help us if we chose to try. And so we did.

When our son was eight, I became pregnant. We had a genetic test at 11 weeks. The ultrasound did not look good—the back of the neck measured thick, a tell-tale sign things were bad. Results came the following week: I had passed the anomaly again.

I had an abortion at 13 weeks. This time, it was done as an outpatient procedure in a hospital. My husband and I were surrounded by supportive medical professionals who grieved our loss with us. A med student was present, being trained to provide abortions as part of his future practice. The abortion was covered by our medical insurance.

Abortions in Minnesota require a 24-hour waiting period. Once we informed our doctor of our decision to have an abortion, by law we were required to sign off on a document that had a long check list of questions, such as:

  • Did I know my baby had a beating heart?
  • If I made this decision for financial reasons, did I know there were welfare programs available to me and the baby?
  • Was I aware that the biological father would be required to provide child support?

My doctor and I signed off on the document and then I had to wait 24 hours, to think about a little more—as if the seven years of thinking that had preceded that moment weren’t enough. I had the abortion the following day, October 3, 2008.

We tried again. When our son was nine, I became pregnant. Again, genetic test at 11 weeks. The ultrasound looked good; no thickness measured in the neck. We received the results the following week. They were normal. I had not passed the anomaly. Success!

A routine ultrasound at 19 weeks uncovered a different story. My placenta and umbilical chord had not formed correctly. As a result, only half the heart had formed, the fetus’s kidneys had already failed, and its stomach and head measured less than half the size they should have. We were devastated, and chose to have a third abortion. It was July 1, a Wednesday, my 35th birthday.

Again, the same doctor, the same hospital, the same extraordinarily supportive medical team, a new med student this time, and the same 24-hour waiting period. This time, because I was in my second trimester, it required a two-day procedure. The 24-hour waiting period coincided with the Independence Day weekend. Instead of talking through the same ridiculous document of questions, signing off and beginning the procedure the next day, Thursday, I was forced to wait an additional 96 hours because my doctor was on vacation on Friday for the holiday. Minnesota’s 24-hour law made an very painful time in my life excruciating.

The following Monday—July 7, 2009—I had my third abortion. We decided it would be my last.

Despite using condoms and birth control pills, I learned I was pregnant again the following October. Unbelievable. What was God doing to me?

I didn’t tell my husband I was pregnant for four weeks—not because I wished to keep it a secret, but because I could not physically talk about it or utter the words, “I’m pregnant.” I was horrified.

At eleven weeks, another genetic test. The ultrasound looks fine, we were told. The results a week later were normal. No anomaly had been passed. I was numb, scared, and didn’t believe it would end positively. I hid the pregnancy until my 30th week and then told my co-workers I would not talk about it. I braced for the worst. With each ultrasound I asked the tech to turn off the monitor. I didn’t want to watch. I always received a look of disbelief but demanded I would not watch. It took everything I had to not bond with the baby inside. I couldn’t go through that pain again.

And then, on June 6, 2000, on our 12th wedding anniversary, our second son was born, healthy and as typical as could be. Same hospital, same extraordinarily supportive medical team, and the result I had prayed for across the previous nine years.

I never talk about my abortions. Only three people know.

It is not because I feel shame. I know I made all the right decisions. I respect that not all women would have done what I chose to do. The pain in reliving these times in my life is simply too much, and that pain is private.

And yet, I have struggled with a sense of responsibility to share my story. Not every woman who gets an abortion is 19 and facing the consequences of a lapse in judgement. We are not poor, irresponsible or murderers. I am a loving wife and mother. I would do anything for my children, even decide that they should not live outside of my womb and face a life of struggle, pain, and discrimination, or decide that if they could have a healthy sibling to help them in their life that I would do everything in my power to do just that. This is my story.

Earlier ones from readers here, and many more to come.