'I Was Too Shocked and Stunned to Even Burst Into Tears'

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

Nine years ago today, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which bans the procedure know as intact dilation and extraction (D&X). A 2006 piece from NPR’s Julie Rovner does a good job of explaining the complexities of D&X, which, despite its general illegality, is “performed in cases where the woman’s health is at risk, or when the fetus shows signs of serious abnormalities, some of which don’t become apparent until late in pregnancy.” On that grim note, here’s the latest reader email prompted by our long and ongoing series on abortion:

Thank you for asking for stories. I have waited a long time to tell mine. If you choose to use it, please do not use my name.

I was 31, happily married, and pregnant with a child that was both wanted and planned. We had gone in for a routine ultrasound at 18.5 weeks. The tech was pretty quiet during the whole thing and told us to wait in the room when she was done.

The normally upbeat, high-energy doctor was somber when he entered the room and began to tell us about the baby whose crib we had just brought home. I was thinking it would still be OK, and we would love and raise a special-needs child. He must have seen this in my face, and decided he needed to be clearer about our child’s condition: “This is not a baby that is going to go home with you.”

I didn’t hear much after that: specialists, ultrasounds, urgency. Not comprehending what was happening, I called the university research hospital the doctor referred me to. They said they could see me in two weeks. He said that would not work, so he personally called the hospital and told them they needed to see me right away. My doctor knew, although I did not, was that we needed to know quickly what we were dealing with because I could not get an abortion in my home state beyond 20 weeks. Abortion had not yet entered my mind.   

The second ultrasound was going to be much clearer. The doctor performing it asked if I wanted to know what he was seeing as he did it. I said I did. Nearly 20 years later, I can still hear his voice saying, “There is very little amniotic fluid.” “I don't see kidneys.” “Deformities incompatible with life.”

The geneticist I saw right after was straight out of horror movie. Because of how far along I was, and that it was already Thursday evening, he said I would need to decide that day if I wanted an abortion because I would need to do it the next day or they would not be able to do it. I was too shocked and stunned to even burst into tears.  

We called my OB/Gyn, who said to just go home, think about it, and come see him on Monday. Monday came. We talked and he said he could still send me to another state for the abortion if that’s what I wanted. If I did not, the baby could die in utero at any time, or I might carry to term. He said I still had a little more time to decide to end the pregnancy, but not much.  

I went to work the next day and began the torture of hearing, “Here comes the new mom!” and “Oh, how is the baby doing?” Good people, trying to be nice.  What do you say?  “Not so good—the baby is going to die”?  

Every minute of the day, I thought about my baby. I began to think about what if I were to go full term and he was born alive.

By an odd twist of fate, my boss at the time had had a very similar situation five years earlier. She did go full term and her daughter was born alive. She spent four months carrying a baby she knew would die within hours of being born. While I didn’t really want an abortion, I really didn’t want to do that either.  

In spite of being raised in a Catholic family and going to a school where the Pledge of Allegiance ended “with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn,” I had always supported a woman’s right to choose while hoping more would choose life. But life was not one of my choices.

Some people I knew and loved seemed to feel more strongly about my unborn dying child’s life than what it was doing to mine—physically, emotionally, mentally.  The “pro-life” people reduced me from a person with my own established life to merely an incubator for a life that never would be. The term “pro-life” really bothered me.  

I don’t think anyone who considers an abortion comes to an easy decision. It may be a clear, rational decision that she is sure of, but that does not make it easy.

Whether I decided to have the abortion or not, it doesn’t matter, and my choice is not to say.

The result is the same. I was branded from the moment I expressed the thought of having one, and we did not have a child to raise. We named him and recognized his death as we would have any child. To this day, when I hear the word “abortion,” my soul is heavy with the thought that no one should make that choice for another person.