How Long Can a Woman Wait to Have an Abortion in America? Cont'd

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

In her post on abortion waiting periods, Emma begins with a statistic:

Approximately 9,090 women in the United States had abortions after their 21st week of pregnancy in 2012. That’s 1.3 percent of all abortions, and roughly 0.14 percent of all pregnancies, based on the 2010 U.S. pregnancy rate.

Yet states keep creating legislation on this issue, proposing abortion bans at 24 or 22 weeks. Many—like South Carolina, where one such bill was signed into law last week—provide exceptions for medical emergencies or fetal anomalies. In fact, many of the women who seek abortions at this stage in their pregnancies do so for health reasons, so these bans affect only a subset of those 9,090 women.

Among the dozens of unaired notes we still have in our inbox from women responding to our abortion series, I just found one from a reader who appears to be among that 9,090 subset:

My husband and I made the heartbreaking decision to end our planned and wanted pregnancy at 22 weeks due to severe, but not fatal, birth defects. In making the decision we had to ask ourselves a whole host of questions. What would her life be like? What were the chances of her living a relatively normal life despite her disabilities? Would we be stable financially, since one of us would need to quit our job to care for her? Would our families help us? Could we do it without their help? Would we be able to be active and involved parents to future children or would her care take priority?

Ultimately we decided that the most loving thing we could do for her was to let her go. She was our first child. Our only girl. Ten years later I still mourn her loss. I mourn what she was and what she could have been. But as I watch my son grow up and experience life in a way she never would, I’m thankful we were able to choose and I know we made the right decision.

This reader has more regrets:

I have an abortion story.

I’ve always considered myself pro-choice, but I was never really sure what my decision would be if I ever found myself with an unplanned pregnancy. When I got pregnant at 22 unexpectedly, I was surprised by the fact that an abortion didn’t cross my mind. Though partway through a high risk pregnancy and dealing with hyperemesis [severe nausea and vomiting], I considered it for a minute, but I went ahead with the pregnancy and gave birth to a girl.

Her father and I had remained together through the whole process, but when my daughter was three months old, our relationship had become strained and I found I was pregnant again. (He admitted that he removed a condom once without telling me.) I was beyond frightened. I couldn’t imagine going through another difficult pregnancy while trying to care for my newborn by myself.

But making the decision to abort was not an easy one. I was heavily pressured to have it done by the father, even though I expressed I wasn’t sure. [CB: Here are other stories from readers coerced into an abortion.]

Still, I ended up calling the closest clinic (over 100 miles away) and making an appointment. Everything I had heard about abortion clinics was you would have a sonogram to confirm the pregnancy, then you would meet with a counselor to make sure this is the choice you want to make. I thought to myself, “Awesome, I will have someone to help talk me out of this.”

When my appointment came, I had a sonogram and was taken into the doctors office. He asked why I was there and signed the paperwork. No counseling. I was taken back to a small room with about ten other women, all in medical gowns, while a movie played to distract us. I waited in that room for over an hour before it was my turn. I was shaking and kept thinking “I can walk out the door.”

I’m not sure how long it took, as I was put under, but I woke in recovery and all I wanted to do was get up, get dressed, and walk out and forget everything.

It’s been five years since my abortion. I still regret it to this day. But I do my best to make peace with my decision and I’ve been to counseling. I’m now happily married (to a different man), but I know that abortion is no longer a choice for me, but I still remain pro-choice. A woman has to do what is right for her and no one else.

One more story for now:

Hello and please keep me anonymous. I haven’t spoken about this is 35 years.

I was doing an internship after graduate school when I met a young engineer through a personal ad. We dated briefly and I found out I was pregnant after having sex just once. His response was that he wasn’t going to marry me, but he would give me $5,000 to keep the baby.

But at that time I had no job in sight, no money, and no family or other support system. He was very opposed to the abortion, since he was Catholic, but he did end up paying for it. Afterwards he never spoke to me again, except to tell me that HE was torn up inside. In the meantime, I had to return for a D and C because I had heavy bleeding.

He disappeared from my life, went on to become a successful professor of engineering, married and had two sons. I went on with my life, made an acceptable career, had two marriages, but never got pregnant again.

Update from a returning reader:

Thank you for publishing my family’s story. I wanted to let your new readers know that I am among the women who have had abortions after 20 weeks. Because brains mostly develop in the third trimester, so does the hydrocephalus that took our sons.

No, despite many kinds of testing, we do not have a known gene mutation to test for by CVS at ten weeks. Both sons had slightly large (between two and three standard deviations up from average, well within the three SD medical range) ventricles at 20 weeks. That’s “normal,” and I wouldn’t have considered terminating either pregnancy. But we checked again three weeks later and the ventricles had grown rapidly, the existing beautiful brain being obliterated by fluid.

These bans (or, at our hospital, just the fear of public opinion), with no tie to our medical situation mean that we have to carefully plan out the ultrasounds: 17 weeks, 20 weeks, 23 weeks. We know our baby’s brain can be in the normal range at 20 weeks, but filling with fluid at 23 weeks. To get the operating room by the 24 week deadline, we have to book the abortion before we see the 23 week ultrasound, and hope that we don’t use it.

People who don’t have to negotiate these pregnancies, filled with risk and fear for our babies, cannot imagine the different ways the restrictions punish parents. Who could think of the different cruel difficulties, besides the people they happen to?