My First Pregnancy

And the choice I made

Illustration of a woman bent over in sadness, surrounded by wavy rings on a pink background
The Atlantic

About the author: Janice Wolly is the copy chief at The Atlantic.

When I woke up on the morning of January 20, 2017, Barack Obama was still president and I was still pregnant. When I woke up again a few hours later, he wasn’t and I wasn’t.

I didn’t have much time to spare when I scheduled the procedure to terminate my pregnancy. How far along I was mattered much more than the date on the calendar. But I did consider it a bit of weird timing—not quite irony, but something like it—that I would exercise my right to choose on that particular day.

I have been in favor of access to safe and legal abortion my entire adult life, but that position was always theoretical, always about someone else’s right to choose. I never imagined having to make that choice myself, and I knew I couldn’t be sure what my decision would be if I did have to choose. Turns out you can be in the situation—for real, not hypothetically—and still not be sure.

I got pregnant at age 33, about a year and a half after I got married. I adored kids, most of my friends had at least one, and I wanted to experience the feeling of loving another human being that completely.

I took a pregnancy test at four weeks and was thrilled when it was positive. At 12 weeks we learned that it was a girl and that something might be wrong: There was slightly too much fluid behind the baby’s neck. My ob-gyn delivered a confusing jumble of noninformation in such an insensitive manner that I never returned to his practice. I found a new doctor and went to a specialist for another ultrasound; the fluid had increased and was showing another anomaly.

My husband and I spoke with a genetic counselor and tried to understand a lot of uncertain statistics. We didn’t know for sure that anything was wrong, but the counselor told us that the odds of an abnormality, ranging from something we’d barely notice to a “major fetal malformation,” were significant. We decided, hesitantly, to do an amniocentesis, figuring that the risk of the procedure was worth taking, because it might provide more definitive information.

Except it didn’t. The initial amnio results ruled out a few things, but after waiting more than two weeks for the full results (during which time I had a fetal echocardiogram), we were told that there was a problem with the test. Any further results would take a few more weeks, but even then we wouldn’t learn much. The nature of the anomaly found during the ultrasound meant that no test could rule out a fetal abnormality or tell us what kind of abnormality we might be facing. And the literature about how other babies with similar ultrasounds had fared was scant, because in the studies our genetic counselor cited, most parents miscarried or terminated (a fact that, in and of itself, spoke volumes). It was time to make a decision with the limited information we had. I was 17 weeks pregnant.

I learned about the amnio while hiding in the office of a colleague, one of the few co-workers who even knew I was pregnant. From an empty meeting room, I called specialists and wished for a miscarriage so my husband and I wouldn’t have to make a decision. I scheduled a pre-termination appointment in my car in the parking garage at work, sobbing to myself: I don’t want to do this.

Why am I writing this? I’m not arrogant enough to think I can change anyone’s mind about arguably the most contentious issue in American politics. But what I keep returning to is how certain people think they are. Whether or not you agree that a woman’s or couple’s reasons justify an abortion, so many people seem to assume that those reasons will be clear-cut—for instance, no chance of the baby’s or mom’s survival. But certainty is not, well, a certainty.

Of course, no pregnancy is guaranteed to result in a healthy baby, and no healthy baby is guaranteed to turn into a healthy adult. My husband and I kept asking ourselves: If we end this pregnancy, what will our future hold? If we don’t end it, what will our future hold?

Despite having been through this experience—a termination of a wanted pregnancy at 18 weeks and five days, not knowing for sure whether it was the right decision—I have no idea what I would do if I were in the same position again. And I have no idea what I would have decided if, say, this had happened two years earlier, or two years later; or if there had been a five- or 10-point shift in the percentages; or if I had been some number of days more or less pregnant; or if it hadn’t been my first pregnancy; or if my husband and I hadn’t already been through two other traumas in the preceding year.

I guess that’s my purpose in writing this. I’m trying to say that no one truly knows what they would do in one of the countless situations that might lead them to consider having an abortion. You may think you know, but you don’t. And if you can’t know for yourself, you can’t know for anyone else—and you certainly can’t understand what the experience is like for anyone else. A woman might choose to have an abortion for one of a thousand different reasons, and she may never feel certain that it was the right choice but still be grateful she had the choice.

The day before my procedure—the day before Inauguration Day—was the worst day of my life. That’s when we had to commit, to pick which path we would take. I sat in the office of a surgeon I’d just met, clutching my husband and crying while we weighed our decision one last time. Finally, I signed the forms.

I wouldn’t wish that ordeal on anyone. And I know that compared with people in the many places where access to abortion is severely curtailed, and compared with people of fewer means, I had a relatively easy time of it—I traveled 10 minutes to a hospital for a procedure covered by my health insurance.

I think about my experience often. I look at my daughter, who was born roughly a year later, and remember what I went through to become a mother. The idea of her having to one day make a decision like mine is devastating, but what makes me lose my breath in panic is the very real possibility that if someday she does need to choose, she might not have the right to do so.