Reporter's Notebook

Personal Stories of Abortion Made Public
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Prompted by Emma Green’s note on the Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, for which a group of lawyers filed a document openly describing their abortions, readers share their own stories in an ongoing series edited by Chris Bodenner. We are posting a wide range of perspectives—from pro-choice and pro-life readers, women and men alike—so if you have an experience not represented thus far, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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‘I Often Think of My Angel Baby’

Sunday was the 44th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and the following day, as one of his first acts as president, Donald Trump reinstated “the Mexico City policy,” a rule that bans U.S. funding to foreign family-planning organizations unless they agree not to promote abortion. In the new GOP-controlled Congress this month, Steve King of Iowa introduced the Heartbeat Protection Act, a bill that would prohibit an abortion if an ultrasound detected a fetal heartbeat.

In The Atlantic today, Moira Weigel traces the origins of ultrasound and how the technology has been increasingly used by pro-life advocates to persuade women not to have abortions. “Of course, ultrasound technology has been a crucial component of prenatal care, too,” Weigel notes. “Imagery obtained through ultrasound can alert doctors to potentially serious problems in a pregnancy—such as placental issues or congenital defects in the fetus.” The following reader can relate—in agonizing detail:

My views on abortion have always been pro-choice. However, when I actually had to live through the experience myself, I was torn.

To be honest, even when I talk about my second pregnancy now, I still refer to what happened as a miscarriage: I lost my baby, rather than terminating my pregnancy.

It was fall of 2011. I was 23 years old, married to my husband for two years, and we had a beautiful one-year-old daughter. We wanted a big family and were excited when I found out I was pregnant again. I was a high-risk pregnancy with my daughter, so it was no surprise that I was sent to a perinatologist.

That first visit with her would forever change my life. It was my husband, my daughter, and me in the room, and we were so excited to have my daughter see her new little sibling. A few minutes into the ultrasound, the nurse practitioner paused and stated she needed to get the doctor’s opinion on something, so she stepped out of the room. I was confused.

With a new nomination to the Supreme Court announced last night, partisans on both sides of the abortion divide are trying to divine whether Judge Neil Gorsuch would vote to overturn abortion rights, should he get confirmed by the Senate.

Down at the personal level, last week we received yet another compelling story for our reader series on abortion that launched a year ago. This reader, like two others before her, was among the roughly 9,000 women per year who get an abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy—close to the legal limit and the point of viability. Her fraught story is punctuated by an absentee father, a callous mother, a drug-addled boyfriend, and a kind stranger at an abortion clinic:

I am 26 years old and completing my last year of doctoral studies in the Midwest with several honorable distinctions. Yet the other part of my life narrative includes a frightening time, when I went through the very uncertain process of choosing to have an abortion. I was just shy of 17 years old and nearly 22 weeks pregnant. No one in my family knew. And I haven’t really talked about this with anyone since I was a teen.

The week I learned I was pregnant, I remember feeling depressed. I became worried because I couldn’t remember my last period. This happened on occasion due to feeling depressed and not eating.

I wasn’t feeling well, so I asked my mom if it was okay if I took myself out of school to see the doctor. She said yes. I got to school and panicked after realizing that I had forgotten to get a letter to excuse myself. Thinking optimistically, I frantically wrote one and forged a signature on behalf of my mom. Of course, a teacher suspected the letter and contacted her immediately. I was kicked out of my home for forging the letter and embarrassing my mom at work.

While staying at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I expressed my concern and got a pregnancy test promptly. It came back positive.

June 4, 1965

The Zika emergency—thankfully now in the past but still without a vaccine—spread throughout 60 countries and affected thousands of pregnant women in 2015 and 2016. The disease is most dangerous for pregnant women due to the risk of birth defects as severe as microcephaly, when the fetus forms a small head and underdeveloped brain. To prevent that gruesome fate for their baby, pregnant women with Zika often turn to abortion (though the procedure is illegal in many of the countries most affected by the virus).

Before Zika, there was the rubella epidemic of 1964 to 1965, when an estimated 12.5 million Americans acquired the disease (also known as German measles). Similar to Zika, rubella’s symptoms for most adults are mild—a rash and a low-grade fever that lasts two or three days. But for a pregnant woman and her fetus, rubella is “very dangerous,” according the CDC, resulting in birth defects ranging from deafness to heart problems to mental disabilities. Also like Zika, rubella is often asymptomatic, thus many pregnant women don’t realize they’re carrying the virus until it’s too late. In the 1960s, prior to the release of the rubella vaccine in 1969 and the Roe decision in 1973 that made abortion legal nationwide, a small number of doctors illegally performed the procedure for pregnant women with rubella.

One of those women is Bette, an Atlantic reader who had a second-trimester abortion in March 1971. She was a 24-year-old married Christian at the time, and she frames her abortion story as “God’s will for my family”:

My husband and I celebrated my pregnancy with friends on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. Although the pregnancy was a bit of a surprise, we were delighted to welcome a baby into the world.

I was teaching fifth grade at the time, and I’ll never forget the moment when a student walked up to my desk and said he didn’t feel very well. When I saw the rash on his face, I flashed back to a terrible photograph I had seen in a magazine in my obstetrician’s office the week before. It was of a “Rubella baby,” and the caption said “Bobby’s mother recovered from German measles in 3 days. Bobby wasn’t so lucky.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I later found out the way scientists realized what the Rubella virus did to a fetus was when someone connected delivery-room personnel coming down with the three-day measles to a baby with severe birth defects. Although the mother recovers in three days, the baby stays sick throughout the remaining time of gestation and is still contagious at birth.

I had almost forgotten about that student and the magazine picture a couple of weeks later when I got up and saw a very slight rash on my own face.