By Elana Sigall
You can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it’s the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me … The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times, July 22, 2004
I am forty years old. I am happily married. I own a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn; I have a law degree and three young children. Two years ago, I had an abortion. At my post-termination checkup at my obstetrician’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, my doctor said, “You know, you go through life and you think things, and you think you know things. And then you become an OB, and you find out lots of people do this. They just don’t talk about it.”
When I found out I was pregnant, my first child was two and a half, and my younger one was sixteen months. It was the end of January, and my husband had been out of town for most of the month. We had not been trying to conceive.
I had a part-time teaching appointment at Columbia, but I had mostly been home since Talia, my oldest, was born, less out of a desire to be a full-time mother and more out of a kind of inertia about what to do next. My biological clock was ticking—not about having children but about finding myself.
Michael and I wanted another child. He comes from a family of five, and I had two sisters, so a family of two children seemed incomplete to us. But the surprise of the pregnancy sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t feel happy or excited, just anxious and ambivalent. Suddenly, another baby didn’t sound so good. I had never experienced my two children as a burden. But what if this time it were different? What if I resented the baby or just didn’t love it as much? And what if something was wrong with the baby? I had two healthy, thriving children. Why tempt fate?
Almost immediately I learned that the level of my Hcg (the “pregnancy hormone”) was abnormally high, which can indicate Down syndrome. I figured it would at least mean that the pregnancy dilemma would end; I wouldn’t have continued a pregnancy if I knew that there was a birth defect. At the sonogram the doctor cheerfully reassured me that I had a healthy embryo, with a heartbeat. The pregnancy was about five weeks along. He also knew why my hormone levels were so high. “You see this?” he pointed to a dark spot on the screen, “And this?” he pointed to another one. There were two extra sacs. They were empty, and the doctor could almost guarantee that they would not develop into pregnancies. “It’s much better to have one healthy baby than three premature triplets,” he offered consolingly. That night, Michael rubbed my belly and remarked, “How’s our litter? Wow, I could have ended up with five kids after all.” I didn’t laugh. The triplets served in my mind as evidence that my vocation had become child production.
The extra sacs increased my chance of miscarriage, but as the weeks wore on, the precariousness of the pregnancy faded and my anxiety mounted. I began to feel sorry for other people who were pregnant. Having a baby seemed suffocating, even distasteful, despite the fact that I had loved my tiny babies. I was increasingly overwhelmed by a feeling that I had to make a choice between this new baby and me. Three children seemed like a life sentence. If I had the baby, I thought, I would never leave my house again. I would be pushing a vacuum for the rest of my life. I would turn forty, and I would have nothing to show for it except three children in diapers and a one-night-a-week job. One friend asked if I might have regrets if I terminated the pregnancy; I was embarrassed to tell her that regret was unimaginable to me.
I didn’t know anyone who had had an abortion, except a girl in high school. I went online in search of the right answer. I Googled “abortion”; “third child and abortion”; “should I have an abortion?” I found lists of common reasons that women have abortions: avoidance of single motherhood, financial instability. That wasn’t me. I talked to friends. I looked at the newborn pictures of my other children. I visited the maternity ward at the hospital and watched the new babies. I pictured Michael holding the baby, bouncing it. I made lists of pros and cons. I couldn’t come up with anything for the pro side, except that Michael wanted the baby very, very much.
I agonized for seven weeks. How would I be able to teach three children to read? How would I stay up to date with photographs and scrapbooks? I tried to confirm over and over again that Michael would not be resentful, would not be angry, if we ended it. “Let him stay home and take care of it,” my OB said. When I protested that he really does take care of the kids, she said, “Fathers can help. But in the end, somehow, I don’t know why, it’s the mother’s burden.” This might have been reassuring except that it was so wildly untrue in my case that it only added to my guilt.
Michael and I lay in bed at night talking about what to do. He kept saying, “I would love to have another baby, but not like this.” One night, he lay with his back to me, quiet. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I was thinking about names,” he said.
I had a dream about going to terminate the pregnancy at a clinic and finding that they were giving a cat an abortion. I asked them if it wasn’t just better to let her have the kittens and then give them away, but they said that the abortion was really better for her. In the dream, also, I couldn’t find Michael. He wasn’t there.
* * *
At twelve-and-a-half weeks—about four days past the deadline my OB set for a safe first-trimester termination—I went to the clinic. Emotionally, I’d been everywhere except here, to the actual moment. I sat in the waiting room with the other women, mostly black, some with men, some with mothers, until my name was called. I sobbed as a young woman drew my blood. She asked me if I was afraid of needles. Michael joined me for the sonogram. The screen faced away from me, but Michael could see it. Unlike the ultrasounds of my past, the tech did not adjust the screen so that I could see it comfortably from my supine position. She dated the pregnancy at twelve-and-a-half to thirteen weeks and gave me a consent form for a second-trimester abortion. I would need a general anesthetic, she said, not a local, as I had requested. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said that I was too far along, it would be too painful.
They put us in a private waiting room, handed me a robe and told me to take everything off but my bra and socks. There was a bed with a flowered maroon bedspread. I searched it for an answer. Michael knew exactly what I was thinking. “You were expecting that we would see the sonogram and have an epiphany and get up and walk out of here?” he asked. But all I had seen was Michael’s face and tears as he looked at the screen.
Nurses and techs kept knocking on the waiting room door, and each time we asked for a few more minutes. Finally, one nurse, Rosie, told us to go home and think it over for another twenty-four hours. “I see this every day,” she said, “And I tell people to take one more day.” I protested that it was getting to be too late, that I was already in the second trimester. “One more day doesn’t matter,” she said.
In the shower the next morning, my daughter told me that my tummy was full. “It’s fat,” she said, patting it. “My belly is fat, too,” she added with a smile. I spent the morning pre-procedure fast in a neighborhood coffeehouse, grading midterms and trying to imagine being excited about being pregnant. I touched my abdomen and imagined Talia and Julian coming to the hospital to see the new baby. I wondered if I would only find the desire for another child after the procedure. I began to look forward to the general anesthetic. I hadn’t slept peacefully in weeks. I hadn’t had a moment when I wasn’t obsessed with my decision. I called Michael. “Let’s take the weekend and try to imagine having the baby and see how it feels,” he suggested. I was so relieved at the thought of not having to go back that I agreed.
But the weekend didn’t go well. We didn’t talk much about it. I was too panicked. We had one conversation about moving Julian into Talia’s room. I tried to imagine where his toy chest would fit. It had his name on it, and a lion, his favorite animal. He also had a small picture of a mama polar bear snuggling her baby that we had gotten him for his first birthday; it had seemed as if he’d spent that whole first year in my arms. If we moved those things onto Talia’s wall, I thought, there would be holes in the wall of the new baby’s room.
Monday morning came, and we hadn’t gotten anywhere. I was looking more pregnant. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore. I was terrified that people would start noticing.
* * *
I walked in and out of that clinic a total of four times. The second time, I made it to the O.R. It was sterile and cold and looked like a delivery room. I sat on the table, and a man smiled at me and said, “I am the anesthetist.” I began to cry hysterically and got off the table. “I have to go see my husband again.” I fell into Michael’s chest, sobbing. “I can’t do it.” Rosie, the nurse from the other day, came in a few minutes later, “Again? So, why don’t you go home and come back?”
I protested. Rosie shook her head. “The doctor won’t do it. You got off the table.”
“Come on,” Michael said. “At least we’ll find out how it feels to walk out of here again.”
Michael went away on business the next morning, and I spent two days feeling almost calm. There was nothing to be done until he returned on Thursday. I worked. I read books to my children and sang them songs and put them to bed. I could never love anyone else as much. Why would I have another baby?
Thursday night, I barely slept. On Friday morning, we took the train back to Manhattan. “So this is on your way to work, right? I mean, if I decide not to go, you can just get off the train and you’ll be at work, right?”
“I can’t try to make the decision in that place again,” he said. We got off the subway in the neighborhood of the clinic and found a coffee shop.
“I always thought that I wanted to have three children,” I offered.
“Let’s make it easier,” he said, resigned. “Let’s go.”
We walked to the clinic and got in the elevator. Michael was crying. “I just keep thinking about the baby,” he said. “But I know that I have to think of you. That’s my priority. You have to be there for me and for Talia and for Julian.”
“The baby has gotten off to such a bad start,” I said.
“Really?” said Michael. “I was thinking just the opposite. That baby’s a fighter. Been here three times already and still around. I love that baby. I can’t wait to hold that baby.”
I looked at him and said nothing. “We are having the baby. Come on. It’s our baby, and we are having it,” he said. We walked out again.
We went to a diner. I couldn’t sip the water. If I did, the fast would be over. Michael looked at me, saw the state I was in. “That’s it.” He walked me back to the clinic. “I don’t think that you can do it with me there.” I agreed. I had to do it alone.
I went into the room, and the tech strapped my legs to a table and told me to lie down. But I wanted to sit up. And I wanted to talk to Rosie again before the doctor came in. He strapped me down anyway; Rosie came in.
“You can still have another baby,” Rosie said.
“But I’m thirty-eight.”
“When will you be thirty-nine?”
“So, let’s see. If you get pregnant in July, you’ll have the baby when you’re thirty-nine,” she explained, as if there were nothing at all strange about having an abortion in April for no apparent reason with a plan to get pregnant again in July. Her suggestion comforted me.
I had wanted the happy ending. I had hoped that I would jump off the cliff, arms wide, and embrace Michael with a huge grin: “We’re having a baby!” We would be laughing and crying and relieved, and then I would touch my full, fat belly and everything would be okay. But I couldn’t feel that way.
“I have two children already,” I said. “Two and a half and eighteen months.”
“You have an eighteen-month-old? That baby needs you,” Rosie said.
The anesthetist, a different one, was standing on my side with her hand on my arm, getting ready to stick the needle. “Wait! Wait!” I kept saying.
“Awww, honey, it’s not gonna hurt at all,” she said, tightening her grip on my arm.
The doctor put his hand up to stop her. “We cannot tell you what to do,” he said, getting impatient. “There are other women waiting. They haven’t eaten.”
Rosie told him to go to see another patient. As she followed him out the door, she looked back at me over her shoulder, “We’ll be back in a few minutes. You need to decide.” I watched the clock frantically, wanting more time.
Soon Rosie came back in with the doctor. “So, what do you want to do? If you get off the table again, that’s it.”
The next thing I remember is waking up face down on a gurney in a different room. Another nurse led me to a big recovery chair. I started to sob uncontrollably, in a way I had never cried in fourteen weeks. There were other women there, too, but nobody else was crying. They all seemed calm, maybe relieved. The nurse gave me a prescription for antibiotics to prevent infection and told me to take it for many more days than she’d told the woman next to me. “You were further along,” she said.
I met Michael near his office. We walked to two drugstores to find the medications. I fixated on the bag of disposable diapers behind the counter with the smiling baby on it, and I wept.
* * *
The grief found me quickly. I was one hundred percent sure I had done the wrong thing. All of my reasons for feeling hesitant seemed trivial and surmountable, especially compared to these new horrible feelings.
Once the pregnancy was over, I could conjure up again all of the reasons that I loved having children. That was, in an odd way, a relief.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the principal collector of data on abortion, does not amass data for any education level above “college graduate” or an income level higher than three hundred percent of the poverty line. But the Guttmacher Institute estimates that by the age of forty-five, one-third of American women will have had an abortion.
During my weeks of agonizing, my obstetrician, who treats professional, educated women mainly over the age of thirty-five, assured me that she’d had many patients end pregnancies for reasons far less elaborate than mine. Sometimes when I spoke, she finished my sentences, having heard it all before.
She told me about a woman who had an abortion when she got pregnant accidentally. She had a son already and hadn’t had a chance to “read the book” on how to have a girl. Another obstetrician I spoke with afterwards, who also practices on the Upper East Side, treating women “who may not be millionaires but who are certainly employed,” describes patients not at all in conflict about what to do. “You have these successful couples with children—women who are very successfully managing a home life and a career,” she said. “They get pregnant by accident and they decide that they want an abortion to ‘keep things where they are.’ Do they feel guilty? Yes. ‘This shouldn’t have happened. I feel terrible.’ But they have the abortion.”
Barbara Ehrenreich, the feminist political activist, reproachfully quotes women who claim that they don’t think of what they’ve done as an abortion when they terminate for medical reasons and who resent being treated in clinics alongside women who “did not want their babies.” But Ehrenreich herself, even as she unfailingly defends the right to choose under any circumstances, suggests that some of the reasons people elect to abort, “like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy.”
In the hierarchy of abortions, mine must be somewhere near the bottom—under women with no job and no education and no husband and no money and under women with the education and money and desire to find out that a fetus has birth defects. But the right to choose cannot be measured against an objective set of “good reasons”; we cannot embrace any argument that ranks some choices as less “sketchy” than others. Would we rank the reasons for wanting children—what about ego satisfaction, loneliness, wealth transfer, extra help at home, boredom?
Recently, there have been calls from the left for an acknowledgement by the pro-choice movement that abortion is wrong, something to be avoided—a recognition, to use Hillary Clinton’s now oft-quoted phrase, that “abortion is always tragic.” There’s some sense that the pro-choice movement doesn’t stand on any moral ground and that it can’t be sustained in its current form unless it does. But should any baby be born ever that isn’t completely and utterly wanted?
Throughout those difficult weeks, Michael kept saying, “We can have this baby. If we can’t do this, nobody can.” The notion of “choice” takes on a different meaning for those whose lives are already blessed with lots of choices. Of course we could have done it. But I needed a better reason to have a baby, and I couldn’t find it.
Six months ago, a year and a half after my abortion, I did have a baby, my third child, just not my third pregnancy. When Laila stares into my eyes I am overwhelmed by love. She radiates a peacefulness that I don’t remember in my other kids. I already can’t remember a time when she wasn’t here.
The fall before I had my abortion, I was in Ohio, working for John Kerry’s campaign. I was staying with my mother-in-law, in Toledo. Days before the election, we stood outside one night, in a neighbor’s driveway, talking. The neighbor’s expensive cars were plastered with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers, and she was defending her candidate. “What about the right to abortion?” my mother-in-law asked, knowing that this woman had had one herself, once upon a time. “Oh, that’s never going away,” the neighbor said.
My ambivalence about my own decision was agonizing. I was worried about making the wrong choice for myself, and at times I wished that someone else could decide for me.
But not really.
A number of people have asked me how I feel about making public in this article what was such a personal experience. Besides questions about whether I might get a politically hostile reception from some quarters—a risk I was willing to accept—they expressed concern about how I would feel about my children’s reading the article someday. Might they feel hurt? I hoped not, of course, but I thought about it. I realized that, although I decided to have the abortion, the piece is a celebration of the children I have. For me, it is a kind of love letter to them. It is about how much I needed to want each of them, and how much I do.
Elana Sigall is an attorney. She is an adjunct faculty member at both Columbia Law School and Teachers College where she teaches courses on legal issues in education.
Brain, Child (Fall 2008)