A Polish Abortion

by Anonymous

November 20, 2020

Content Warning: fetal abnormality

My husband and I moved to Washington after four years in Ohio.

On our second or third night in our new house, I had a positive pregnancy test. I was so excited – we had been trying – but also kept my heart pretty guarded. I’ve had a miscarriage in the past and I didn’t want to go through the rollercoaster of excitement and attachment just to be let down, since early miscarriages are common.

While I was trying not to get excited, I started throwing up. Every day. Every smell in our house made me nauseated, so I got candles and diffusers. Then every candle and every diffuser made me sick. I can’t think of a breakfast I haven’t thrown up. But I also threw up at night, I also threw up between teaching on zoom, I also threw up right after taking my nausea meds.

To be blunt, it sucked. I did not love being pregnant the last two times either, but I know the outcome is worth it. I was taking lots of different medications and finally got down to only throwing up every 3-5 days and being so tired I needed a two hour nap nearly every day.

At nine weeks, I was so excited to have my first ultrasound, since I was very afraid of having a “missed abortion,” like my first miscarriage. That is: a miscarriage without bleeding or pain, where you keep having pregnancy symptoms because your body doesn’t know the fetus has died and doesn’t pass it. Nothing in my life had ever been so miserable as the week I spent still feeling nauseated but knowing the fetus inside me had no heartbeat and never would. I’m still afraid of living through it again. It was torture.

Because we decided to do genetic testing for some of the common abnormalities, we were told I wouldn’t have the ultrasound that day as planned. I explained my worry about the missed abortion, that I just wanted to know if there was a heartbeat – but they insisted the ultrasound would wait for the genetic testing appointment. It was too early to hear a heartbeat another way, so I went home frustrated and paranoid that the fetus was dead and I wouldn’t know.

They scheduled my ultrasound quickly, but it wouldn’t be until 11-14 weeks pregnant – I ended up getting scheduled for the same week as the election, when I would be 12 weeks pregnant.

On November 5, stressing about the election and the pandemic and the fetus inside me, Ben held my hand and I cried when the first thing we saw was the little heart beating. I was so afraid there wouldn’t be a heartbeat that I hardly processed the rest as she showed us the stomach, the bladder, two legs, two arms, the head. A perfect little spine where I could see separate vertebrae as it moved.

It was wiggling around, maybe in response to the pressure from the ultrasound or maybe just because it is an active little fetus that likes swimming around. Based purely on the amount of vomiting I had been doing, I knew it was a powerful little being.

I looked at the head a lot. Thinking about the little profile of the head, the child it could one day be in my arms, at my breast, on Ben’s shoulder. But immediately it was a little weird. There was a lot of black around its brain. I don’t know a lot about the anatomy of a fetus (although I learned with Leah how late they grow their lungs!) but I figured a brain usually fills up a skull as best it can.

I didn’t think about it though, and when the tech left the room I instantly texted people “HEARTBEAT!!” because my greatest fear hadn’t been realized. Then I asked Ben about that black area. He had started to get ready to text his parents but had stopped. He told me it probably wasn’t good. The tech doesn’t tell you anything substantial, just explains a few things as they take images. When the OB came in, she didn’t waste any time and told us it was anencephaly. Although there were so many good things – legs, arms, that tantalizing heartbeat – there weren’t really eyes where they should be. The head was shaped like a kidney bean. And that black area around the brain was indeed a bad thing – my fetus didn’t have a skull. Its brain was being precariously held in by skin. A scalp but no skull.

My very embarrassing next texts in response to my friends’ outbursts of joy were “jk” or “ummm… update.” The OB explained that the great majority of similar cases die at birth. In very rare cases they live for a few hours and there are a few examples of living a few days or a week – but without a skull, this was unlikely to be our experience.

As we talked about our options, I knew immediately (and Ben agreed) that there was no point in 28 more weeks of suffering through a growing belly and the excited looks of strangers and who knows how many more weeks of vomiting just so this poor life could end outside of my body. It is perfectly fine if you disagree with me on this – if you would carry this life, ok. However, if you don’t have a uterus, I am not interested in what you think you would do in some alternate seahorse reality. I knew that this will be a horrible, devastating experience no matter what, and it was simply a question of beginning grieving now, or torturing myself for 7 more months in order to grieve then.

My OB works in a Catholic hospital. The neighboring hospitals are also Catholic. The hospital closer to my home is also Catholic. She said I could go to Planned Parenthood, do my best to find a provider on my own, or they could refer me to UW, who could compassionately end my pregnancy and also provide testing that would help us learn if this was an anomaly or if it was related to a trisomy or if we had genetic indicators that meant this might happen again.

I cried on the phone with the scheduler from UW. I cried in Ben’s arms for what felt like many snot filled hours, crying as if every cell in my body was heaving along with me, crying with no regard for my sleeping baby down the hall or my crying husband or for anything else in the world except the burning pain inside me that wasn’t quieting, wasn’t relieved from the tears, wasn’t responding in any way except to continue searing through me.

I spent the next few days telling people I was sad but ok while I was randomly sobbing in the park, on the couch, over my lunch, at Daniel Tiger episodes. I had a drink. I had deli meat. I stopped eating my small, bland, dry meals designed to stave off nausea. I didn’t replace them with much. I asked for things like comfort food and phone calls and visits. Everyone was there for me. I cried anyway.

I kept picturing a delicate tiny baby with its head open like a cracked egg. I imagined holding it. I imagined crying over it. I cried over it. I imagined going to prenatal appointments again and again and each one being more and more sickening as I sat next to women who cradled their bellies and decorated nurseries. I wondered if its little beating heart would make it to 40 weeks anyway? I wondered what inhumanely cruel men (and a few women, who I can only believe have never dealt with pregnancy loss) could craft laws that would force me to carry this fetus for 40 weeks, knowing it would certainly die, but insisting it die outside of me.

Maybe having grown up in Oregon, where we have death with dignity laws, shapes my opinion on this, but if we’re absolutely certain that death is at our door, why do we have to wait in suspense? This fetus will never be a child. It will never have memories. Its heart may beat, but I suppose that as someone who squashes moths for the audacity of entering my home, I can’t understand why a heartbeat alone determines life. Worth. To be clear: I want this baby. I chose to bring it to life – or to try. I’m wrecked that this poor being drew this lot. Why?

Besides the water torture of feeling a baby kick me, seeing it in ultrasounds, having what turn into weekly appointments, knowing all along that I won’t have a baby – pregnancy is also a really good way for me to die. When Leah was born, I came pretty goddamn close. I’ll never forget the nurse asking me – “have you had any seizures today?” I’ll certainly never forget the slow blackness of my hemorrhage and the way my entire world was overtaken with red and then white as I screamed through my very being while the doctor saved my life by pulling two clots out of my uterus with her FUCKING HAND! Please imagine a full grown woman putting her whole fist through your cervix – twice – before you ask me to deliver a baby.

And the fucked up thing is even through 28 weeks of nausea and nearly dying and three weeks of the NICU I was ready to do this all again! Because Leah is a goddamn treasure! She is far and away the greatest thing in my life and nothing I will ever do can top bringing her into this world. And I was ready to do it again. Sure, my cold dead heart was guarded and I was afraid of the miscarriage. But I was really just waiting until I could be over the moon.

I was over the moon for about six minutes, between the heartbeat and the news. Now I’m mostly a shell. I’m sure I’ll heal but right now I’m a giant goddamn mess.

On Nov 9 I had my pre-op appointment. I couldn’t even give my name to the front desk without crying. There were women with hands on their bellies and holding round cheeked babies all around me. The MA who took my vitals asked me when my due date was, I tried to remember the day I had already broken up with, and as soon as she left the room I burst into those chest-hollowing sobs again. It was certainly loud enough to be heard in all the surrounding rooms.

Everyone was so kind. They couldn’t hold my hand but they did what they could. I emptied a tissue box, I calmly asked medical questions, I laughed about stupid things. I cried in phlebotomy. I cried in the waiting room. I left. I came home and cried. I woke up the next morning and taught my students. Oh and when I found out about the anencephaly, that Thursday? I came home and immediately went back into parent teacher conferences. I made it through.

On November 12, Ben and I said goodbye to the fetus. Said thank you for the good luck of new life. Said ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING for the bad luck of a brain that won’t function. We cried and then I never really stopped crying. It was at least two hours but maybe it was five? Maybe it was all night? I woke up on Friday the 13th – Friday the 13th! – and ate jello and drank tea and took a shower with prescription soap and drove to Seattle.

Sidebar: does it surprise anyone else that in liberal Washington in 2020 I have to drive two hours to get an abortion? (Only an hour if there isn’t traffic I guess)

Claire took me to my appointment. She brought me a book and I wore cozy clothes and we cried in the waiting room and talked about how hospital art is curated and started the Friday crossword. After a few hours, I got called back and I met what felt like a hundred doctors and nurses and anesthesiologists and I cried between each person I met.

“Do you know what procedure you’re having today?”

“I’m having an abortion.”

I cried every time. Everyone offered kindness, patted my leg, smiled through their masks. I received perfect medical care. They put me under anesthesia and hiked my legs open to a room of 7 people and took out the fetus and placenta. They’re testing it to see if there’s a reason we had anencephaly other than just bad luck. The rest of the tissue will be donated to research on fetal abnormalities – maybe it’ll help someone else avoid this fate.

I woke up and asked the nurse for a hug. I cried and cried. I bled and bled. I didn’t regret it but I never wanted to do it. I never want anyone to have to do it. But worse still I never want anyone to be forced to carry this pain for 27 weeks more than I had to.

I learned that the abortion law being widely protested in Poland outlaws abortions for fetal abnormalities – my exact situation. I thought about the potential law (that a district judge blocked!) in Ohio that would have made my abortion illegal if we were in Columbus.

I wonder why anyone could believe that God would want me to endure the months of pain and heartbreak of feeling a fetus grow inside of me knowing it would never grow outside. What God would want me to be cut open, because I couldn’t push a baby through my cervix if it didn’t have a skull, just to watch the baby die outside of me. I am not sure on God, but I’m pretty sure God likes me more than that.

I’m sad but ok. I’m crying in line at the grocery store. I’m laughing in video calls with students. I’m making brownies and going for walks and I’m not throwing up scrambled eggs anymore. I hope you have kindness for the women in your life who have to go through this awful experience, under any circumstances. I’m sad but I’m ok.

Remember that our stories are ours to tell. We’d love to hear your story too!