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Last November I had an abortion 20 weeks into my pregnancy, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Not because it scarred me (it didn’t), and not because I’m haunted by it (I’m not), but because of the lack of regard afforded me by the clinic that performed the procedure.
Let me back up. When I found out I was pregnant last summer, I was ecstatic. My husband and I had been trying to have a baby for over a year, and I had already miscarried once at eight weeks. With this pregnancy, every early indication was positive. Then at 20 weeks came the biggie: the “anatomy scan,” where they check in depth to make sure all the parts are developing properly. We’d made it past the riskiest stage of pregnancy, and we were cautiously optimistic.
During the scan, the room was eerily quiet, and the ultrasound image was blurry. I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. My husband squeezed my hand.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m having a hard time seeing the baby. The amniotic fluid is extremely low. Your doctor will explain everything,” the technician replied. It turned out that our baby did not have kidneys or a bladder, a condition called Potter Syndrome. It’s not curable, and it’s fatal.
We went to a specialist who confirmed the diagnosis. My OBGYN laid out the options for us: 1) carry to term and deliver, knowing the baby would die, or 2) induce labor and deliver right away, again knowing the baby wouldn’t survive. My OBGYN didn’t even bring up option #3, since you can’t get an abortion where I live, in Nashville, TN, after 16 weeks.
I asked her about the possibility of getting an abortion. She was very supportive, but she informed me that I would have to travel at least 180 miles. Also, abortion at 20 weeks is a two-day procedure, so I would have to stay overnight. With the travel expenses and unpaid time off work, many women wouldn’t have been able to afford this option. In fact, all three of my options were expensive.
I was shattered. I wanted this baby so badly. Everything was a blur, and I couldn’t focus on the possibilities. Time was ticking. I had to make a decision. I couldn’t bear to continue a doomed pregnancy, and I was not ready to go through childbirth five months early. Abortion seemed like the way to go: the quickest option, and the least painful emotionally and physically.
I started calling clinics with the intention of going wherever could take me the soonest. This was a Monday, but I couldn’t get an appointment with any clinic until Friday. I began to second guess my decision, wondering if it might be quicker to deliver at the hospital. I talked it over with my OBGYN, and for her to induce me at 20 weeks would require her to speak in front of the hospital’s ethics board, which would also take a few days. So much red tape.
I decided to stick with the abortion decision, and made an appointment at the closest clinic, in Louisville, KY. The abortion would cost $1,500 up front. My mother, husband, and I drove to Louisville on Thursday night. On Friday morning we went to the clinic and were immediately surrounded by protesters.
Some had signs (Abortion = Murder), some had pictures of bloody fetuses, and one guy was actually standing on a soapbox and preaching. We walked with the clinic’s volunteer escorts. I had been warned over the phone about the protesters and thought I was prepared, but when a woman looked me directly in the eye and earnestly said, “Please don’t kill your baby,” I burst into tears. I later found out that the ACLU has identified this clinic as one of the worst in the country in terms of protesters.
After waiting for over four hours, I finally saw the doctor. He inserted laminaria into my cervix to begin dilation. Laminaria are rods made of seaweed that expand as they absorb moisture. This process causes severe cramping, which I had read about online, but based on my reading I was also expecting pain medication. No such luck.
When I asked the doctor about it, he looked at me like I was crazy and basically told me to suck it up. We went back to the hotel and I called my own doctor, who called in a prescription. I spent the rest of the day lying around the hotel room in a medicated fog.
If Friday was awful, then Saturday was a nightmare. First, more waiting. Then I was taken downstairs to the surgery area. I was supposed to strip and put on a hospital gown, but I’m overweight, and the hospital gown came in one size that did not fit all. It wouldn’t even meet in the front, so I was completely exposed. I burst into tears in the dressing room, and a nurse heard me and gave me a second gown to wear backward.
After that, I was wheeled into the surgery room on a stretcher. They transferred me to the surgery table, which had metal cuffs to hold your thighs up and apart for the surgery. I have large thighs, and the cuffs were a bit of a squeeze. Once I got settled, the nurse stuck in the IV, and I was down for the count.
I awoke to the sound of women giggling. Two of the nurses were talking, and I heard a snippet:
“...and then I heard her crying, and I asked what the matter was, and that gown did not come close to fitting her! Did you see how her legs almost didn’t fit in those cuffs?”
Those bitches were fat-shaming me! I was stunned. I needed kindness, not nurses analyzing my BMI.
One of them saw that I was awake and came over to ask me how I was doing. I wondered whether she noticed that I heard them talking about me. I told her that I was in quite a bit of pain and asked if I would be given anything. She frowned.
“Honey, are you a drug addict?” she asked.
I was taken into the “recovery room,” a small room with hospital armchairs lined up around the walls. I was given 10 minutes to sit, drink a cup of juice, and eat a cookie. Then I was told to use the restroom and change back into my clothes. I was still groggy and unsteady, but as long as I could walk to the restroom on my own, I was deemed ready to leave.
I stumbled out to the waiting room to meet up with my wonderful, patient husband and mother. We piled in the car, I popped a pain pill, and I slept the whole way back to Nashville.
I’ve had nearly a year to think about my experience. I’ve reflected on my lack of access to a nearby abortion, the economic boundaries that would have blocked me had my financial situation been different, the protesters, the interminable waiting in the clinic, the contrast between the support I received from my own doctor and the slight hostility of the clinic staff, the careless gossiping about patients, and the casual assumption that asking for pain meds at an abortion clinic means you’re an addict.
Despite all of this, the clinic was safe and clean, and I made the best choice for me among crappy choices. I would do it again. But I’m left with the feeling that it didn’t have to be this way.
Was my experience symptomatic of assembly line healthcare in America? Is abortion so tainted that people think women seeking abortions don’t deserve better treatment? Is there a lack of incentive for clinics to treat women better, seeing that a) they often have a monopoly on the service for hundreds of miles, and b) they probably won’t see most of the women they serve ever again? Is it hard to be nice when you work in a stressful and potentially dangerous environment? Or was my experience just atypically bad, reflective of nothing beyond that?
I can understand the long wait times, I am aware that the staff probably does encounter women with drug problems, and I know the clinic has no control over the protesters. But all I really needed to make my experience better was a little kindness and warmth.
Was I expecting too much, some special treatment because I wanted my baby, because I felt like my situation was particularly emotionally fraught? Maybe I expected the clinic to feel sorry for me, and they treated me like any other woman having a “regular” abortion. Except no abortion is a “regular” abortion, and no woman having an abortion should be treated with suspicion and disrespect. Every woman having an abortion for any reason deserves a little kindness and warmth. It could make a world of difference.