On a late spring day in the late 1980s, I organized a press conference about triplets conceived through the In Vitro Fertilization program based at the private women’s hospital where I worked. The day concluded with me as a patient in the same facility, suffering a miscarriage at the end of the first trimester of my first pregnancy.
Thirty-plus years later, these events, juxtaposed like bookends on these memories, ping back at me as I consider what an overturned Roe v. Wade, will mean for all Americans, and those like me, who have endured pregnancy loss.
The women’s hospital was one of many that opened across the country after Roe. Every year, anti-abortion protestors with signs marched at the hospital on Mother’s Day, exercising their First Amendment rights. Legal terminations happened in a doctor’s office or clinic, though hospitals did a small number of abortions, up to the legal limit of 24 weeks. When the media showed up, I was the hospital representative who talked to the cameras, often with protestors screaming at me as I defended the law of the land.
The hospital had also built a reputation for its successful In Vitro Fertilization program, among the first in the country. IVF also had its detractors, including the Pope. His most recent encyclical on reproductive technology stirred the ire of many local Catholics as well as the media.
I started bleeding at home before work that day and called my doctor. He sent me for an ultrasound. I wasn’t that concerned, because, like many first-time mothers, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I drove to work and went straight to the radiology suite. The ultrasound tech worked me in right away. The black and white screen showed a strawberry-sized blob of tissue, but lacked a crucial detail I knew to expect from the many ultrasounds I had viewed. There was no blinking dot, no heartbeat.
“Your pregnancy is over, Amy,” my doctor said. “You will pass some fetal tissue over the next few days. Or we can schedule a D and C in the morning.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never been much of a crier, so I didn’t cry. The doctor gave me a big hug, as we were also friends and colleagues. I told him to schedule the surgery.
I called my husband, who told me to go home. I ignored him and went back to work, despite a headache, nervous stomach and a growing backache. I needed to get through the IVF event, and then I would deal with the growing horror inside me. Those feelings were there – but I shoved them deep into a hiding place, to be retrieved later.
The press conference was scheduled for early afternoon. The first set of IVF multiples in the area had been delivered weeks earlier. The babies’ parents played several videos. The first showed three cone-headed babies with swabs of dark hair like their father, lined up in identical bouncy seats on a kitchen table. Displaying the babies in-person like a prized 4-H lamb at the state fair wasn’t a consideration.
The last tape showed a grainy black and white ultrasound video taken five weeks post conception. I had watched this video dozens of times with hospital staff in the previous months. That day, it was as if I saw it for the first time. I saw the embryos, and the three tiny heartbeats leaped off the screen. This group of cells had become the mop-top babies we had just seen in the earlier videos.
Seeing a video of the babies followed by this look at their embryos was astonishing. The long-married parents had discussed their years of trying to conceive, and the shame, difficulties and disappointments they had been through. Even in my altered state, I couldn’t help but feel their joy and express wonder in what we saw. And yet as I stood there in the back of the room, I recognized the contrast between my own ultrasound that morning. There had been no heartbeat, at eleven weeks post-conception. The devastation filled me as if my pain were coming from an IV, going from head to toe.
I wanted nothing but to get out of there, but I had a job to do. When the media event was finally over, I drove myself home. I started cramping as soon as I got into the car. Why didn’t I have the good sense to get out of the car and walk back into the hospital?
The closer I got to home, the worse my cramps became. The next few hours were more painful than the healthy vaginal birth I would experience with our son three years later.
I lay on our bathroom’s cold white tile floor in a fetal position. I bled so badly that I couldn’t get up. I passed gray-white tissue pieces, which physicians note on a chart as “POC” -- products of conception. My husband was in a night class where I couldn’t reach him – cell phones hadn’t been invented. He came home to find me on the bathroom floor.
He helped me into our ‘73 red VW Beetle, and we made the trek back to the hospital. My physician admitted me. I was already scheduled for a D and C the following morning.
Despite three more pregnancies – one of which netted our wonderful now-adult son – I would never again have a worry-free pregnancy day. Going to baby showers required a stiff game face. No one ever talked about it then; it was taboo. Since that day, my reproductive ship has long sailed.
I’ve thought about that day since Justice Samuel Alito’s draft leaked last week. When Roe vs. Wade became law in 1973, I was 16. I was as much of a feminist as one can be with no real-life relationship experience. I celebrated a woman’s right to choose. I still do. I still grieve the potential of the three pregnancies I lost.
Life is way more complicated than we see it as a teenager. I am also aware of how much my privilege steered me and gave me opportunities. Seeing that grainy ultrasound video of those three embryos was a transformative experience. It filled me with wonder. This awe did not and does not change my opinion about a woman’s choice in a situation that is often fraught with complications. I cannot and will not judge another woman’s choice for herself. With the potential overturn of this settled law of half a century, I fear that all pregnancy loss will be suspect and even criminalized. The movement to consider an embryo or a fetus a person is a slippery slope to criminalizing pregnancy loss, reproductive technology like IVF, and even contraception.
Society needs to support, not thwart, women. For individuals who object to women who choose a termination, I ask them to focus on babies, children and women in poverty, who are hungry and homeless. So many desperately need a steady hand.
Amy Abbott is a journalist and author from southern Indiana.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Will an overturned Roe v. Wade lead to criminalizing miscarriages?