‘This Is Us’ Actress Milana Vayntrub: My Abortion Story

Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty

In May 2020, I injured my ankle so badly I couldn’t move a toe. The slightest twitch sent a paralyzing bolt through my leg—like head-splitting microphone feedback that makes you recoil and cover your ears. That’s what back labor felt like—but in my spine.

My baby was “sunny side up”—a vaguely appetizing term that meant his head was pushing against my spine. Every time I had a contraction, it felt like my back was breaking. The pain felt unfair—like an injustice. Surely, this must be against some law! I thought, followed quickly by, I must call the head of the hospital! As the pain intensified, it became, I need to call the police! Finally, I landed on the president. Actually, scratch that. Kamala. She’d know what to do.

Madam Vice President, if there’s any way you could put in a call to my uterus and ask this kid his ETA? See if he’d consider assuming a more comfortable position? I’m sure you have friends in high places, soooo…

I was in labor for so long I genuinely forgot I was in the hospital to have a baby. The pain had taken over, and I thought my life was just going to be about managing it. The doctors had already tried to give me an epidural, but it didn’t work, so my options were limited: I begged the doctors to try the epidural one more time. (They couldn’t.) I begged my husband to squeeze my hips every time I had a contraction. (He did.) I begged Siri to turn on my “Breathe & Chill” playlist. (She said I had to unlock my phone first. We haven’t spoken since.)

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Just when I believed I was at the very end of my rope, the nurse told me I was ready to push. And I did. For two glorious hours, I pushed like a champion. Between pushes, I cracked jokes. I told the nurses this is how I should record my stand-up special. When else would I get such a captive audience? I was sweaty, exhausted and hilarious—even if only to myself.

My baby arrived slimy, half-covered in his own poop, and heavy as a bowling ball. As the nurse placed his little, loud body on my chest, I remembered why I was there and why I’d gone through all this. I remembered that this was what I had chosen to do. I wanted to create a family. I knew that this was the first of many ginormous sacrifices I would make in my son’s life.

For me, birth was bearable because I had chosen it. I could only manage the nausea, pain, and expenses (financial and emotional) of pregnancy because I wanted a child. Now that I’ve experienced a full-term pregnancy and given birth, I find myself thinking about how imprisoning it would be to go through this if I didn’t choose it. If I was forced into it because laws didn’t give me any other option.

Unfortunately—terrifyingly—this isn’t some far-off dystopian thought experiment. In 2021 alone, 600 abortion restrictions were introduced across the country; 90 were enacted into law. That’s more than any year since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. And right now, the Supreme Court is deliberating a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

This is not a drill, people. All of us with a uterus may soon be stripped of the constitutional right to an abortion. Forced pregnancy and birth sounds medieval—as medieval as secret, unsafe abortions. And yet, here we are.

My life as I know it, and motherhood as I know it, was shaped by my right to make choices about my own body. In that way, my birth story is inseparable from my abortion story.

Ten years ago, I was pregnant for the first time. I was living in an apartment I could barely afford with my first boyfriend out of college. We were doing whatever it took to get by. I was taking random babysitting jobs, working at a smoothie shop, and performing improv in tiny LA theaters as often as anyone would allow me on stage. I accidentally missed a day or two of my birth control, and my period was late. So, I did what countless women have done since pioneer times: I bought a two-pack of pregnancy tests, took them right there in the drug store bathroom, and buried the positive results in the trash underneath some wet paper towels.

I immediately knew the right thing to do was to have an abortion. There was no handwringing, no confusion, no sleepless nights. I’ve always had a strong moral compass—the kind that sets off blaring sirens and flashing red lights in my chest if I feel like I’m doing something wrong. In this case, all was silent. My compass pointed very clearly in the direction of not bringing a child into the world that I did not want and could not care for.

Within two weeks, I had a safe procedure in my doctor’s office, and it was no big deal. My abortion story is uncomplicated and straightforward, based on a decision that was all my own. I understand this is a privilege. I also understand that access to abortion should never be a privilege; it should be a protected right.

Over the past decade, I’ve hardly thought about my abortion, except for when I think of those who may not have access to one. Abortion restrictions disproportionately harm those already most vulnerable in our country—from Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities to young people, immigrants, those living in poverty, and rural areas. This comes as no surprise. Marginalized Americans have always been the most impacted by racist and classist reproductive policies throughout history.

I’m haunted by the prospect of what we all stand to lose. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, half of U.S. states could control our personal reproductive decisions by summer. Over 36 million people could be forced to give birth.

Becoming a mother has made me even more adamant about access to safe, legal abortions. I now know how hard it is to carry a bowling ball-sized human to full term. I know the back-breaking will it takes to give birth to a baby. I know the toll of sleepless nights and a torn body, the necessity of support, the pause it puts on your career, relationships, and goals. I cannot fathom the cruelty of enduring all this plus a lifetime of childrearing if you do not want it.

I wouldn’t wish the labor pain I experienced on anyone. Okay, except maybe the politicians who continue to use their power to try to strip us of our rights. But I wish this for them in a benevolent way. Maybe laboring would grow their empathy toward those of us whose bodies they use as talking points in their re-election campaigns.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Activists hold a clothes hanger at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Anna Moneymaker/Getty</div>

Activists hold a clothes hanger at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty

It’s never been more apparent to me that the abortion “debate” is not about life or even policy; it’s about power. And while I don’t have the power to cast a vote in the Supreme Court case, I do have the power to raise my voice as one of the nearly 25 percent of women who will have an abortion in their lifetime. So, as we approach the 49th Anniversary of Roe v Wade, I am telling you all these personal details because I believe in the power of our stories to offer perspective. And more than that, the ability of our actions to create protections for everyone.

Deep down, I think most Americans understand that we should all have the freedom and power to make choices about our bodies, lives, and futures. It’s 2022! I want to shout at my newsfeed. How could we live in a country where people are forced into doing something so life-altering, so personal? But shouting just wakes up the baby and accomplishes little else.

Instead, we need to take action. The Senate will soon vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). This is critical legislation that would protect the right to abortion throughout the country. I’m calling my senators and urging them to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. I hope you’ll join me. We need to get their attention every way we know how—email, letters, calls, protests, and, of course, that one precious vote we each have.

For so many reasons, I am grateful for the beautifully boring abortion I had and the essential health care I received. Mainly because today, I can show up for my little person with open arms knowing I’ve chosen our life together.

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