Kate, already mom to one daughter, terminated her second pregnancy at 36 weeks. She named the daughter she lost Rose. (Photo: Rosanna U/Getty Images)
On the issue of late-term abortion during Wednesday night’s debate, Donald Trump notably said the following: “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s OK and Hillary can say that that’s OK. But it’s not OK with me, because based on what she’s saying, and based on where she’s going, and where she’s been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day. And that’s not acceptable.” His comments sparked outrage and pain across social media from women — and men — who know firsthand the devastation of ending a pregnancy. Ninety-two percent of abortions in the United States occur within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. But for women who opt to have them late, the decision is one that’s typically made under harrowing medical circumstances — one of which is described here, bravely and painstakingly, in this first-person essay originally published in April 2015.
When Kate, a 29-year-old mom outside Boston, found out she was pregnant with a second daughter, she was elated. Then, at 36 weeks along, she got the news that is every expecting parent’s worst nightmare: Her baby, whom she would later name Rose, had two brain malformations. Kate decided to have an abortion, and eventually found solace in a support group on the website Ending a Wanted Pregnancy. The online community is for parents who terminate pregnancies for medical reasons (pregnancies they wanted, but chose to end after a severe prenatal diagnosis or maternal health issue) and who often feel alone or ashamed, and suffer in silence. Kate, one of the site’s administrators, shares her story with Yahoo’s Rachel Bertsche.
My husband and I always wanted a big family. We wanted to have a lot of kids and to start young and have them close together. In 2010, we had our first. A healthy baby girl. But when we were ready for number two, getting pregnant — or, rather, staying pregnant — was harder. I had three miscarriages before a pregnancy finally stuck. I was expecting a second little girl in the summer of 2012, and everyone around me said everything looked great.
Well, almost everyone. At my 18-week fetal scan, a technician thought she saw something – she wasn’t sure what, exactly — so they sent me for a Level 2 ultrasound at a local teaching hospital. “Level 2” meant that it would be more detailed than the standard sonogram, and a maternal fetal medicine (MFM) specialist would look at it. When I went for that test, the MFM specialist said the baby was healthy. I was worried, but when I expressed my concern to the hospital’s genetic counselor, she said, “His job is on the line. He must be completely confident.”
That whole pregnancy was hard for me. I was sick for much longer than most people are. I had sleep apnea. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, she would kick responsively, and then she would take naps. It seemed logical. This baby never stopped moving, but she never did anything responsive, either. The movements were so random. I remember telling a friend, “This baby is already different than my first.” I don’t know if it was that, or my history of miscarriages, or having that seed planted that something might be wrong, but I was uneasy.
Because of that worry, at 35 weeks, my midwife sent me for a “peace of mind” ultrasound. I was eight months pregnant — huge! — and I went to the hospital thinking I was being silly. The rational side of me knew everything was fine. I figured they would tell me all was good, put my mind at ease, give me a picture and send me home.
I went to the appointment alone, on a Wednesday in May. I was so chatty with the technician while I was lying on the table. Towards the end, I said to her, “It’s funny, I keep picturing the baby I already have, but I know this one will be different.” And she looked right at me, with these serious eyes, and said, “This baby will be different. They are all different.”
While I waited for the doctor, I worked on the sweater I was knitting for my little girl. When two doctors came in, one of them asked me about it. Was I making it for the baby? I told her I was, and, with tears in her eyes, she said, “It’s beautiful.”
Then she continued. “The things they couldn’t find the last time you were here, we are seeing those things today. Your baby has brain malformation.” Right away, she said, “We might be able to arrange an abortion, we just don’t know. We can arrange an adoption if that’s what you want.”
I’m grateful that she led with that. It told me it was safe to talk to her about options, and it told me that something was very wrong. That was the only thing she said that got through to me. Everything else came up against that denial wall. Of course, she told me about keeping the baby, too.
I know she said the words “Dandy-Walker,” which I know now is a brain syndrome that has varying degrees of severity. I remember asking, “Are babies with this ever normal?” and she said that sometimes they were. She told me they couldn’t know the severity of the situation until after I had an MRI. That’s how they would determine if my baby would be OK or if she would be “incompatible with life.” Those are the words they used. Incompatible with life.
I was in total shock. I wasn’t even crying. I picked up the phone to call my husband, and all at once, I completely fell apart. By the time he got to the phone, I was unintelligible. “Where are you?” he said. I named the hospital and he said, “I’m on my way.”
We couldn’t get the MRI for two days. My parents took my daughter so that my husband and I could be miserable alone. Waiting was awful. I imagined every possibility: What would it be like to have the miracle baby who was OK and exceeded all expectations? What if she died at birth? What if she lived only a couple of years? What does it mean to get a DNR (a do-not-resuscitate order), for an infant? Hospitals are legally protected from trying to save a baby and not legally protected from letting a baby die. That was something we thought about, too.
We were in crisis, and in crisis, you don’t talk very much. You say what you need to say, and the rest is just thoughts turning around in your head constantly. My husband was wonderful. I would cry until I didn’t have any tears, and he would pick me up and carry me to our room. I knit and knit and knit. I knit in my worry and knit in my fear, and I finished the sweater. I wove in the ends, and then my husband and I got in the car and drove to the MRI.
It was a morning appointment, and at the end of that day we met with the neurologist, who told us that our baby had Dandy-Walker malformation, the most severe presentation of the syndrome. It basically meant there were holes in her brain. She also had agenesis of the corpus callosum, which meant the bridge between the two hemispheres of her brain didn’t grow. So we had two malformations, each of which had a wide range of outcomes, but, combined, had a horrible prognosis. The doctor said, “We expect your baby to have moderate to severe mental retardation; she’s going to have moderate to severe physical disability; she is probably never going to walk or talk; she will possibly never be able to lift her head; she is going to have seizures all of the time.” At first, I was thinking, “This doesn’t make sense, she’s always moving,” and then he mentioned seizures, and I understood.
In that moment, I had to shift my thinking. I was hoping for special ed, and had been focusing on questions like: How much should you save to know your special-needs daughter will be OK after you die? I was thinking about long-term care and mild to moderate disability. Instead, I had to think about a baby who was probably not going to live very long, and the longer she lived, the more pain she would be in. That realization – that I was more scared of her living than of her dying — is what made the choice for me.
When it comes to a decision like this, there is no good option. What you want is a happy, healthy baby. The doctor asked if we had any questions, and I said, “What does a baby like this do? Does she just sleep all day?” The doctor looked so uncomfortable. He said, “Babies like this one are not generally comfortable enough to sleep.” That’s when we thanked him and left.
On the way home, even though I knew what I wanted to do, I couldn’t say the word. What kind of mother is eight months pregnant and wants an abortion? I turned to my husband and said, “Tell me what you think we should do.” He said, “Kate, you do not have to do this, but I think we should ask about the abortion.”
It was a gift. It felt like light and fresh air. I had been feeling so dark and so trapped, and when I realized we were together on this, I felt free. I knew what to do. It didn’t matter anymore that people were going to call me a murderer, or that I’d never heard of anyone doing this. It didn’t matter that we didn’t even know if it was legal. If I had my husband, I could do this.
I called my doctor as soon as I got home. While we were waiting for her to call back, I didn’t know if we had a safe and legal option. I remember thinking, “If we can’t get the abortion, I’m going to run away somewhere rural and I’m going to have this baby by myself and let her die without intervention.” That would have been so dangerous, and I could be dead right now. She was a high-risk birth, not a regular healthy birth. Her head could have swollen with fluid at any time. Even if it went smoothly, and I had my baby and she had died in a few hours, I could have been put under investigation. The risks that I was willing to take to let this baby go in peace, in the way I believed she deserved — it’s terrifying. But I was desperate, and I was so untrusting. I was scared the police would get called on me for just having these thoughts.
My doctor called back at 6:30 that night. It was a Friday, and my husband and I were out for a walk when the phone rang. Immediately, the doctor said, “I am so sorry, but if you want the abortion you need to call before 7 pm, which is the end of the workweek Mountain Time, because the clinic closes for the week in a half an hour. And you have to be on a plane to Colorado on Monday.” We were in Boston, where there are a million medical schools and hospitals, but the only doctor in the country who would perform this late an abortion was in Colorado. (Actually, there was one other, but that clinic was closed for the week.) My doctor barely had time to explain everything, she just said I’d have to be in the clinic on Tuesday. It was a four-day procedure, and I had to have it done by Friday, when I would be 36 weeks pregnant. There is no doctor in the country who performs abortions after 36 weeks.
Then she added, “You have to show up with $25,000.” We didn’t have $25,000 sitting around. We are a middle-class family. We don’t have that kind of credit, either. But it didn’t matter. I would figure it out.
So I called the Boulder Abortion Clinic in Colorado. We scheduled everything we needed to, but then I had to get money. I called my parents. I told my mom everything, and when I told her I wanted to get the abortion, she said, “That is what I would do, too.”
It was such a relief to hear those words. It’s one thing to get an abortion, it’s another thing to get an abortion at eight months. I felt like such an outcast. It’s so heavily tabooed that I was afraid to even tell my mother. But once I knew I had her support, I blurted out, “I need money.” My parents took it out of their retirement fund, which is probably what we would have done if we’d had more time. But you can’t do much with no business days.
On Monday, we flew to Colorado. I made up a story that I was six months pregnant with twins, in case someone tried to stop me from getting on the plane. I was so afraid that I was going to be found out, that someone was going to get in the way of me getting to the clinic.
The whole first day was counseling and testing to make sure it was safe to do the procedure. They want to make sure you completely understand what is going to happen and that no one is pressuring you into the decision. At the end of the day, I signed all the paperwork, and the doctor injected the baby with a drug that, over a few hours, slowed her heart to still. It was a very, very difficult day. Euthanizing the baby is, obviously, a very hard thing to do. After the injection, he asked how I was feeling, and I just said, “I feel so sad. I’m going to miss her.”
My husband and I went back to the hotel and I lay down until she stopped moving. I could tell when she was gone. It feels very different. The second and third days were short appointments, so we took a nice drive through the Rockies to pass the time. Then on the fourth day, they induced my labor. I got Pitocin, and it was actually a very natural birth. It was quite healing for me. I couldn’t do anything for this baby — I couldn’t fix her brain or make her well, but I could deliver her from my body. I chose to view her, so they cleaned her up and brought her in and she looked a lot like my older daughter. She was beautiful and she was whole. I got her footprints and had her cremated and they sent us her ashes in the mail a few days later. We wanted to name her after a flower, so we called her Rose.
Ten days after we had that 35-week ultrasound, she was gone.
Late in my pregnancy, my older daughter would say, “Mama do you have a baby in your belly?” and I would say, “Yes honey! Want to give her a kiss?” After I got home, I knew she would ask, so I waited for that moment. When it came, my daughter put her hand on my stomach and said it: “Mama, do you have a baby in your belly?” And I said, “No, honey. Baby died. Baby’s all gone.”
She cried, but probably because I had spoiled the game. My daughter asked me every day for two weeks. Now, every six months or so, we talk about it again — her understanding of it evolves as she grows. At this point, she knows the baby died because she was sick in a way the doctors couldn’t fix, because she had holes in her brain, and you need your whole brain to be healthy.
My 30th birthday party was scheduled for the Sunday after we got home — two days after I gave birth to Rose. It was only for close family and friends, so I decided not to cancel. I told people that the baby died and that we induced a stillbirth. I didn’t tell them I went to Colorado. I didn’t tell them the baby died because we gave her an injection. But eventually, I told my best friend, and she was wonderful. And that helped me tell other people and speak publicly. My husband is a private person, and he would rather I didn’t tell anyone, but I have healed a lot from sharing and receiving support.
I’ve gone on to have another healthy little girl, who is 16 months. The MFM specialist I saw for my third pregnancy said that if it had been him, he would have caught Rose’s condition sooner. I have explored the possibility of a medical malpractice suit, but in the end I decided against it. I decided that I can live in a world where people make honest mistakes.
My third pregnancy was hard, emotionally, but today I have a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old. I don’t know about the future — I refuse to make a decision right now. I’m still healing. But I have two living children, and I had another baby, whom I still love every day.