|God & Nature Magazine||
Abortion Languages: Love, fear, confusion and loss
By Heather Hyden
Right now, we are in a terrifying time when a fetus is fetishized above healthcare access. We would rather throw gender reveal parties and argue over fetal personhood than ask ourselves very basic questions about maternal healthcare systems.
We rarely stop to ask: “Is pregnancy dangerous?” And if so, “How?” And, “What full spectrum of support do women need during pregnancy?” and, “How can we ensure healthy outcomes for all women and babies?” and, “Why do we perform abortions in clinics and not in hospitals?" and, “What is an abortion?” and, “Why are credentialed and experienced ob-gyns forced to follow Catholic hospital policies rather than sound medical practice when treating non-viable pregnancies?”
Under the best circumstances, pregnancy is random, unpredictable and the birth of a healthy human is as much a matter of luck as sound scientific practice. Our healthcare system is failing women and babies, yet the loudest issue regarding women’s health is over a normal, safe procedure: abortion. We allow hateful rhetoric to dominate political campaigns, harass women in one of the most vulnerable situations of their lives, and fail to gain relevant knowledge about the real decision-making processes and behaviors that lead to healthy babies and families.
Is the labor that brings us life so worthless in our society that we would rather maintain ignorance about how we could more comprehensively support the mothers who go through it?
If we truly want to bring value to human life and even lift it up on a moral pedestal, we have to improve our health and legal systems so it can thrive. Until then, we will only further splinter prenatal, birth and postpartum care.
Below are my abortion stories for you to consider. I encourage you to see them through the lens of comprehensive healthcare needs. I challenge you to listen and to see me not as an activist, but as a mother.
I’ve had two abortions...maybe. It depends on who is defining it. The first one seems as though it fits the definition cast by traditional “anti-choice” rhetoric. I was pregnant at 19 after the “morning after” pill failed (the ob-gyn nurse on-call that morning refused to submit my prescription, forcing me to call the office insistently and losing precious hours from the window of affect. So, who really had more influence on the relationship of the conception/termination events?)
I spent the next six weeks thinking through every possible option including relocating to England where the other biological half of this chaos resided. In the end, I knew I would resent the child. After spending years raising my little brothers and surviving childhood abuse, I was not emotionally capable. I was mentally unstable on top of being economically and socially inept. So, at almost twelve weeks from my last period, I was at a clinic in Memphis being harrassed by religious zealots and trying to comfort the very young women all around me—most of whom already had children.
When I look back, I also remember being extremely ill the entire time I was pregnant. Now that I know one in four pregnancies end in a “miscarriage,” I wonder if my body would have spontaneously aborted that pregnancy by itself. It is all so incredibly random.
In none of the movies we watch where a woman finds out she’s pregnant is there a discussion about miscarriage (unless the miscarriage is set up as the antagonist to a loving married couple who were dying to get pregnant). When the blue lines are revealed, we are immediately trained to ask: “Will she keep it?” We are dangerously ignorant of the experiences many women endure through pregnancy.
The “abortion” options in Memphis told me I had to make the decision by thirteen weeks or I wouldn’t have access. Who knows what would have happened if I had been given more time like in other parts of the country? Who knows if I even knew all of my options? There certainly were no doctors or full spectrum doulas providing me with comprehensive healthcare. It was black and white-forced dichotomy on a very grey issue.
The one caregiver that I do remember from that time was my father. I moved in with him after finding out I was pregnant so I could get on my feet financially. This is a man who at that time had been a faithful pastor my entire life to a conservative congregation in the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination. But, he pastored me during that time.
I remember coming home that night from the clinic to a large bouquet of flowers and a note offering to get me anything I needed to eat. I still remember his kindness when I think of what non-judgmental Christianity can be.
Fast-forward ten years later and I am trying to start a family for the first time. It happened quickly and my partner and I were elated. We began researching prenatal care options and making maternity leave plans. But, this pregnancy’s chromosomal configuration had other plans. The fetus was left with a monosomy X structure, while a Y had transferred to my placenta. (We were first told we were having a boy and had a low risk of fetal anomalies, but those early fetal free DNA tests can detect a Y if it lingers in the placenta.) Later an amniocentesis confirmed the fetus had Turners Syndrome (Monosomy X). This is not normally a severe fetal anomaly diagnosis, but our daughter had a large cystic hygroma, hydrops fetalis and a full body edema. She had a heartbeat, but all of her organs were being inundated with fluid. We watched her symptoms continue to worsen during every ultrasound, of which we must have had at least ten, between nine weeks when her full body edema was first detected, through twenty weeks.
I can’t express how physically and emotionally draining it felt to know the situation was not going to get better and finally that we should expect a miscarriage. And that was just the biophysical trauma.
The further layer of trauma came from political and religious institutions legislating my pregnancy. We were seeing a high-risk maternal fetal specialist at a Catholic hospital for our care. This means there was a ‘heartbeat rule’ governing my body. I remember being in complete shock to learn that my care was being legislated. I really couldn’t believe it was possible. The first time it hit me was when I was 18.5 weeks and rushed into the hospital when I thought contractions had started. The nurse checked for dilation and we locked eyes. She was just as disappointed as I was to know that there was nothing the hospital could do for me. I wiped up the lubricant and felt like a small animal with my tail between my legs. Earlier that week we had also asked our doctor to get permission to induce me from the ethics review board, but every time we called to ask about it the nurses shuffled and avoided a straight answer. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t ask them more. Didn’t stand up for myself more. But, I’ve learned this year that many women feel disempowered about their prenatal care and birth. I’m not alone. This is how the prenatal care system works in this country.
There is a level of shock that comes over your body and mind when you’re pregnant and I’m not sure there is a word in our language to describe it. Maybe it’s a new word that needs to be invented to describe the modern experience of pregnancy. I don’t know what the word should be, but that’s how I felt and I know that increased regulations and legislation on the prenatal care environment are not going to improve pregnancy and birth outcomes. I could feel the fear in that nurse as she pulled her fingers from me. I know she felt sorry for me. She felt trapped with me. In all of her wisdom and expertise, she wanted to help, but that policy handbook was somehow more powerful.
That weekend I was desperate. I began calling every person I knew in my reproductive rights network. And, late one night I made a life changing connection. I met a full spectrum doula. A woman who is trained to guide women through any pregnancy situation including abortion, miscarriage and stillbirth care.
She drove to me immediately and asked the questions I was holding in my shockwave. A simple question, “What reasons are they giving for not inducing you?” I had absolutely no good answer. She began furiously calling every doctor and midwife she knew. I couldn’t believe there could be another option. I started securing funds in case we needed to travel out of state and making appointments. We were less than two weeks away from the statewide 20 week abortion ban, which had passed as emergency legislation one month prior, and I felt like the flames of an incinerator were crisping my toes as we got closer to the deadline.
The fact is, my only option if we crossed the (arbitrary and completely political) newly passed 20-week abortion ban deadline was to carry the doomed fetus to term, possibly losing months of my life to sickness and actually risking my life in delivery. (”Mirror syndrome” describes the condition whereby a mother takes on the same symptoms as the fetus. In my case, this meant my body and organs filling up with fluid.)
Many women find pregnancy terrifying. The race against time necessitated by this ban was beyond terrifying; it was terrifying, dehumanizing, insulting, demoralizing, and deeply, I felt, un-Christian in its comportment towards humanity.
Finally, our doula found a doctor. Someone who performs abortions at the last remaining abortion clinic in our state, but who also delivers babies at the ONLY labor and delivery department in the entire state NOT governed by Catholic hospital policies. In fact, it was the only department in the whole hospital that had been cut off from the Catholic system because they had two abortion care providers on staff.
The next few days were a frenzy as the doctor had to get approval from her review board, my medical records had to be transferred and we had to get pre-approval from my insurance company. And somehow it all came together. It was the most cathartic ‘Yes’ I have ever received. I felt like I could finally rest. I felt heard.
On February 19th, at 2:28 a.m. I delivered my daughter in a hospital surrounded by my family, my doula and an outstanding nursing staff. I was able to hold her and the doctors were able to confirm her diagnosis and identify a neural tube defect at the base of her spine. They were able to send her to pathology where she had her organs donated for research. This research could help save more babies and will help us understand why some fetuses get more sick than others. I had an abortion. I ended a wanted pregnancy. I gave birth. It all meant something. It was far greater than me.
As I look back almost a year later, what has been the most fascinating to me is how my experience fits under so many varied definitions. To the grief counselors and with proof of a birth certificate, I had a “stillborn”. To the reproductive rights community I had a late term “abortion” and to another network I “ended a wanted pregnancy”.
On my first medical bill, the procedure was called ‘abortion’ and of course my insurance company denied coverage even though we had pre-approval before the procedure. That bill sat on my kitchen table haunting me for weeks before I called to contest it. When I finally started calling it took six months before we learned that the medical coders at the hospital had changed positions between the time I got pre-approval and when the bill was sent to my insurance company. In the end, it was re-coded as an “early induction for medical reasons” because of a loophole in my insurance policy that allows early inductions starting at 20 weeks.
So, whose language matters in my case? The medical coder? My catholic hospital doctor? The legislators? The reproductive rights movement?
My question will always be, did I have an abortion? All I know is I have a daughter that no one will ever hold again. And I am forever grateful for the comprehensive care I fought tooth and nail to get. And I am extremely lucky to live in a city, to have a stable job, to have health insurance and to have known someone who knew someone who knew someone who happened to be an abortion doula.
The following poem was written in honor of our daughter, River Lee.
Cells Dividing in the Wrong Congressional District
Mutated by nanoscopic movements
Impossible to translate
In that moment
At such a scale
Through conclusive mediums
If your momma lives
Too far away
Or has to work
Or can't get a ride
Or has to hide
The stuff of life
Which governs maternal
[if you have enough gas for an obstetrician]
An ultrasonic wave
A fragile becoming
With a chest-like structure
The heart is prioritized by
Catholic hospital policy;
—despite the drumming excitement of noise
Coming from a single organ—
This is where we found our River Lee--
A heart-filled creature
A few chromosomes short
Snuggled inside me
On the wrong side of the tracks
Where legislators pretend they know
Better than your momma
Heather Hyden lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her partner James Earley. She thought her biography would be full of career and academic achievements with a side note about how many kids she had. But, after losing her daughter last year, she has redefined herself and her life’s trajectory. She is still the Director of Community and Cultural Initiatives for a local Community Development Corporation and still has a M.S. in Community and Leadership Development, but more importantly she is a writer, mother, friend, sister, daughter and active advocate for reproductive justice. She is also on the advisory council for the Louisville Doula Project to support full spectrum doula training and advocacy for comprehensive care for women no matter where they are on their pregnancy journey. She’s also a board member at Community Farm Alliance where her passion for food justice and women’s rights collide.