abortion rights

Maybe the Only Way to Know What’s Wrong With Abortion in America Is to Have One

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I knew that the time I was sloppy with protection right before ovulation would put me at risk for getting pregnant. I’m the kind of woman who learns about fertility for fun, who genuinely enjoys reading about cervical fluid, egg freezing, and progesterone spikes. Which is why I knew I should have taken Plan B after that slipup and was hard on myself when I didn’t. But I also knew that if an unplanned pregnancy did occur, I’d have options in New York City.

I knew, too, that the length of my luteal phase — the two weeks or so after ovulation — is identical month to month. So when it was one day longer than normal, I knew I could find a pregnancy test that would measure miniscule levels of hCG hormone in my urine. But despite what felt like an encyclopedic knowledge of the female reproductive system, I didn’t know much about the medical intricacies of abortion by the time I needed to get one.

I was aware, for instance, of the spate of extreme, disingenuous “heartbeat” bills — laws to ban abortions after the detection of fetal cardiac activity, which can be as early as six weeks — posed in state legislatures since 2011. I had been angry about them in a generic way, knowing that most women don’t even know they’re pregnant at that early stage. Still, I didn’t quite understand the depths of these bills’ cruelty until I got pregnant myself and learned there’s such a thing as showing up too early for an abortion.

When I went to my OB/GYN’s office a few days after the pregnancy test, the ultrasound technician informed me she couldn’t see anything in my uterus. It’s rare, she explained, but sometimes an embryo implants in the Fallopian tubes or elsewhere to form an ectopic pregnancy, and it could be ineffective or dangerous to have any type of abortion without visual confirmation of an intrauterine pregnancy. “Come back next Friday,” she told me. I obliged. That second ultrasound deemed me eligible for an abortion, and my appointment was scheduled for five days later.

Like any modern woman, I Googled around furiously: Is this normal? I learned that this protocol is common in the U.S. but not necessarily required. It just depends on the patient’s situation or the clinic’s policy. “Although some doctors and nurses will provide an abortion as soon as a patient has a positive pregnancy test, others prefer to wait until they can confirm the pregnancy by ultrasound,” Dr. Gillian Dean, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, told me in an email. This is why it’s essential that “health care providers have the ability to provide the timely care their patients want and need without political interference.”

I trusted my doctor, but I also recognized the uncomfortable irony that, in this case, being ultra–tuned in to my reproductive health had done me no favors: All I could do was wait — and obsess. In those few pregnant weeks, tits swollen and stomach queasy, my first impulse was to tell everyone what had been taking over my brain. “How are you?” a friend would ask, and I’d often say, “Well, I’m counting down the days ’til my abortion, but otherwise I’m fine!” I quickly realized that wasn’t the norm even in my progressive, feminist circles. My friends were supportive and sweet, but some betrayed a moment of surprise or awkwardness that I’d uttered “abortion” without a hushed tone. When I later decided to tweet about my experience, I naïvely underestimated the outpouring of emotion it’d unleash, both positive and negative. Instead, I worried my followers would think it was gauche or TMI, like divulging an obscure sexual fetish.

Longtime friends who’d gone through it volunteered personal abortion details that were brand-new to me: They hadn’t told me back when it happened, and I also hadn’t known to ask. One friend in Missouri told me she’d had to wait 72 hours — the mandatory “waiting period” in her state. Another said she’d had an “incomplete abortion,” so she needed to get a vacuum aspiration two weeks after she’d taken the pills. And more than one person revealed that they, too, were told to wait for a visual confirmation of their pregnancy.

On the eve of the procedure, I saw the news that Iowa’s Supreme Court struck down a heartbeat law that’d been signed by Republican governor Kim Reynolds back in May. That’s when I started to do my own math: I learned I was pregnant at four weeks (in pregnancy calculation terms, that’s how much time had gone by since the first day of my last period). I went to my gyno at four and a half weeks. I was told to come back for an ultrasound nine days later. My abortion was scheduled for five days after that. At six and a half weeks, I was able to have an abortion. I lived in a state that was about to sign a law codifying Roe v. Wade, but in some parallel heartbeat-bill universe, it might have been too late.

I couldn’t fathom how stressed I would be if I were racing against the clock, trying to find a provider who didn’t require an ultrasound, or living in a state with only one abortion clinic. After I tweeted about my abortion, I received dozens of messages from women in this exact limbo, who were running out of time but couldn’t find the funds or weren’t sure of their options. Many of them confessed that they wished they felt safe enough to tweet, too.

I thought I knew a lot about reproductive rights; I did know a lot about my body. But I wasn’t prepared for the number of moving parts I would be required to juggle when I was already feeling physically and emotionally vulnerable, how much kindness and patience I would crave, how much basic information I didn’t know. In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote that the individualized, often tragic circumstances of late-term abortion — the necessity of which a woman and her doctor are best suited to identify — had made her understand why abortion shouldn’t be regulated by the legal code at all. My very early-term abortion led me to the same conclusion. Before, I’d been politicizing the issue, fighting for it to stay legal rather than challenging abortion law’s entire premise. Now I think of it as what it ought to be: a highly specific, highly private decision between me and a doctor.

The Only Way to Know What’s Wrong With Abortion in America