My Second Trimester Abortion was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done:

How 20 week bans devastate women and families

By Cheryl Axelrod

When I started my first job as an obstetrician, I thought I had it all. Fresh-faced and done with residency, I was eager to start the family I always wanted with the man I loved. Now that I was finally done with school, we wanted nothing more than to have a baby. Yet, when I was 12 weeks pregnant, my husband and I found out news that would change our lives and shake our entire foundation.

My first son, my loved and wanted and waited for child, had cloacal exstrophy. During what we thought was a routine checkup, we found out that his lower abdominal wall had not formed correctly and he had a mass as big as his head between his little legs. In the ultrasound, I could barely see his legs because of it, and his tiny feet were already clubbed. His spinal cord was tethered, and the doctor told us he would never walk or have a functioning bladder. A week later, the situation worsened. We found out his kidneys weren’t working, and his lungs wouldn’t develop. After eagerly preparing for our first son, my husband and I found out he would die by suffocation upon delivery, if he survived that long. Faced with a horrible and difficult odds, my husband and did what we knew what was best for our son and our family — we made the decision to end the pregnancy.

I grew up in a religious household, and had strong feelings about the value of life in all forms. During residency, I had declined to perform terminations, but grew in compassion and understanding towards these families in oftentimes impossible situations. Like many families placed in these situations, particularly women who seek abortions after 20 weeks, my husband and I loved our first son and wanted him dearly. We named him Thomas, and I will forever mourn him. We remember and honor his life by saying Kaddish every year on his yartzheit and on Yom Kippur. The decision to have an abortion challenged my beliefs around life and my faith, but I have never for a second doubted that this was the right thing to do for myself, my family, and especially Thomas.

As an obstetrician, I knew I was joining this cadre of women needing second trimester terminations. Membership in this fateful group is often due to life threatening maternal or fetal medical problems, due to difficulty accessing care because of geographic or financial barriers, or due to the fear that comes with rape, incest, and abuse. These situations are incredibly personal and difficult, and women need to be able to make these decisions for themselves, without interference from politicians with an impersonal, one-size-fits all, judgemental ideological agenda.

Over the next few years I had three more first trimester losses, all while working as an obstetrician. These experiences have made me much more sympathetic to people’s losses, personal stories and circumstances, and the impossible odds that can be dealt to anybody. Reproductive challenges do not play favorites and cut across all lines of economics, race, religion, and geography. I now know that sometimes all I can do for these families is hold their hand, give them love, and guide them through all of their medical options. I was lucky to receive kind and compassionate care, the only bright spot of my experience. All I can hope to do is provide the same understanding and loving care for families, despite their horrible circumstances.

Every month, if not more, I see families in impossible situations due to maternal health, fetal congenital anomalies, or other complications that make termination an important option. As an OB and a woman who has experienced this myself, I know that these situations are likely the hardest time of their entire lives. We cannot make the lives of these women and families even more traumatic at such horrible junctures by putting up barriers and restrictions on their medical choices.

I went on to have a healthy child, and I am forever grateful for his daily health and the miracle that it is to bring a little person into this world. It was a difficult journey, but I know I did what was best for my happy and healthy family. The only reason anti-choice politicians — even like Dan Lipinski, a democrat — support these medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion care is to push their narrow-minded, out of touch agenda, and play politics with women’s lives. Dan Lipinski has voted in favor of similar restrictions on reproductive freedom time and time again, no matter the devastating cost to women and families across Illinois.

As an OB, it’s clear to me that anti-choice politicians don’t have women’s health and their best interests in mind. 20 week bans hurt women and families in their most crucially vulnerable situations, and serve no other purpose than a “win” for anti-choice extremists. I was surprised and disappointed that, despite the clear harm these restrictions impose on women and families, a Democrat in my area — Dan Lipinski — supports this ideological ban. Politicians like Lipinski should leave these incredibly difficult decisions to women, their families, and physicians. You can never know what the right decision is for a family in impossible circumstances until you’ve been there yourself.

Cheryl is a proud NARAL Illinois member that works as an obstetrician in Evanston, Illinois.

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