Every Pregnancy is Exceptional: Questioning Exceptions and Creating Empathy in Later Abortion Debate

I have been thinking a lot about 20 week abortion bans. As I watched the latest kerfuffle over party politics and rape exceptions, I kept thinking about the last time the federal bill was voted on in the House. I was pregnant and working for a reproductive health organization. There were moments throughout my pregnancy and the debate on HR 1797 that made for interesting conversations, contradictions and even some discomfort.

I remember distinctly the day my wife and I went for our first diagnostic visit. I was about 14 weeks along and as I arrived back at work I found an article in my inbox by a woman talking about her testing at 14 weeks and the medical complications she was told about a week later. That was hard to read and I did not feel like I could talk to anyone about it. We are so afraid to talk about complications or pregnancy loss, afraid to acknowledge that not every pregnancy goes the way a family hopes it will.

When we had our initial meeting with the genetic counselor I recall that she talked about “if something goes wrong” and discussing options in our follow-up visit, which because the diagnostics at this point include a blood test would occur one week later. Each time a ban on later abortion comes up, the stories about the “tragic” situation of a fetal anomaly arise. This is troubling not only in the way that it relies on areas deemed to be extreme to push back on attempts to limit abortion access, but also because it belittles the lives of people with disabilities. We seem to be saying that of course someone would seek abortion if their child would be born with a certain disease or challenge. Hearing that sort of tone reflected in our talk with the counselor upset me.

Just over one month later at 19 weeks we went back for another screening. This is the one that most of us think of as the visit where we get to find out if we are having a girl or boy. It was also an appointment that started with a discussion of “looking for serious structural issues” and making sure the bleeding issues I had earlier in my pregnancy had been rectified. Suffice it to say that I was nervous.

Our screenings ended up coming back without any flags for me or the baby. I was overjoyed that things were going along smoothly — aside from the nausea, discomfort, and the frumpy maternity clothes. But I always wondered if the genetic counselor would have really been equipped to provide unbiased information not to push us in any direction, but to answer our questions and provide the support that we might need.

There are bills that are being pushed around the country looking at genetic counseling. Some of them seem to pretty clearly be about shaming a person who may seek abortion care as a result of information shared in these sessions. But there are those that look like they are about ensuring people have comprehensive information and resources to support them regardless of their decision. This feels like an area that we do not address enough as we talk about supporting people in all decisions.

There are disabling conditions that parents may feel they are not prepared to deal with or where a child may face incredible pain and so the decision is to seek abortion. Some people may be uncomfortable with this or judge these families, but it is not our decision to make. Doing so plays into the idea that we get to and politicians get to judge a person’s reasons and create some list of acceptable circumstances. It is not our place to meddle or to make it more difficult for someone to seek care.

I have also heard people say that when they were told their child would be born with a disability that their primary concern was how to be good parents and to adequately provide all that their child would need. Rae and I had many conversations about the fact that we felt like we were uniquely positioned to support a child with disabilities. She works with kids with different abilities. She would know how to help support our child if they needed additional support in the educational system having advocated for students in her professional life. We also have the family support and financial means to help with any health expenses.

If we are going to have real conversations about abortion and disability, we must acknowledge that support, information and resources to help parents raising children with disabilities is a critical need. We should do all we can to support the parents and their child as they navigate their journey together through barriers to equal education and the prejudice they will face.

Rae and I had also discussed the possibility of medical complications that I may encounter. The stories of health risks and life endangerment are often included in conversations about later abortion and other bills to limit abortion access. The reality that care may be denied when a person’s life is on the line certainly demonstrates how little regard much of our opposition seems to have for women. But the way in which these stories are told often implies that women seeking abortion for health reasons are more justified in their decision than others.

The other thing that has often bothered me is that this framing implies there is one certain course of action — cases in which a person would absolutely seek to terminate. There are conditions that mean that a child absolutely will not live more than a few hours and may not even survive the birthing process. Many people may seek to terminate, but there are some who will choose to go through labor so they can say goodbye, make some peace and grieve their loss. Neither decision is right or wrong. Each person must decide for themselves based on their own beliefs and their unique circumstances what is best for their emotional, mental and physical health and well-being.

When I was in my first year at college and found myself with a late period and a lackluster relationship with my high school boyfriend, I knew then and have absolutely no doubt what I would have done if that plus sign had appeared. I did not want to tie my life to him and knew I was not ready to be a parent. But here I was 20 years later with a pregnancy that we planned for and dreamed of from our first date. I am not sure what I would have done if I was told that I had potentially life threatening complications. Would it have been worth the risk for me? I don’t know. I did not have to make that decision. But you can be damn sure I would not have called my lawmakers to ask their opinion and that I would not have stood by while anyone presumed to tell me what the right thing to do was.

We need to stop presuming that we know what is best for someone else. This is not a problem that exists only in state legislatures or arguments over the latest GOP attack. We need to talk about the difficulties of pregnancy and the challenges that people are facing in building their families. Finally, we need to not only push back on the policies that limit access to abortion, but also look at ways to address the fact that there are people who want to have children who feel they cannot because they are already struggling to get by.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I did not have the support of my family and friends, the health coverage I needed to afford the expensive process of pregnancy and labor, a workplace that offered me flexibility even when I had to be on modified bed rest towards the end of my pregnancy and the financial ability to provide for my child. I know people have strong feelings about pregnancy and childbirth, but we really need to figure out how to make these critical and complex conversations stop revolving around exceptions and vitriol and make them more about the diverse range of experiences that women and families face and the role politicians can play in supporting people, rather than judging them.