After Dobbs, a Mother Imagines What Would Have Happened without a Choice
“The irony of the abortion debate, as it now stands in our church and society, is that it frames these two groups, women and children, as enemies of one another.”
—The Rev. Terry Hamilton-Poore, now of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in a 1990 sermon
he evening sky was streaked yellow and pink on June 24. It seemed brightly alive. It often happens to me after crying too much; emptied out, the world is more vivid.
My oldest daughter and I were walking the dog.
“You probably noticed I’ve been crying a lot today,” I said to her.
“Yeah,” she said tentatively.
“Do you want to know why?”
What words, in what order, should I use to help an 8-year-old understand what the Supreme Court is, or a constitutional right? Sometimes explaining the adult world to a child feels impossible. But in the end, those weren’t the questions I needed to answer. I needed instead to invite her into a conversation—perhaps a lifelong one—about why it has to be OK that some lives are not lived, so that others can be.
When she was 2, in 2016, her father and I became pregnant again—intentionally, joyfully.
When I was 20 weeks pregnant, an ultrasound revealed that our baby was very sick, missing parts of her brain.
My daughter has grown up knowing that her little sister was too sick to live. But what I haven’t told my daughter yet is that her not living was our decision. We were given an impossible “choice”—gamble against her suffering or end her life.
I gave birth to my second daughter in the same hospital ward where her big sister was born, after an early labor was induced. I was worried that I’d be afraid of her—tiny, unformed. But her eyes, though they could not open, were the shape of mine. To hold her was to dwell in a sacred place. She died after an hour, wrapped in the little yellow blanket my mother had knitted for her.
Leaving her tiny body in a nurse’s arms was the most incomprehensible act of my life.
No one ever used the words “later abortion” (or “late-term abortion”), so it only dawned on me weeks later that there was a name for our experience. I was worried, for a while, that I would never be finished second-guessing. But six years on, I know I would walk through that nightmare again and again and again if it meant sparing my daughter’s suffering and safeguarding my own life.
Once a month I meet with parents who have been through our nightmare: a wanted pregnancy, a devastating medical diagnosis, an impossible decision, a black hole of grief and loneliness. Each year I encounter more parents who have told no one their story. Can you imagine your life, the muscle of your heart, all your beliefs breaking apart at the same time, and you can’t tell anyone, for fear of judgment or estrangement, or—now—criminal punishment?
There is a moment that often happens toward the end of our two-hour meetings when someone will say, “I was scared to come tonight, but I feel so much better.” Then it’s like a wave of relief breaks over everyone, knowing that even one other person understands your rage, your sadness, how impossible it is to put any of it in words that make sense. For a minute you are not alone.
The isolation we feel is not an accident. Through violence, shame, and increasing criminalization, the anti-abortion movement takes our words away.
One consequence of all this silence is the stigma that remains around later abortion. On its face it makes sense—as a fetus grows, it becomes more and more like a person, and our obligations to it grow. But the irony is that the vast majority of situations that produce later abortion are the ones most people can find sympathy for.
There are stories like ours—the late detection of severe illness in babies or mothers. And stories much worse—people becoming pregnant who don’t or can’t comprehend what it even means (children, people with particular disabilities) and therefore don’t realize they are pregnant until it is very late. And, now, more and more, people who try to have earlier abortions but can’t access them because of the byzantine barriers that have been erected around the procedure.
On the day my daughter and I took our evening walk—the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health to overturn Roe v. Wade—I felt I walked out the door of my house onto a battlefield.
I imagined women sitting in clinics in Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Idaho, having made the decision to exercise this most basic right, and being told, “I’m sorry. A new ban. If you’d come yesterday.…” I imagined their panic rising in my throat. I pictured a wave of suffering, crashing in slow motion across our country.
All that separates them from me is a few years and some lines on a map.
Until the decision came down, I had not let myself imagine—not really, not viscerally—what it would be like to be forced to bring my daughter into the world, to give my body and my life to hers, without a say in the matter.
So that day I did let myself imagine it. I let myself feel her growing inside me again, feel her seizures, feel the horrible foreknowledge of the suffering to come, both hers and ours. I imagined being forced to let her die inside me—my body her coffin.
I know that speaking more openly about abortion and later abortion, including with our children, is probably the most important thing we can do to ensure Oregon continues to protect this basic human right. Even so, as my daughter and I walked along I felt nervous and timid, unsure how to talk to her in language she could understand about abortion, and about how new laws outside of Oregon might affect people.
“So you were crying a lot because more people will go to jail about abortion?”
“And because I know how sad and scared it will make people who need an abortion but who can’t get one. They would be forced by someone else to be pregnant and change their whole lives to have a baby when they’ve decided they really can’t.”
“But mom, are the babies ... dead?”
The way we talk about abortion is broken, and usually at least a little dishonest—on both sides. There is no shortcut through its difficulty. We discredit ourselves if we don’t honestly grapple with the fact that the stakes are many-sided. I wanted badly to offer her some kind of soft nonanswer at this moment, but my husband, who taught elementary school for 10 years, says the best way to answer hard questions is to tell the truth, and keep it simple.
“Yes, sweetie, they are dead.”
The daughter whose life I ended is no less sacred to me than the one walking next to me, and both of them are as sacred to me as my own life. I know better than anyone the preciousness of these lives, and the sanctity of my choice. But those words—life, choice—have become hollow for me. They neither help me think about nor talk about abortion with any clarity.
There’s only one word that makes our family’s story comprehensible.