Opponents of abortion often challenge pro-choice people with thought experiments about very late abortions. Rand Paul challenged Debbie Wasserman Schultz to affirm that she would be okay with "killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet." Marco Rubio falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton even supports abortion "on the due date."
It’s easy for later abortions to be reduced to thought experiments — to be demonized and caricatured as something they’re not — because we rarely hear the stories of actual women who have had procedures like these. They’re incredibly rare, and doctors won’t perform them unless there’s a serious issue. So they are usually performed under deeply painful and difficult circumstances that aren’t easy to share.
But Jezebel recently published a stunning interview with a woman who had an abortion at 32 weeks. It shows, in heartbreaking, human detail, exactly what might lead a woman to make a decision like this, and what the procedure is actually like.
"Elizabeth," whose name was changed for privacy, told reporter Jia Tolentino about her experience.
Elizabeth had just had a miscarriage at 10 weeks when she and her husband discovered they were pregnant again. But from the beginning, the pregnancy was fraught with a series of "random and rare" complications. First it was an abnormal umbilical cord and heavy bleeding. Then it was learning that their baby had a club foot. Later, there was an alarming blood test that suggested a condition like muscular dystrophy or spina bifida.
None of these setbacks were deal breakers, at least at first. But the news kept getting worse. The couple kept hoping, and kept telling themselves that this kid was "coming from a long line of fighters." They read about "miracles" in other situations like theirs, and hoped for one themselves.
But there was no miracle this time. Elizabeth and her husband finally learned that their unborn son’s anomalies were so bad that he was "incompatible with life." If he survived birth, it would be a brief and painful life. So they decided to terminate the pregnancy:
To be clear, if the doctors thought there was any way he might make it, I would have taken that chance. I truly would have put myself through anything. What I came to accept was the fact that I would never get to be this little guy’s mother — that if we came to term, he would likely live a very short time until he choked and died, if he even made it that far. This was a no-go for me. I couldn’t put him through that suffering when we had the option to minimize his pain as much as possible.
Elizabeth couldn’t get the procedure done in New York, which bans abortion after 24 weeks unless the mother’s life is in danger. Her case didn’t quite rise to that level — which is a common problem with the exceptions in many abortion bans. "I thought, ‘We live in New York, this is crazy,’" she said.
Elizabeth traveled to Colorado to see Dr. Warren Hern, one of the four remaining doctors in the country who will do this procedure. She described Hern as a "zealot" — someone passionate enough about providing abortions to women in need that he was willing to put up with four layers of bulletproof glass, being shot at, and losing his colleague George Tiller, who was murdered in his church by an anti-abortion extremist.
Elizabeth said she trusted Hern’s medical experience and his no-nonsense manner. Her descriptions of the procedure itself were harrowing: the feeling of waiting for the baby’s heart to stop beating after being given a shot, and the excruciating pain of delivery — a delivery which she had to fly back to New York to complete after getting the shot in Colorado.
Hern advised Elizabeth to deliver in a hospital rather than in his clinic because she’d had brain surgery two years before, and doctors told her that she could die if she pushed during natural labor. (While hers was a rare case that warranted a hospital, abortion is generally quite safe and can be performed in an outpatient setting.)
Elizabeth was still recovering when she talked to Tolentino. She said she was upset the baby’s ailments had still not been diagnosed. It’s possible they never will be. She said she wants to try to get pregnant again, but acknowledges it will likely not be easy.
She also expressed frustration with the "political shit" that made her ordeal more complicated than it needed to be — and that makes her story a cautionary tale of the real-life consequences of abortion restrictions.
Elizabeth had to fly to another state and pay $10,000 cash for the shot, which she said made a legal procedure feel like something seedy and underhanded. And she was one of the "lucky" ones with financial abilities to get the procedure done in the first place.
Elizabeth’s story also shows the problem with laws restricting later abortion: They often take extremely individual, complicated medical decisions out of the hands of the doctors who are qualified to make them. Biology is fickle, bodies are unique, and anything can go wrong at any moment. Nothing is guaranteed in any pregnancy, and Elizabeth’s case was something of a Murphy’s law example.
But, Elizabeth said, it’s also not enough to advocate for abortion rights just by citing extreme cases like hers:
Another thing I want to say is that yes, I had this very particular, horrible situation—but if I had had an abortion at 20 weeks just because I didn’t feel ready, that should be okay, too. Like it or not, all of our rights are intertwined. Maybe there’s some woman who has had four abortions and maybe that feels really wrong to you. But my rights are wrapped up with hers, so I have to fight like fuck for her to have as many as she wants—not just for her sake, but for mine, too.