Note: This is the story of my personal experience, and is not meant as advice or a judgment upon anyone else’s decision. It is meant to give permission to those who want to talk about it. It is dedicated to everyone who supported me, took care of me, and made me laugh, especially my family and Sam.
I terminated my pregnancy on August 26th, at 19 weeks and 5 days gestation. A 19 week, 5 day-old fetus measures about 14.2cm long and weighs about 240g. It is swallowing amniotic fluid and its kidneys turn that into urine. It is growing hair. Specialized nerve cells for taste, seeing, hearing, and touching are developing. The brain begins to prioritize making connections over creating new cells.
Its heart beats about twice as fast as an adult’s.
“Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” From the Journal of the American Medical Association, 2005. That’s 27-28 weeks gestation.
Every day for each of the 18 or so days I knew I was pregnant, I was obsessed with what was happening to my body. I researched fetal development, each pain and symptom, every possible emotional state. Anything weird that can happen to your body can be caused by pregnancy. There are the well-known ones like nausea and peeing all the time. But there are ridiculous ones like tingling limbs. Clumsiness. Being short of breath because your baby’s heart is developing. Acid reflux because your womb is pushing on your stomach. You can’t help but be present with your body, every moment, because it is constantly inventing new and wondrous ailments.
They weren’t all bad. One morning I woke up, and the fetus had moved all the way to the left side of its tummy cave. Curled up against my hip. That was endearing. It also began to squirm. Not kicks or anything definite, just flutters and tiny churnings when I got up after reclining for awhile, or sometimes for no reason at all. It was nice company.
That’s amazing. Isn’t that amazing? I’d experienced the divine through many mediums—loving other people, walking through the woods, onstage, and in class. But never like this. Never sharing so closely in the Spark itself. Witness to and participant in the awakening. Yes, a miracle, and a gift. And the moment I saw the positive pregnancy test, I knew all of this. I felt incredibly peaceful. Perhaps I was in shock. But for a moment, I felt grateful and overwhelmed with wonder. And at the same moment, I knew I didn’t want to be pregnant, or be a parent. I’ve never felt so much discordant clarity.
And I’ve never felt it drain away so swiftly.
The next morning was a fog of confusion, guilt, sadness, and fear. My boyfriend Sam, who had felt none of the peace I experienced, who had immediately begun crunching numbers and reorganizing his future, needed to leave the house and process on his own. I felt abandoned and angry, even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to be present with me if he didn’t have his time. I spent the day swimming in insurance troubles. Since turning 26 and leaving my parents’ HMO, I am officially a poor person and can begin happily draining the state. Though Medi-Cal may be a big step in the right direction, it ain’t there yet. And Planned Parenthood wouldn’t take me because I have a prolactinoma, a rare condition they weren’t prepared to handle. (It also stops my period and causes other pregnancy-like symptoms, which is why it took me so long to realize I actually was. I’ve taken so many pregnancy tests since college.) I won’t bore you with the bureaucracy, suffice to say it was a harrowing and infuriating journey.
Sam and I had an emotional talk that evening and worked it all out. He’s a brilliant, sensitive, loving partner, and one of his attractions is that his brain works very differently from my own. That is also one of our challenges. He understood that I didn’t want to keep the baby, but I wanted to find a way to be grateful for all of this. How? How could this not be terrible?
A piece of the answer came a few days later. Amidst more insurance woes, visits to clinics, and LOTS of Trader Joe’s tuna wraps, I happened upon an article describing two letters to the editor of the New York Times. Both were from women who had experienced unplanned pregnancies—one who decided to keep her baby, and one who didn’t. The woman who didn’t, Emma, was describing her thought process, and it sounded much like mine: how to be a good mother when she was planning an abortion. This is very strange, I know. But I did feel like a mother. Perhaps steward is a better word, or guide. Vessel, maybe. I certainly didn’t have an illness to be cured or a disfigurement to be fixed and forgotten. Sam and I had created a spark of divine love, and I was carrying it. But I wasn’t ready to continue to be a good steward. I couldn’t give it what it deserved. I couldn’t give me what I deserved. So while I still had time, while Spark was still hovering between the Universe and Earth, I could send it back. I could release it back into the Everything. And then, Spark could one day come back to me, or it could choose someone else, or it could be a sycamore or a rabbit. The night I had that epiphany, I went out onto our apartment landing and tried to discern a few stars in the hazy Los Angeles sky. And you better believe this lapsed-Catholic/half-Jew prayed hard. Like Jimmy Stewart in Martini’s bar “I’m not a prayin’ man” hard.
I decided to enjoy my pregnancy. For as long as I had the gift of Spark, I was going to show it a good time. I went to Porta Via in Pasadena to read The New Yorker and browse antiques. I ate lots of bread. I house-sat for a friend in Santa Monica and went to the beach with my sister. I went to a farmers market, bought veggies, and hosted a small dinner party for my friends. I even shot a movie in the desert. And most importantly, I talked about it. I hated the thought of keeping it a secret. It’s not shameful, just personal. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful, funny, caring people. And I couldn’t be with them and not talk about the one thing on my mind. So I told them, one by one, and I will never think of their reactions without crying. They hugged me. They told me they loved me. They texted and called. My excellent, supportive parents, whose love I cannot describe, told me they would raise the baby if I wanted to go off to New York or Berlin. When I thanked them but explained I could not raise a child that way, they had only acceptance and understanding. Most of the women told me they had experienced this, or someone close to them had. I told a close male friend, who called me back the next day to tell me about his own experience in college that had left him feeling guilty and helpless. I realized there is hardly any forum for men to discuss how abortion affects them. One friend, who I was afraid to tell because of his deeply religious beliefs, scooped me into his arms and offered any help he could. This was another gift from Spark.
I wish I could have lived in that place of comfort, of small movements and morning belly rubs. I wish I, too, had a warm, muffled bath to sleepily float in, with only the pale watercolors of sense. But when you’re 19 weeks and 5 days pregnant and you have no desire or resources to raise a human being, there are harried phone calls to be made, panicked appeals to health insurance companies, and grateful, shaky conversations with case workers and clinics. I held onto my belly and wrote down all the phone numbers and tried not to flood my shared bloodstream with stress and sadness. I had a few angels at LA Care and UCLA who persevered, and the day before I was to go in for an optimistically scheduled surgery, I got the call that it had been approved. I sat in my car and tried to feel relieved. I didn’t. All I felt was crushing sadness. I would have to send Spark away.
I texted Sam to meet me at home. I texted our therapist. She called right away. In 20 minutes, she got me through the first real crisis of grief. And I had my second epiphany: Me first. I’m sure many of you find prioritizing yourself to be a difficult thing, men and women alike. We put our partners first, our friends, our families. And certainly this is a good and thoughtful thing. But it can easily go too far, and I began wearing a ring after college to remind myself that I must be my own champion. I needed to remember that now more than ever. I can feel responsible, I can feel guilty, but what do I actually care for the most? My happiness, my growth, and my relationship. I cannot prioritize the possibility of a person above that. Not right now. Someday, probably, but not yet. This became my new mantra, and it got me through the rest of the experience.
A surgical abortion is a long, uncomfortable process. It’s also rather fascinating. The day before the surgery, laminaria are placed in the cervix. Laminaria are sticks made of seaweed, which makes me think medicine has not advanced as far as we thought. These sticks expand, dilating the cervix, as contractions would do naturally. Before surgery, the only thing you can ingest is a pill, which made my cramps so bad I was whisked back to my bed early, given intravenous pain meds, and a special gown into which heated air is pumped (the future!). I also got purple socks. Sam and I watched Holiday (Katharine Hepburn was necessary) and received visits from various medical professionals. The anesthesiologist kept calling me Anne as a joking reference to my celebrity look-alike Anne Hathaway, but it made me a little worried that he wasn’t sure which patient he had. I made sure my ID bracelet was clearly displayed. Then they wheeled me away to the operating room. As I fell asleep, my last thoughts were with the Spark, encouraging it to fly to my sister, who was ready and waiting. I woke up with powerful cramps and a flatter tummy. I mumbled to the nurse to please go get Sam, who had barely had time to eat a sandwich. He had found out that day that one of his mentors had suddenly passed away, and I can only imagine how strange and sad he felt. He got me into the car, where I immediately broke down as I knew I would. But even as I sobbed, I felt that same, soft peace sweep over me. I hadn’t felt it since I saw the pregnancy test. I was crying because I was, after all, relieved. I had been so afraid I wouldn’t be. I had time, now, to do it right, when and if I decided I was ready.
Sam and I went up to Idyllwild, in the San Jacinto Mountains, where my grandparents built their huge, beautiful cabin. My cousins and sister and I half-grew up in the pines behind the house, shooting home-made bows and arrows and making paint out of white rocks and charcoal. It is, as my sister calls it, a “thin place” for me—a place where the veil between the Earth and the Everything is lacy and light. My grandparents had to sell their house years ago, but we went down to the back woods and held a small ceremony of farewell, of gratitude, and of wishes to meet again, perhaps as an aunt and uncle. Then we drove the truck out to a mountain meadow and watched the constellations appear as a super moon rose over the hills. We saw three shooting stars. Another gift. I will look for them all my life. I will look for them all my life.