When I became pregnant for the first time, with my daughter, Georgia, I thought I knew everything I needed to be afraid of about pregnancy. With how common early miscarriages are I braced myself for those tell-tale spots of blood in the first few weeks. After easily finding the heartbeat at 8 and then 11 weeks, my worries turned to the 18-week mark. I knew a few women, my mother included, who had lost a baby around 18 weeks. But by that milestone, I was feeling those sweet kicks and we were welcoming the holiday season with our baby-to-be. Just as I had begun to finally accept and believe this baby was really coming, and let that wave of joy truly wash over me, we went to our anatomy scan. Then, in the blink of an eye, the world as we had come to know it, ended.
DECIDING TO END OUR PREGNANCY
Over the next few weeks, we learned our baby’s body could not sustain her outside of my own. She had a severe case of fetal hydrops and cystic hygroma. The combination of these two abnormalities is almost always fatal. Because of the excess fluid building up in her body, her heart was lodged in her throat, and her lungs were almost non-existent because there was no room for them to grow. We tested for every imaginable cause, genetic and otherwise, and everything came back negative. But this didn’t change her prognosis, or the risks her condition was posing to my own health. Our maternal-fetal medicine specialist, a lifelong devout Catholic, advised us to terminate the pregnancy, or wait for her to pass away on her own, likely before 30 weeks.
We sent our baby’s case to doctors across the country, desperate for an opinion that showed signs of hope that our baby could live and thrive. The projected outcome remained consistent. We were not going to be bringing our baby girl home happy and healthy. We decided together that the most loving decision we could make for our baby was to end the pregnancy.
SCHEDULING AN ABORTION
Since I had been under midwife care throughout the pregnancy, I did not have an OB-GYN who was able and willing to perform the necessary D&E procedure. Our specialist, who worked for a Catholic hospital, also could not offer me a termination. He instead directed us to an abortion clinic in the Puget Sound area of Washington State that, from all the available data, reported the best outcomes. At the time I was 22 weeks pregnant and legally had two weeks remaining to terminate the pregnancy before having to travel to a different state. We called the clinic immediately and booked an appointment for the following Monday, giving us a week to continue thinking things over and wait for some final test results.
During our phone call with the clinic representative who was assigned to late-term cases like mine, something they referred to as a “medically indicated termination,” she told me based on the gestation I would need to have a D&E procedure that would take two days. The first day would be intake and counseling, and then a procedure to begin dilating my cervix. I would also be receiving an injection into my abdomen that would stop the baby’s heart. The final day would be the procedure to remove my baby from my womb.
I was told I would have several options for how alert or sedated I wanted to be during each of these procedures. She told me that a local funeral home offers free cremation services for fetal deaths, and that would be an option available to us as well as having foot and handprints made. I asked if we would be able to hold our baby, or if my husband could be in the procedure rooms with me. She said no to both, explaining that it was in our best interest.
TERMINATION DAY 1 OF 4
When we arrived at the clinic, we found ourselves at a building in our city we had never seen or noticed before, with a large mural painted on one side. We had to park down the street, which made me nervous because I would have to walk a few blocks to the clinic with my big, pregnant belly on display. We easily walked in the front door and were greeted by a woman behind plate glass who asked for our IDs before unlocking the door into the waiting area. The woman I spoke with on the phone met us on the other side of the door and ushered us away from the main waiting area to a small, private waiting room
We hired a bereavement doula who had specialized training to support women and families through pregnancy losses. Our doula was waiting when we arrived, and for her promptness, I liked her immediately. I filled out a boatload of paperwork that was covered in words like “abortion,” and “risks.” The only paperwork that asked me for my baby’s name was in filling out her death certificate.
Because of the swelling from all of the fluid in Georgia’s body, the doctor was dating my baby at 24 weeks, even though I knew she was only 22 and a few days. The plan up until then was to have a two-day procedure at the clinic in our town, which would begin that day. While discussing the pros and cons of two versus three-days, I learned that I should not have eaten anything within the past 12 hours if I wanted to be sedated during that day’s procedure. No one told me this prior to the appointment, and I’ve never had surgery of any kind before to have had the foresight. This meant I would be fully conscious for the painful process of having the laminaria inserted into my cervix, as well as receiving the injection to stop the baby’s heart. There was no way in hell I was going to agree to that.
Our doula gave us some space and went to come up with a plan with the clinic staff that actually worked for us. Meanwhile, up in Seattle, the leading doctor at the clinic took a look at my ultrasound scans and said I absolutely needed a three-day procedure that could start the next day. She said this was the safest and best choice for Georgia and me, and that she wanted to oversee and perform my procedure. We were told this doctor was the best, and that she came out of private practice as an OB-GYN to run this clinic and give women in our area access to safe and legal reproductive choices. Because of how the doctors rotate between locations at this clinic, agreeing to this would mean traveling to a different clinic location each day of the procedure.
TERMINATION DAY 2 OF 4
The next day we arrived bright and early back at the clinic and I met with an anesthesiologist. He reviewed all of my options for how I could be sedated during the procedures. I said, “Yes, absolutely, give me everything you’ve got.” This wasn’t going to be the beautiful birth experience I had dreamed of. I didn’t want to be present for any of it. I just wanted to survive it. He gave me a Valium a half hour before I even went into the procedure room to calm my nerves. The first procedure was over in minutes. They inserted little sticks of seaweed into my cervix to help it dilate. My doula’s face was the last thing I saw before I went to sleep, and the first face I saw when I woke up. She held my hand the entire time. We went home with a list of warning signs to look out for in case I went into labor.
TERMINATION DAY 3 OF 4
The next day we arrived at a different clinic location and were ushered into a very full, very hot waiting area. I had worn a long, cozy wool coat that somewhat easily hid my belly, but it was so stifling in the waiting room that I was in desperate need to take it off. My doula went to request a private and hopefully air-conditioned waiting area. Meanwhile, I noticed another woman who was also wearing a winter coat in this tropical office, and who looked just about as miserable as I felt. A man was with her that I assumed to be her partner, and I couldn’t help but steal glances at them, wondering if she was in the same awful situation as we were.
The doctor gave my husband and me a few minutes in the procedure room alone so that we could say one of many goodbyes to our baby. I remember my husband kneeling down on the floor and putting his cheek and lips to my belly, cradling it in both of his hands. We told her how much we loved her for the millionth time. Before I was anesthetized the doctor asked me to acknowledge and verbally consent to the procedure to stop my baby’s heart. I said yes without hesitation, because I am her mother, and it was my job to never let her be in pain or suffer.
I woke with a bandage on my belly, fully aware of what that meant. She had received the injection into her heart, and it could take up to a few hours for it to take effect. I did not feel her kick again after I woke up, but I knew it was possible that I might. My husband and I both slept on the couch that night, not wanting to spend the night in our bed where we had only ever slept with her alive.
TERMINATION DAY 4 OF 4
The final day of the termination arrived and soon it was time to hug my husband and walk away from him pregnant with our baby for the last time. When I woke up, it felt like an instant had passed since I had been asleep. In reality, it had been about 20 minutes. It is still hard to fathom how the five previous months of incredibly hard work growing that sweet baby could be undone in a matter of minutes. It finally made sense why labor is usually so long. My doula was still holding my hand and said everything went well. I immediately realized that my baby was somewhere besides in my body. It is such a strange and discomforting feeling that I still have. Even though I knew she wasn’t alive I was immediately worried about her. I wanted to know where she was and comfort her.
The clinic rep came into the room and asked me if I wanted to hold her. Even in my sedated state I still managed to panic. I hadn’t prepared for this. I was told from the beginning I couldn’t hold her. She said I wouldn’t be able to see her, but if I wanted to hold her they would wrap her in blankets and bring her to me. I cried and said no. In hindsight, I do think feeling the weight of her could have potentially helped me with feelings I now struggle with; that none of it was real. My rational brain knows I was pregnant and what happened to my baby, but because I didn’t get to complete the natural cycle of birthing my baby and seeing her, I sometimes experience a deep and complex confusion about where she went.
My doula helped me off the procedure table where some of those doggie pee-pee pads were waiting below. When I stepped off the table I realized why. Amniotic fluid, blood, and tissue gushed out of me. She helped me get cleaned up and took me back to our waiting room for “recovery.”
The next thing I remember is my husband telling me that the couple we met the day before was also there, in a different private room, and wanted to talk to us if we were willing. So, shortly after the termination procedure was finished, we shared stories of our babies. They were also 23 weeks pregnant with their second son and had received equally devastating news at their anatomy scan a few weeks prior. They had seen the same MFM specialist we had seen, and now here we both were in the same clinic, on the same day, doing the same unimaginable thing. We were later told that the clinic had never had two late-term terminations of wanted babies within the same week.
THE LONELINESS OF PREGNANCY LOSS
We keep in touch regularly with the couple we met at the clinic. They live about a mile from our house, which statistically seems pretty wild. Knowing them, meeting up for coffee to talk about how we’re managing life without our babies, makes me feel like what happened to us really does happen to other “normal” people. It makes me feel a little less isolated by our tragedy.
Pregnancy loss is one of the loneliest things a woman or a couple can go through, and a pregnancy loss that bears the weight of a termination decision can yield unfathomable isolation. That is why I am willing to go back into the recesses of my mind and dig up the details of this trauma that I would personally prefer to forget. So that I can share them in hopes that someone facing this decision, or someone now on the other side of it, can find a little bit of comfort and connection with someone else who speaks a language you can only understand if you’ve walked in these shoes.
FINDING GRATITUDE THROUGH TRAGEDY
It feels almost crazy to admit that I feel grateful for the experience I had at the clinic. The only reason I feel gratitude is that I’ve read and heard stories that are infinitely worse than what we went through. Women who traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to access a safe and legal termination. Women who were without their partners, or didn’t have their support. Women or couples who paid tens of thousands of dollars to end a wanted pregnancy. Women who were treated like livestock waiting for “their turn” on the table. Women who weren’t offered sedation of any kind and heard every sound and felt every moment of their baby being taken out of their body.
I am grateful for the compassionate care I did receive from the clinics we went to. I’m grateful I only had to travel as far as I did. I’m grateful my insurance covered 70 percent of the cost. I’m grateful I was sedated and asleep through every procedure. I’m grateful I had the money to hire a doula to be by my side and advocate for me. I’m grateful I wasn’t shamed by strangers on the worst days of my life. I’m grateful no damage was done to my reproductive organs during the procedure. I’m grateful I have the hope of another baby ahead of me. I’m grateful I have my daughter’s ashes and her footprints.
Fetal abnormalities like what happened with our baby are rare, but they do happen. No one is absolved from the chances of nature. Every woman deserves the fundamental right to decide what is best for her and her baby no matter the circumstance. I worried so deeply leading up to the termination that I would go on to lead a life filled with regret and second-guessing if we had made the right decision. It is strangely one of the only things about losing my daughter that I feel at peace about. I know we did what was best for her because I know how infinite and pure our love for her is. And unless you have faced that decision yourself, you could never fully understand.
Author Bio Emily is a freelance writer, creative director, and podcast producer based in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent her career so far working passionately for woman-owned brands including Elizabeth Suzann and Local Milk. In her off hours, she’s likely working on what she hopes will be her first book, a “tragicomedy,” about her experience losing her first baby.