20 weeks. That is the magic number according to the GOP. House Republicans last week passed a bill, which they named the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, banning abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape or incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother. While not expected to pass the Senate, this bill has put 20 weeks back in the limelight, without any acknowledgment of what 20 weeks might look like for millions of women.
What happens at 20 weeks? For most pregnant women, it is the week we get the anatomical screening that can indicate the sex of the fetus and if all the major organs are functioning properly and appear normal. According to pregnancy websites, 20 weeks is when sweat glands form, the fetus is “about the length of a large banana,” “he or she is gulping down several ounces of amniotic fluid each day,” and “your baby’s eyelids have finished forming.” For more women than we know about, 20 weeks is when they find out that their fetus possesses severe health problems. For even more, 20 weeks is when they have finally been able to collect the money and arranged for travel, child-care, and time off from work to have an abortion.
Earlier this year, week 20 was when I terminated my pregnancy.
Week 6 was when I took a pregnancy test and saw the blue line, but since I have had two miscarriages in the first 10 weeks, I tried not to get too attached or hopeful about this one just yet.
Week 7 was when my husband got on an airplane to spend the next four months teaching at a university 1500 miles away. Weeks 8-14, I spent teaching, prepping, and grading, and feeding, clothing, and distracting my two-year-old from the fact that his favorite playmate was living in another state. Most nights I was so nauseous that I skipped brushing my teeth, afraid that sticking anything into the back of my mouth would bring everything up. I also visited my obstetrician three times and got 2 ultrasounds, hearing over and over: “baby looks good!”
Week 15 was when I had a blood test, recommended for all “advanced maternal aged” women (over 35), to detect chromosomal defects. That was also the week my husband returned home to help pack up everything the three of us would need for the remaining two months in Michigan. After the disappointments of previous miscarriages, this pregnancy finally seemed safe and normal. I was well into the second trimester, so I put in my request for parental leave at work.
Week 16 and day 3, in the middle of the 4-day road trip to Michigan, was when I got a phone call that my blood test came back showing some “concerns,” and that I should seek out further tests. I was standing in a science museum in St. Louis watching my husband and son playing with a bridge engineering exhibit as I listened to the genetic counselor on the other end, laying out statistics and detailing potential diagnoses. What had started out as a fun family activity quickly became frightening and surreal. But we had tickets to the toddler room and our son was having fun, so we pretended things were fine and hoped things were fine.
Week 17 was when I dropped my son off at a stranger’s house for daycare, and spent hours online and on the phone finding a clinic in town and talking with my health insurance company, trying to determine if and how we would be able to pay for further testing when not in our home state. Finally securing an appointment, I visited a genetic counselor who told me both “it’s actually hard to get a positive result from that blood test if you are 40,” and “the results are concerning and you should definitely get more tests.”
Week 18 was when my husband and I picked through our budget, trying to figure out how to afford the amniocentesis that would cost $1,100 with insurance. I then spent a morning in a shiny university hospital watching an ultrasound tech frown at the screen and wondering what that very long needle entering my stomach would reveal. Between the stress and morning sickness, I could barely eat anything that week.
Week 18 and 5 days, we got the diagnosis that our child already had severe heart defects, and if it survived to full term would have a short life full of pain and suffering. That my husband and I would spend countless hours watching that suffering and spend an unthinkable amount of money to do everything we could, hoping that a hundred-thousand dollar machine, or drug, or procedure would somehow make up for us not being able to take our infant home, snuggle down with it in bed, and watch its brother marvel at the new baby. That our two-year-old son would also be torn from his parents as we left him with babysitters in order to return to the hospital, that his anxiety would only grow as he witnessed his parents’ grief.
The next five days we spent pouring over websites, looking up every medical term the doctor had mentioned, researching every possible scenario, and reading accounts by parents who experienced what was now our likely future. Like others before me, I found myself thinking of how best to prepare not for my child’s life, but for my child’s inevitable death. Should I choose a death full of hospitals, machines, drugs, and anguish, or one that was quick, painless, and within the warmth and comforts of my body?
Week 19 was when I decided to terminate my pregnancy because I love both my children and wanted to spare both of them pain and suffering. The new challenge lay in figuring out where to get the abortion and how to pay for it. The genetic counselor at the shiny university hospital informed me I could get an abortion there, for only $15,000-20,000. There was no way we could afford that.
The next clinic I called said they only had one practitioner who performed the procedure “at such a late stage,” and he was booked for the next two weeks. Two weeks was too late, because that clinic also did not perform abortions after week 20. Two weeks was also too late, because my insurance company did not pay for the procedure after week 20. I finally found a clinic in the Detroit suburbs that could take me in time and would charge only $1200 to be paid up front. It would then be up to me to get reimbursement from my insurance company.
Week 20 was when I woke up my son while it was still dark, tried to get him to eat some cereal while he was still half asleep, and sat in the car while my husband rang on the doorbell of our daycare provider until she came and opened up, forgetting that we had arranged an early dropoff. Over the next two days throughout counseling, tests, dilation and extraction, and the tea I was given in the recovery room, I cried and I analyzed.
One of the saviors and pitfalls of being a historian of reproduction is that you find yourself analyzing every doctor’s visit, ultrasound experience, and medical interaction, wondering why certain language was used, noting the racial demographics of the waiting room, picking apart the design of posters. I could at once appreciate the signs all over the clinic that told me “Women who get abortions are good women” and also wonder what anti-choice slogan or campaign that motto was a response to. I soaked up the words of the doctor or nurse who held my hand and softly said “you are doing what is best for your family” and also pondered how little the GOP or anti-choice advocates use the word “family.” This constant analyzing allowed me a break from my sadness and the stress of a two-day medical procedure, but at times filled my brain with so many questions that I would simply stare at the television playing HGTV non-stop, hoping for the escape offered by Fixer-Upper.
Week 21 was when I hugged my son more than usual and smiled at his joy in finally learning how to put lego bricks together. At week 40, on my due date, I hiked to the top of a peak overlooking my home, kissed ultrasound pictures, and told my child through tears: “I love you and I will never forget you.”
This is just one example of an abortion at 20 weeks. There are countless others and each is unique. In their focus on 20 weeks, GOP leaders do not want to acknowledge these personal experiences, or the messiness of reproductive realities. While I would have been able to have my abortion under this new bill (barely) I also have many privileges that millions of women do not. I have health insurance that enabled me to get early diagnostic tests and an abortion without extra time needed to save up or try and get money from family members. I have a car and can afford daycare so that I could take the first available appointment for an abortion without searching for transportation and accommodating the schedules of family or friends who could help with babysitting. I have a flexible work schedule that enabled me to spend hours, during business hours, on the phone with hospitals, clinics, and insurance companies. My partner has a flexible work schedule so he could drive me the hour each way to the clinic two days in a row.
A 20-week cutoff for legal abortions is nothing less than cruel to millions of families. Instead of making it even harder on women to obtain abortions, in a country where so many live hundreds of miles from an abortion provider and do not make enough to afford the procedure or the necessary transportation or childcare, lawmakers need to acknowledge the myriad factors that go into a woman’s decision to get an abortion, including access to health care, child care, low wages, and family health and stability. If only the GOP cared more about families than 20-week-old fetuses, they might instead consider a Pain-Capable Family Protection Act.
Their current plan is assured to increase pain — through financial stress, unsafe abortions, and unwanted and unaffordable pregnancies. The history of abortion in this country shows that making the practice illegal or restricted has never challenged the logic of why so many women feel abortion is best for them and their families.
I can only assume that the legislators who voted yes on the House bill have no personal experience with what they mistakenly call a “late term abortion.” They need to start listening to the stories from women like Ginny Engholm, Darla Jackson, and the women recently interviewed by Huffington Post, who bravely shared their stories of 20 weeks and beyond. Of why they sought out “late term abortions.” It is up to all of us who have those stories, to tell them.