February 19, 2019

23 Weeks, 6 Days

by The Cut on Tuesdays

In the fight over later abortions, the political rhetoric is miles away from the lived reality. This week, we tell one woman’s story.

Transcript

<<THEME IN>>


From The Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.


 <<THEME OUT>>


If you watched the State of the Union a couple of weeks ago, you might remember this: 


Donald Trump: Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth. These are living feeling beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and their dreams with the world.


Trump was talking about the Reproductive Health Act, a new law in New York. It allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy to protect a mother’s health or if a fetus isn’t viable. And this moment in the State of the Union stands out for a more important reason than the basic unpleasantness of Donald Trump talking about “beautiful babies.” With Trump’s appointees on the Supreme Court, Roe vs. Wade is vulnerable. Abortion rights are under attack--and abortions that happen later in pregnancy are the most widely attacked. For opponents, they’re the easiest to vilify. 


Donald Trump: To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late term abortion of children, who can feel pain in the mother's womb. (Applause.)


These abortions are also incredibly rare. Trump makes it sound like there’s some mob of baby-haters celebrating in the streets. But only 1.3 percent of abortions in the US even happen after the second trimester. And when a woman wants to end a pregnancy at that point, it’s almost never because she just happened to change her mind. There aren’t reliable statistics on all the reasons why women get later abortions. One of the few places that perform these procedures is a clinic in Colorado, and they say that their patients are almost always women who wanted a pregnancy--and then learned something was catastrophically wrong. 


The reality of later abortion is nothing like the political rhetoric. So, on today’s show, we’re going to hear the story of one woman’s actual experience.


 Laura: When I found out I was at pregnant I was at work actually.


Laura is 28. She lives in Harlem and works in the office of a college in the Bronx--and she has an incredible memory for dates.


LAURA: It was the 18th of April - it was a Wednesday because I was supposed to get my period that Monday the 16 and I was late.

Molly: This is so organized, a very the precise memory. 


Laura: Very, I don’t know I went to one of the restrooms And I was like you know let me just do it now. Get it out of the way. In total I took three tests just to make sure that it wasn't a fluke. And they all said positive they all said pregnant pregnant and I got the plus sign. So I was like oh God 


Molly: how did you feel? What kind of oh God?

Laura: I was scared, I was so scared. I remember I sent my friend a  text and my friend and I so I send her the picture what the hell. She's like are you sure. So I send her all three you. Yeah you’re sure. 

Molly: Full documentation. 

LAURA: Yes. And she was even like what are you going to do now. And I honestly said I don't know. after it really sunk in I was just like, you know what? I am going to go with it, so off we went.


Laura felt like she was ready: She had a job that she liked, she was stable financially… she and her partner of three years had broken up recently, but he was supportive when she told him the news.


And she was healthy--it was a textbook pregnancy.


Laura: They did the 13 week scan and according to my results everything was good. I was measuring at the correct age, my bloodwork came out fine.


She was getting ready for the baby in all the ways you’d expect. She was excited.


Molly: So what kinds of plans were you making at that point, what were you anticipating for when the baby was born?

Laura: For one thing with my due date. It was on Christmas - Christmas Day. So I was very very excited for that. I was thinking I'm going to need a carriage. I'm going to  need to figure out who am I going to leave the baby with, clothes, all this stuff. I kind of bounced off ideas of my sister. She has a girl already. 

Molly: Yeah what kind of advice did she have?

Laura: So she would ask me Are you going to breastfeed if you are or are you going to get a palm. Does your insurance come with a pump or are you going to get a manual one. What are you going to do. how much time are you going to take off work when are you going to go back. Are you going to an all start working to get the weight off as soon as you're given the OK.

she was like  Well listen you've helped me a lot. The least I can do is if you go back to work you can leave me with your baby. She had a baby as well, like an infant. So we were thinking about OK what if we got a double stroller. It will make life easier. So we were making all these plans and stuff. And then my anatomy scan happened and it’s like oh crap. 


The anatomy scan happens at 20 weeks. This is the appointment where they first get a good look at the fetus--they measure its size, check the organs, make sure everything seems OK. And--they can finally tell you the baby’s sex.


LAURA: I went by myself. I I wasn't expecting anything. You know the most I was expecting was to finally be told that it was a boy or a girl.

MOLLY: How were you feeling. Were you excited? 

LAURA: I was excited. I was so nervous

And I thought it would be a quick 10 minute 20 minute thing. And so the ultrasound tech was very chatty she was very very nice. She was like you know do you know what you're having and I said no. So hopefully I get to find out. She was like well if if the baby's in the right position we'll be able to tell quickly. I was like I hope so. So we started off. And that was the first thing that we were trying to figure out. So she was like You know I was like yeah she's like You're having a girl and was like how sure are you. She's like I'm really sure. 


LAURA: In my family, from the kids that we have--that everyone has--there's only two girls. This would have been the third.  I was like oh my God. Finally another girl room we were so happy.


Laura was expecting this to be the day’s big news--that’s why she’d figured it was fine if she came to the appointment alone. But then the ultrasound tech stopped chatting… and then she left the room to find the doctor. The moment when they stop talking to you--that’s the moment you know to dread. Laura was lying there, with ultrasound jelly all over her stomach, wondering what was going on. 


LAURA: Ten minutes later they both came in OB-Gyn took over and he started doing the exam again abdominally. And then transvaginally. So it was at that time that he said OK listen there's a few things that we're worried about. He said her brain it's not at the size that should be for her age. So like I don't see her right kidney. Her overall size is small for what she should be. And he was like I can't see her hands so at that time I'm freaking out. 


It looked like something was wrong--but that’s all the doctor could tell from looking at an ultrasound. It wasn’t clear exactly what was wrong or how serious it was. 


They told Laura she’d need an amniocentesis, which is when they draw a sample of amniotic fluid to test for fetal abnormalities. The amnio would tell them if what they were seeing was something genetic--whether all those things on the ultrasound pointed to a specific condition they could diagnose and understand.


At this point, Laura was five months pregnant. And this was the first time she heard anything was wrong. It was a Friday, so she was scheduled for the amnio on Monday.  


Laura went home from her scan in shock. But family tried to cheer her up--she called her ex to tell him what she’d heard, and he did his best to keep her hopeful. 


Laura: I guess he was trying to get my mind out of you know worrying so he was talking about all these possibilities you know I'm going to you know she's going to be cute, and she’s going to have big cheeks and she's you know you'll you'll see that all of this was just a scare. 

And that's when we started looking at names. And he was the one that gave me the name that I eventually ran with. So he he told me he's like oh I like Giselle for a name. So I was like, OK I was like it's not I haven't I haven't heard of that much. Like you can say both in English and Spanish because that's one of the things that we both wanted and we want it. You know a bilingual name sounds like OK that can work. 

I was really really really trying to you know have the same upbeat I guess emotion if you will and I just couldn't because I was so worried. I was so worried. 


After she got the amnio, while she waited to find out the results, Laura held it together by googling, a lot. She wanted to know how bad this all was. She wanted find out everything she could about what might be wrong and what tests she could ask for. 


Laura: I have the tendency to always look things up always always always always always whatever it is I will look it up like I'm watching a movie and I will look it up to see the summary. So I will know what to expect. 


And while she waited, she also wanted to get a second opinion. So she got a fetal MRI. She got another, more detailed ultrasound. She wanted someone to tell her that the first doctor had gotten it wrong--that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. 


Instead, the other doctors confirmed what she’d heard at that 20 week scan: her baby was much too small for its age, it was missing a kidney, its brain was underdeveloped.

  

They told her the names of some conditions they thought might be causing those problems, and what they meant for her daughter’s life.


Laura: More than likely she will not walk. She will not talk. She will not feed. It’s like, he will be in a hospital for her life. That's when they were like, you know it's bad it's really bad. 


She wanted to know everything she could about her daughter, and the more she found out the worse it got. All the doctors could tell her was that this baby’s life would be limited and painful, if she was even able to live outside Laura’s body at all. At this point, Laura was 23 weeks and two days into her pregnancy. 


Laura: And that's when they said you know in New York State you have until you are 24 weeks they're like technically 23 weeks and six days at this institution if you want to terminate and at that point we were so taken aback because you know we understand that you know that's a possibility. But at the same time I didn't have my final amnio results. 


Laura: So I told them you know I'm I don't want to make that decision just yet. I want to get the the amnio result because that'll kind of let me know if I know it's something genetic then ok it's I know like this is definite. There is no. If I do this it'll get better. 


Laura was looking for an answer--she wanted something that could tell her, yes, there’s at least some hope, or  no, there’s no hope at all. She knew that everything the doctors were saying sounded bad. But the amnio results seemed like something more concrete: a scientific conclusion, not just blurry pictures on an ultrasound screen. She didn’t want to decide without seeing those results… but she was running out of time.


Coming up, Laura’s decision comes right up against New York state law. That’s after the break. 


 <<MIDROLL>>


Welcome back to The Cut On Tuesdays. On today’s episode, we’re hearing about what it’s actually like to have an abortion later in pregnancy. 


When the president talks about later abortions, he describes people ripping babies from their mother’s wombs. Last week, he went further, saying that Democrats who support legislation like New York’s Reproductive Health Act want to “execute” newborns. 


Trump: Democrats are also pushing extreme late term abortion. Allowing children to be ripped. From their mother's womb. Right up until. The moment of birth. What's that all about? 


He went on to cite a bill that was recently proposed in Virginia, which would have eased restrictions on later abortions - 


But the governor stated that he would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world and wrap the baby and make the baby comfortable and then talk to the mother.  And talk to the father and then execute the baby. 


So there’s Donald Trump’s portrait of would-be baby killers. And then there’s Laura--a pregnant woman who learned for the first time at 20 weeks that something was very wrong with the baby that she wanted.


Laura knew the outlook was grim, but she was desperately trying to find someone who could tell her otherwise. She just wanted her baby to have a shot at life outside her body, outside a hospital.


When Laura was 23 weeks and two days pregnant, she was told she had to make a choice. New York state law allowed abortion up to 24 weeks. The hospital where she was being treated would do the procedure up to 23 weeks and six days.  And at the appointment where she was 23 weeks and two days pregnant? That was the Thursday before Labor Day weekend. After the holiday, it would be too late. So she had 24 hours to decide. 


But she still didn’t have all her amnio results,. Those would tell her whether her baby’s problems were genetic-- it would give her some kind of definite answer, so she didn’t want to make her choice without them.


LAURA: They were like, but if you do decide on terminating you have until-- you have to let us know by tomorrow. You have to let us know and you have to do it by tomorrow. 


I was still like in a haze. But it was like OK let's push this aside let's go get those results.  And it was a scramble to get them. 


From the specialist where she’d just had her appointment, Laura had to get to the hospital where she’d had her amnio. She and her sister got in a cab and got there as fast as they could.


LAURA: I asked for a copy of the results. They said they had to say to my doctor so I said OK i was like can you send them to my doctor. And and I told her Listen I was like I have to decide if I'm going to terminate or not. And I was like and I need those results to make my decision. I was like I'm not going to be able to live with whatever decision I make unless I know the final results. 


So next she had to go to her ob-gyn’s office--she was hoping the hospital would have sent him her results by the time she arrived.


LAURA: we got to my primary OBGYN office and they didn't have the results yet. They hadn’t been faxed over. And what's worse my doctor wasn't in that day. So in order for me to get a I guess a copy of those results if you will. He has to get them first. And he has to sign off on that so I couldn't get them. 


Molly: You couldn't get the results at all.


Laura: I couldn't, Not that day. 


Molly: Not that day.


Laura: Not that day. So I went back the following morning. They didn't have the results yet. 


Laura: So I was like going back to asking them every five or ten minutes. Do you have the result. Do they come in. They he sign off on them. Can I get a copy. No we haven't gotten them which means. No he didn't sign off on them. No you can't get a copy. Every. Ten minutes I was going. Did you get them. Did you get them. No. No. No. 


If she was going to terminate her pregnancy, she had to do it that afternoon.


LAURA: It was like 2:00 o'clock almost 230 I remember because I was my cousin was texting me that day and I still didn't have the results. And I was literally like OK well I'm not going to bring my daughter into a world. You know she can’t fend for herself. If I'm not here who is going to take care of her. You know so I was like it's like I have no choice. I have to terminate. You know not knowing my results. I have to terminate. So it's like I gave up - I gave up my sister and I we took a cab up to the hospital in Washington Heights 

and it was right over that my OB Gyn finally called me and he said I finally have the 

results. In layman's terms he told me essentially you know she has a chromosome 

duplication and deletion within the same chromosome.

He's like it's not good. And I was like OK I was a. It's not good. I was like What does that mean. I was like What is your opinion. And he said I think you should terminate. 

I'm doing what I felt is compassion and respectful for her even if it means like my heart is breaking. I'm doing It for her. 


One of the most painful parts of this whole painful process is that the place Laura had to go to terminate her pregnancy was the maternity ward of the hospital...


LAURA: I get off the elevators and I turn to my right and right there the reception area. So it's open area. So it's like I see all these women going there for their you know for the ultrasounds and stuff. 


But in my case like I told the the guy reception he saw me from the day before and I was like Listen I was here yesterday and I'm here because I have to terminate my pregnancy. So he said OK, you know, take a seat they'll call you soon. And it's like I have to sit there with all the women so I remember either was looking at my phone or I was looking at my bag on the floor. I was looking down anywhere but up. I was just like OK. Like you know like it's not going to change my mind. I know what I'm doing I know this is a decision that I have to make because it's you know I'm you know I say the best decision to protect my child and it's so ironic that the best decision to protect her is to end her life. 


Laura’s abortion would happen in two steps. First, the doctor would use a shot of potassium chloride, or K-Cl, to stop the fetal heart. Then, Laura would come back the next day to deliver.


LAURA: So at that point it's like everything's ready to go for the termination. they started with the ultrasound to see where she was and to see where was the best entry point for the injection. But at one point while they were doing that I think they left the audio on by mistake. 


So I heard the heartbeat for like a slight few seconds a few seconds and I completely lost it. Because keep in mind that's the last time I'm going to listen to it. 

MOLLY: Had you heard it before. 

LAURA: Yeah I had heard it before but it's just the fact that this was the last time. And on top of that it was you know to stop the heart. 


LAURA: And I have my sister on my left holding my hand and she's you know she's whispering you all these things into into my ear she's like You're strong you're doing the best you know the best choice for your daughter. So she won't suffer. You know she's like I admire you so much because you know you're doing this and you know well you know I'm here for you. You know you know it's like. I don't even know. And you feel you feel what they did is they put in a numbing shot for me first. Once they let a few minutes for that to like really like I guess absorb, sink in, if you will. Then they started with the K-Cl shot. And again it was like a burning sensation and I was like oh my god it really really burns and I think they did two shots. And after that they kept me there for like 30 minutes and then they came back and then they did a quick another quick ultrasound and then they said OK you can leave. 


The day after receiving the potassium chloride shot, Laura went back to the hospital. They’d told her she could either have a D&E, a dilation and evacuation, where the fetus is extracted using forceps, or she could have labor induced and give birth. She chose to give birth. 


Laura: Right after I give birth it's like that total shock. And I'm like oh my god I gave birth I gave birth but all you hear is like Oh you heard with silence as the doctor and the nurse talking. That's it. 


Laura: They cleaned her up they made her look presentable and they brought her to me. I held her. Obviously it was I guess the first one to hold her and she was so so so so tiny--super tiny. She was a pound and two ounces. And I held her and you could feel the weight and it's like this is my baby but my baby is dead. I told everyone to give me some alone time with her. I was with her alone. I have some alone time with her and it's just like you know I kept telling her I'm sorry this is the way it turned out. I'm sorry I couldn't do more for you. Like if I could of. I would have. But at the same time I didn't have I didn't have time. At the same time. And you know it's like I didn't want you to suffer. And this is the the best way I thought possible. So it's like all of these things and I'm just like apologizing and I'm like I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry it was really really hard.


Laura: Eventually I had to give her to the nurse, the nurse had to take her away. And once that was done it was like OK now what. They told me well you're feeling fine. They were like is there any reason that you shouldn't be discharged today. And I didn't know what to tell them it's like you know if I'm thinking right now there is no reason why I should be here. It's not like the food isn't that great. The bed isn’t that comfortable--I miss my bed. But it's like that feeling that once I am discharged I have to leave. But she's still staying. 


After that, she had to get back to her regular life.


Laura: I kind of had to tell my boss what was going on and I sent her an email and I said listen I was in the hospital over the weekend. I gave birth you know she died and I just need some time off. And you know she was great about it. She said take whatever time you need. And you know don't worry about about the office. We'll we'll be fine. Don't worry. And I took a week off work and then I went back to work the following week. And it was so surreal because the last time I was there I was pregnant and now I'm not like I still have I still had the you know the belly and the sense but I just wasn't pregnant anymore and I didn't have a baby.


Laura buried her daughter in a small white box at a cemetery not far from her office.


You know she's up in Woodlawn and I work literally like three stops away. I can like you know do a quick lunch break and on my lunch break I can go see her take her flowers. I used to go religiously every month and then like this month having gone and it's like I don't know I think maybe it's because it's going on five almost six months just like that half mark milestone.


For supporters of abortion rights, the most important thing about New York’s new law is that it takes abortion out of the criminal code entirely. Instead of treating abortion as a crime to be stopped, it makes it strictly a medical matter. Which is important, especially if you’re thinking in the abstract about abortion rights. But for Laura, the law means something simpler: if the Reproductive Health Act had been in place when she was pregnant -- she wouldn’t have had to decide everything in 24 hours, while she was still waiting for all her test results.


For other women’s sake, she’s glad the RHA passed. But it’s also a little bittersweet for her.


It would've given me more time and that’s the thing that I didn’t have, time.

I was able to see a genetic specialist after my termination. She told me that best case scenario is she would have lived up to her first birthday, worst case scenario she would have died sometime in her third trimester. That’s the validation I had after everything happened.


Opponents of abortion rights hope that if they limit legal access to abortions—and especially later abortions—women just won’t get them.


But throughout history, women have found ways to end their pregnancies--laws just make it harder to do it safely. And when it comes to women like Laura, the people who demonize abortion are forgetting something crucial. Parents will do anything for their children--and that’s true even if the only choice you ever get to make as a parent is the choice not to bring your child into the world.


If Laura had missed the 24 week cut-off in New York, she says she would have kept trying to get her abortion. She would have tried to get to that clinic in Colorado, even if it meant spending thousands of dollars.


Definitely I would have tried. I would have seen where I would have gotten the money from - loans or whatever. I would have done it. I will move heaven and hell to make sure that she doesn’t ever feel the slightest discomfort, the slightest pain. I will do anything


That’s it for this week’s show. We’ll see you next Tuesday.



CREDITS


The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh and Olivia Natt.


Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler.


We’re edited by Stella Bugbee, Nazanin Rafsanjani, and Alex Blumberg, who is a young dad, IN PRECISELY THE SAME SENSE THAT KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND IS A YOUNG MOM. 


Mixing by Emma Munger, Andi Kristins, and Bobby Lord, our music is by Haley Shaw and Emma Munger. Our theme song is PLAY IT RIGHT by Amelia Meath, Nick Sanborn, Molly Sarle and Alexandra Sauser Monig. 


Special thanks to Callie Beusman, Lola Pellegrino, and the team at Science Vs, who recently published an episode of their podcast about abortion that you can find wherever you get your podcasts. 


The Cut on Tuesdays is a production of Gimlet Media and the Cut.