Sunday Reflections: Raising Daughters & the Fight for Full Bodily Autonomy
Trigger Warning: Pregnancy Loss and Abortion are Discussed in this Post
I knew the day that I began teaching my 3-year-old daughter how to dial 911 that I would have an abortion.
I had just gotten out of the emergency room, again. After spending another night receiving fluids, again.
My blood pressure was abysmally low, my resting heart rate too fast.
I would later learn that I was in a state of what they call metabolic acidosis. I was, quite literally, dying.
So I barricaded the stairs. I made sure to never turn on the stove or oven. I double and triple checked that I had locked all the doors. And I laid on the couch and prayed that if I was going to die – and I was – that it happened when my husband was home so that my daughter would be safe.
Coming home from the hospital that day, I asked my husband, “what if I have to terminate this pregnancy?” He sighed the biggest sigh of relief, “I didn’t know how to bring it up,” he mentioned.
Here we were, teenaged sweethearts who had been baptized together in the church. Had attended a Christian college together. Served in youth ministry together. We were in our early 30s, already parents to a very much loved child, and we were discussing terminating a pregnancy.
The next day was another day, and another day to the emergency room. I was subjected to a 45 minute ultrasound because as the tech said, they couldn’t find “something”. They didn’t come out and say it, but it was the heartbeat. They couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat.
So the next day we went and saw a different ob/gyn. This one we knew would terminate the pregnancy if we needed them to. And again, there was no heartbeat. My pregnancy should have measured 9 ½ weeks and there should have been a heartbeat, but it measured at 6 ½ weeks and he said a heartbeat would be iffy at that time. We explained to him that no, 3 weeks – and 2 hospital stays earlier – we had in fact measured 6 ½ weeks and heart a slow and unhealthy but definitely present heartbeat.
It was then that we were presented with 2 options: We could wait 24 hours and come back the next day to terminate what appeared to be a failing pregnancy–if I survived the next 24 hours and didn’t need to go back to the ER, that is. Or we could wait another week or two, have a follow up ultrasound and if there was still no heartbeat, it would be declared a miscarriage. The truth was, as he pointed out, that I would not survive another week or two. I need an abortion and I needed it quickly.
Twenty-four hours later we returned to terminate the pregnancy. We walked among 3 protestors who held signs telling us we were going to hell and that we should ask to hear our baby’s heartbeat. What those protestors didn’t know is that we had heard our baby’s heartbeat, and then we didn’t. We grieved our loss, but we also knew that factually we were now trying to save the only life we could really save at this point – mine.
In the days following my abortion that wasn’t technically an abortion though my medical records will always show that it was, I had one of my most spiritual moments ever. This is the moment that I hang on to whenever I begin to doubt or question my faith. I laid on my bedroom floor and cried. Then I had what I can only call a vision of the Lord, He came to me and in it, I saw Jesus kneeling beside me with his hands cupped under my face. He held them there gently and caught my failing tears as I wept, and I felt the presence of the Lord in a way that never have before or since.
Because abortion is legal in the United States, I am alive and am now the mother to two daughters. My second daughter is here only because I was kept alive through IVs and aggressive treatment by a high risk doctor. My husband got up in the middle of the night to change out fluids, inserting a needle full of medicine into each bag to help keep me alive. And even in the course of that pregnancy, the frequency and ferocity of my vomiting was so fierce that the placenta began to separate from my uterine wall and this child almost did not make it as well.
The pregnancy disease that I have is known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Recent research indicates that it is genetic. So I look at my two daughters and know, if they get pregnant there is a chance that these same things will happen to them. Pregnancy may be a death sentence for them.
I am alive today, my second daughter is alive today, my first daughter has a mother today, because I was able to make the personal medical decisions I needed to make quickly. I continue to be alive today because I can take steps necessary to never get pregnant again. I have the health insurance I need to cover the care I need to keep myself from having any more children because I would not survive another pregnancy. There are many other HG sufferers like me out there. There are many other pregnancy complications besides HG. And soon, there may be many people who are uninsured and unable to access the health care they need or make the medical decisions they need to make.
Even if they remain celibate until marriage and jump through every hoop that those with conservative religious beliefs believe that they must, my daughters will still need affordable access to medical care and contraception to help plan and yes, prevent, pregnancy in order to keep themselves alive. And should the extreme scenario happen to them, they may need to be able to make the quick and timely decision to terminate a medically complicated pregnancy in order to survive. I want all those medical options to be available to them because I love them.
This is the story of how I became a pro-choice Christian. Yes, it took a personal experience to make me understand how dangerous and complicated and how very not black and white pregnancy can be. I was naïve and judgmental and full of the self-satisfied assurance that the self-righteous often have that they are always right and they know all the answers. I knew all the answers, too. Until I didn’t.
Further research has led me to understand that outlawing abortion doesn’t stop abortion, it just makes abortion more deadly. However, quality sex education, access to affordable contraception, access to health care and roads out of poverty significantly reduce the reasons that people seek out abortion. They also help provide a better quality of life for those babies that are being brought into this world. If we want to really tackle the issue of abortion, these are the areas that we need to invest in.
Every day I look at my daughters and pray. I pray that they will continue to have the right to make the choices they need to make about their bodies and for their health. It is not guaranteed that they will have Hyperemesis Gravidarum, but it is a very real possibility because they are my daughters. I want them to be able to make the decisions they need to with their doctors make the right choices for their health.
I wrote this essay shortly after the election in 2016. My husband and I fought long and hard through three very difficult pregnancies to bring our two much loved children into this world. It nearly bankrupted us because it was hard for us to get good answers and good medical care. It nearly killed me, twice. And we made decisions that we never contemplated having to make when we began our life together as a married couple trying to start a family.
13 years ago today, in the year 2006, I had an abortion. It saved my life.
My first two pregnancies I had one doctor who apparently knew I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum; It is written in my medical records, though he never discussed it with either my husband or I. In my second pregnancy, the last one in which we would use him as our doctor, I was, according to the various ER records we gathered, quite literally dying. At one point I was hospitalized for a short stay and my resting heart rate was 160 and my blood pressure was 60 something over 37. After being admitted from the ER and placed into the maternity ward for a few nights, at no time did any of the doctors on that floor perform an ultrasound. If they had, we would have learned a full two weeks earlier than our termination that the baby had already passed away. Instead, I suffered another two weeks, inching every moment even closer to death.
Hyperemesis Gravidarum is extreme nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. It is not morning sickness. In each of my pregnancies I vomited 24 hours a day for the entire pregnancy. Some days I vomited more than 100 times. I often slept on the bathroom floor because there was no point in trying to go to bed. I had to go to the ER frequently because I suffered from dehydration and the various things that happen when your body has no food or fluids. In my second pregnancy, I lost 40 pounds in about a week and my body began to break down in a process that my medical records calls metabolic acidosis.
In my third and final pregnancy, I was under the care of a new high risk doctor. The moment I tested positive, I was put on home healthcare. I was kept hydrated and alive with home IV therapy. The Mr. set his alarm clock throughout the night and woke up around the clock to put new IV fluid bags in my IV line. I took a cocktail of three drugs that they give cancer patients taking chemotherapy to try and stave off the vomiting. The frequency and fierceness of my vomiting was so severe that the placenta began at one point to separate from my uterine wall. I was put on bed rest and told to stop throwing up.
On February 3, 2006, I walked into the office of an ob/gyn who performed abortions and terminated my second pregnancy. Although we had every reason to believe that our baby was already dead inside me, the laws of the land required us to seek out an abortion because I could not wait the necessary time frame to confirm this fact; I would not survive.
I am grateful that I got to make that choice for myself and that I have been here to see my teenage daughter grow into the amazing young woman that she is today. I am grateful as well that I got to give birth to my second daughter and see her becoming the amazing young woman that she is today. I am only here, my second child is only here, because I was legally able to make the medical decisions I needed to make for myself. Pregnancy still kills women in multiple ways. In fact, the United States has a very high maternal mortality rate for an industrialized nation.
There are known and proven ways to decrease abortion rates. These ways include providing everyone access to comprehensive sex education, providing access to affordable birth control, providing affordable access to prenatal and general health care, raising women and children out of poverty, supporting education, providing access to affordable daycare, creating a culture that provides living wages and work/life balance. We can decrease abortion rates while still allowing women full body autonomy and the right to make their own medical decisions.
Hyperemesis Gravidarum research indicates that HG is genetic. I have two daughters. Their ability to make the health care decisions that are right for them is imperative to me. Their lives may literally depend on it.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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