Today is Blog for Choice Day, marking the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The official topic is what action we’d most like to see the Obama Administration take on reproductive justice. My official response is brief because I think the first steps are pretty straightforward:
- Repeal the Mexico City policy aka the Global Gag Rule.
- Reverse the HHS “conscience clause” that allows health care providers to capriciously deny any service, including birth control (see the recent case of a nurse who removed an IUD against the patient’s will although the new rule is not yet even in effect!).
- Require age-appropriate comprehensive sex education in every school in America.
How’s that for a start?
But I’m not in an especially policy-wonky mood today, and to be honest, I’m not much worried about Obama dropping the ball on women’s health. He’s more likely to be too timid on the economy or Iraq.
Instead, I’d like to tell a story. It’s a morality tale with a somewhat unlikely lesson: that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can be profoundly pro-life. While I promise it’ll loop back to reproductive rights, the story begins with one man’s health crisis.
In August 2004, a family of four was vacationing in Berlin, Germany. One evening, the man complained of severe pain in his limbs. The pain rapidly grew worse. Within a few hours, the agony was so overwhelming that he could hardly speak, hardly walk. The woman woke the downstairs neighbor, asked him to guard the children, and rushed to the ER, where her husband was admitted.
Several days passed, and the husband was losing his ability to walk. His left hand was paralyzed and most of his right arm. He was in excruciating pain, 11 on a 10-point scale, no matter how much morphine he got. The doctors had no explanation, no name for what was happening. An Austrian neurologist was sanguine that he’d recover fully, but he gave no diagnosis and the paralysis continued to progress. Besides, the doctors’ attention was monopolized by a suspicious “Raumfordering,” whatever that was. (The doctors did rounds at 7 a.m. and wouldn’t answer phone inquiries, while the husband was too drugged to be a very reliable reporter, so the wife felt very much in the dark.)
The wife spent her nights googling various symptoms, wondering if it was Guillain-Barre (it wasn’t) or any number of other nerve disorders. (A few years later, a neurologist in Columbus gave the most plausible explanation: MADSAM, a disorder in which the the myelin of peripheral nerves is attacked and destroyed.) All that googling revealed just one thing: a Raumforderung is a mass. Her husband had a chest mass. A day or two later, the cancer diagnosis was confirmed.
About a week into this adventure, she realized her period was several days late.
She knew that if she were pregnant, she couldn’t go through with it. Her husband was lying in the hospital with cancer and paralysis. The hospital called her daily demanding an immediate cash payment of 10,000 euros (roughly $12,000) because they had no contracts with the family’s American insurer. She had two very young children, aged four and 14 months. Her mother was in California, an ocean and a continent away. Her best girlfriend in Berlin was helping with the kids but had to return to work again. She was drowning already; how could she stay afloat with the heavy fatigue and the 24/7 nausea that she vividly recalled from her two pregnancies?
Any abortion under those circumstances would have been a pro-life abortion. It would have been to protect the lives of her family – including her own – in a situation where time, energy, and money were already unbearably strained. (In fact, she had to appeal to her dad for money, and bless him, he wired what was needed.)
As you’ve probably surmised, that woman was me. As it turned out, I wasn’t pregnant. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t slept, and I’d lost close to ten pounds in just over a week. Anyone in a calm state of mind probably would’ve done the math and realized that the stress had made me late. I wasn’t calm, I was overwrought, and so nothing computed.
As sure as I felt about the decision I would have made, I also knew that ending a pregnancy would’ve been wrenchingly hard. Having already carried two babies, I knew how your heart expands along with your belly. However. From experience, too, I knew that time, energy and money aren’t so stretchy. They’re finite. And I was already beyond my limits.
Every woman who has a pregnancy scare has her own story to tell. I got lucky. My decision stayed in the realm of the hypothetical. For others, the scare will reveal an actual pregnancy, and they’ll have to choose. For some, the decision will be easy and obvious; for others, it will be agonizing. Most who choose abortion will see it as the lesser evil.
Women’s reasons for deciding to bear a child – or not – may not be evident to an outsider. Most of them won’t have a mate in the throes of a life-and-death health crisis. But many will have young children and feel utterly unable to cope with more. Many will have serious money worries. Some will have good reason to fear a parent or spouse. Each story is different.
And unless we know every constraint on a woman and every wish and fear in her heart, we pass judgment at her – and our – peril. Because sometimes, the most pro-life decision she can make will be to end an unplanned pregnancy and nurture those lives that already depend on her. Including her own.