The Limits of Choice: Three Women Share their Late Abortion Stories
Everyone has an opinion on abortion. Politicians are passing laws about it, organizations are busy funding it or advocating against it, women and people and families are making decisions about it.
With 22 reproductive healthcare restrictions passed to date, including bans on abortions after 20 weeks and now after a fetal heartbeat is detected, Ohio has joined a cohort of states taking a radical stance on what options should be available within reproductive healthcare (Read: Not abortion).
Everyone knows that these laws are intentionally unconstitutional as an attempt to get the issue back in front of the now-conservative-heavy Supreme Court for a likely overturn of Roe v Wade. And with the court’s most recent decision to uphold an Indiana statute requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains, that overturn seems as good as guaranteed.
Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, Kentucky — they’ve all got their own version of pretty much the same law with pretty much the same goal: ban all abortions by making the cutoff at a time before most even know they’re pregnant.
What these policies and laws haven’t made room for are intricacies. The complications, deviations, and circumstances one navigates to exercise “choice.” That’s the shortcoming of these laws — they establish a standard in an arena where there is no standard. Each pregnancy differs from the next, even for the same woman. Just like the rest of healthcare, there is no predictability about pregnancy.
CU has collected the stories of just three women (out of millions), each of whom has her own account of pregnancy, its complications, and how those complications led to their decision to terminate. And each experienced their own obstacles to obtaining that care, from deception from a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), to the objection to care from religiously affiliated doctors and hospitals, to the lack of funds needed to pursue their choice.
Despite these obstructions, they found a way.
Chelsea McIntosh – Cincinnati
Cincinnatians Chelsea and Ross McIntosh had been married two years. They’d been trying to get pregnant and had already miscarried once when Chelsea became pregnant again last year. Everything had been going well until Chelsea was 10 weeks along. That’s when signs of trouble resembling the first pregnancy started popping up. She was bleeding a lot and right around the same time.
“I was freaking out, because that’s when I miscarried the first time,” she says. “I was being seen frequently by my doctor.”
Her doctor told her everything was fine, but when they performed an ultrasound it took over an hour. The baby was so curled up, the ultrasound technician couldn’t get an accurate measurement. They decided to do a non-invasive prenatal screening test to get more information, which typically means a blood draw.
Doctor said, by the textbook, the baby likely had triploidy, a rare chromosomal abnormality in which fetuses have an extra set of chromosomes in their cells, making 69 instead of the regular 46. Chelsea was told she might lose the baby at some point during pregnancy, or it may be stillborn, or it could die within minutes or hours of birth due to poor lung development.
Not only that, but if she continued the pregnancy to term she would risk developing preeclampsia and choriocarcinoma, a rare cancer associated with abnormal pregnancies. On top of all of this, despite normally having a healthy blood pressure, Chelsea’s was high at 15 weeks.
High blood pressure during pregnancy puts extra stress on the heart and kidneys, and can lead to heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. Already being at risk of preeclampsia, which can impair kidney and liver function, Chelsea could have faced permanent kidney damage by continuing the pregnancy.
Chelsea said the risk to her own health and the non-viability of the pregnancy made the decision to terminate simple.
“Of course, if this is going to be a risk to my life and health and it’s not viable, we’re not continuing it,” she says. “Had it been viable — ‘the baby’s fine but you’re at risk’ — I would have done everything I could have done to continue the pregnancy. But that wasn’t the case, so I decided to terminate.”
Unbeknownst to Chelsea, that decision couldn’t be made in the hospital that diagnosed her and her baby, nor would her insurance cover the cost of the procedure. Had she been further along and experiencing the warning signs of severe preeclampsia, she could get a life-saving surgery to end the pregnancy, but only if her life was literally on the line.
“Because I wasn’t actively dying, there was nothing they could do,” she says. “They basically said, ‘you can call Planned Parenthood’ and left me to my own devices.”
Being a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Chelsea is familiar with the effects of severe preeclampsia: seizures, strokes, liver and kidney failure, all of which can cause death or leave a person with lifelong deficits.
“I’m 26. I hope I have a lot of years ahead of me to live,” Chelsea says. “I don’t want to cause damage to my organs that I need in order to live a healthy life.”
At 15 weeks, in December of 2018, Chelsea was able to get in for a dilation and extraction (D&E) procedure, the most common method of terminating pregnancies between 15 and 20 weeks. Induced labor, another more expensive option, was not available to Chelsea at the Planned Parenthood where she sought her abortion; it’s only possible in a hospital, and religiously-affiliated Ohio hospitals won’t assist abortions unless the parent carrying the fetus is dying.
“Maybe I would have liked to [induce labor], but I didn’t have a choice,” Chelsea says. “That’s also hurtful for women who have to go through ending a pregnancy they wanted. They wanted to hold their baby, wanted that mourning experience.”
Three days after Chelsea’s procedure, former governor John Kasich signed a ban on the D&E abortion method. In the days and weeks leading up to that, Chelsea was particularly cognizant of the politics surrounding the procedure she would need. She was hyper aware of the possibility that she could be forced to carry her nonviable pregnancy to term and endure the risks associated with that.
“That was clear and present in my mind — if I had to continue this no matter what, I might not have a choice — that was the scariest thing,” she says. “I would have been due in June of this year, and it does make me think a lot about where I would be right now if I were still pregnant. And that’s a very scary thought.”
In the months since seeking her abortion, Chelsea has told her story several times, testifying against abortion bans in the statehouse and even penning an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer. She says that in hearing her account, many have confronted the misconceptions surrounding later abortions, including the ease with which one can be obtained.
Still, Chelsea considers herself lucky. Lucky that she discovered her baby had triploidy before 20 weeks, well before many women find out and too late to get a legal abortion in Ohio.
“If I hadn’t pushed it with my doctor to let me see Maternal Fetal Medicine (MFM), I wouldn’t have known until after the anatomy scan at 20 weeks,” she says. “At that point I would have had to go to Colorado. People pay $10,000 cash and have to leave their state. That’s money I don’t have and money most don’t have and, at that point, the only option is to go forward and risk your life, whether you want to or not.”
From pro-lifers, Chelsea continues to hear age-old lines: “You should have kept your legs closed,” “Play with fire and get burned,” despite it being a wanted pregnancy with her husband of two years.
“It’s very easy to be like, ‘I support ending abortion because I’m pro-life.’ It’s very easy to trot that out and get people to support you for it,” Chelsea says. “What I would say is nobody, nobody loves my baby more than I did. And you can’t say that you care about my baby more than I did, because you don’t. Nobody does.”