Commentary: Real-world choices behind decision to have an abortion

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Pennsylvania legislators are debating whether to limit abortions from 25 weeks gestation to 20 weeks.

As I write, I'm gazing at a picture of my son taken shortly after he was born, his dark curls gracing his head. Like a lot of parents, I keep a picture of my child on my desk. More unusually, his ashes are there too, in a small lacquer box along with the stones, collected from precious places, that I put in his small hands to accompany him as he went from this world.

Right now, Pennsylvania legislators are debating whether to limit abortions from 25 weeks gestation to 20 weeks. Predictably, the vote is divided along ideological lines. But it's notable that the only Republican legislator to break ranks is a woman, who like me, had to make an excruciating choice about whether or not to have a late-term abortion for devastating medical reasons.

Perhaps part of problem with these deliberations is that most of our legislators have never faced the prospect of giving birth to a corpse, and they don't realize the destruction that coercive laws can leave in their wake.

I know what it's like to have the choice to have an abortion, and to have taken it. I also know what it's like to not have a choice to have an abortion. Perhaps my experiences can help explain why it is so important that Pennsylvania women maintain access to these procedures.

After five years of trying, Shawn and I finally conceived "Critter." But at the nine-week check, I could tell from the screen and from the tech's face that something was wrong. But Shawn didn't realize. His eyes shone with love, and I couldn't bear to tell him the reason the tech left the room; I wanted his joy to last forever.

His look of incredulity and hurt as the doctor explained the problem are forever seared in my memory. The doctor suggested getting an abortion before I miscarried. Several tortuous weeks passed before we learned the problem: trisomy 18, Edwards Syndrome. Usually fatal, it happens in one of 2,500 pregnancies.

We decided that by having an abortion sooner, we would truncate our suffering later. Doing so would give us more time to have a baby that would live - at 40 I was pushing against my biological clock. Consumed by grief, I entered the hospital at 16-weeks' gestation for an abortion. I awoke empty and listless with loss. But our desire for a child was intact.

A year later, we were overjoyed to learn that I was pregnant again. We passed the nine-week check with no problem and were hopeful about our future. However, at 20 weeks I learned I had very little amniotic fluid. One week of bed rest, then another, and it was even lower. My doctor said that without amniotic fluid, lungs don't develop and my baby would suffocate upon birth. More likely was that the umbilical cord would be crushed, and the baby would die preterm. If that happened, I would have to give birth to a corpse or have major surgery to remove it from my body.

I needed to be sure the doctor was correct before I made my decision, but the children's hospital with the necessary sophisticated technology could not fit me in until I was almost 25 weeks' pregnant - too late to have an impact on his lung development and too late to have an abortion.

When we finally learned that our son lacked kidneys altogether, the doctor said I could travel to Kansas, where the laws were different - this was before George Tiller was murdered for providing late-term abortions. Although financially able to do so (unlike many others), I couldn't bear the thought of boarding a plane pregnant and coming home empty. So I carried on with a damnable hope that they had been wrong.

Moments of despair and joy were interspersed in the weeks the pregnancy lasted. I sat in my car sobbing after a kind stranger at the grocery store gave me coupons for baby supplies. But then the strong kicks in my belly brought me peace, as I realized I was lucky to know such a profound love.

Instead of a baby shower, I planned my son's funeral. I drove to an industrial part of the city to a crematory recommended by a friend to make sure it wouldn't be a rusting, hulking smoke stack. I wasn't sure I was in the right place until I saw the shimmering waves of heat from the stack reflected on the pavement. There, the funeral director told me that there would be no charge, I suppose because it was such a violation of the natural course of life.

Our beloved son, Swift, was born at 40 weeks, and died in my arms a few moments later. My husband howled like an animal in pain, and handed him around to our family members who were present for his brief life. We examined him head to toe, weeping and exclaiming over his beauty. Then we surrendered him to the nurse who walked him to the cold basement.

Two days later I placed stones in his hands from the precious places we'd walked together, and my husband pushed the button that would engulf him in flames. The scars of those experiences and the many dark days that followed led to our divorce later.

Although nearly 10 years have passed, no amount of time will diminish the importance I place on the necessity of choice. Some things that are broken can't be fixed. Passing a law to limit abortion, however well intentioned, is cruel and won't help women get on with their own lives.

The decision to have an abortion is complicated, and should be left to a woman to decide how to proceed.

Anastasia Hudgins is a practicing anthropologist in Philadelphia. hudginsanastasia@gmail.com

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