The first time I saw the heartbeats of my twins I was barely ten weeks pregnant. Because I’d gone through IVF to get pregnant, I got more ultrasounds than most new mothers, allowing me to meet them when they were just fuzzy little beans with a flicker in the middle. They were both boys.
Nicholas and Zachary.
What I didn’t know then was that twelve weeks later I’d be lying in a hospital bed nearly dead from preeclampsia with one of my sons already dead. Preeclampsia is a condition that effects about 5% of pregnancies, but not usually as early as I had it nor quite so life threatening, and it doesn’t often cause fetal demise. My doctors desperately tried to help, hoping beyond hope that for just another two weeks or so I could stay pregnant so my surviving son could cross the line into viability; he was so terribly small, you see, and wouldn’t survive at a mere 23 weeks.
It didn’t work. After a day and night in the hospital I was informed that I would likely die if I stayed pregnant and the only cure for preeclampsia was to terminate the pregnancy. My kidneys and liver had already shut down, and I was poised on the edge of seizure, coma, and death.
It was the worst day of my life.
But here’s the thing: I was lucky, even so.
I was lucky that my doctor happened to be one of only two doctors in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs that could perform a late term abortion – the medical procedure commonly known as an Intact Dilation and Extraction or Partial Birth Abortion. He did this instead of either inducing labor (because of my insanely high blood pressure, the stress of labor would have caused seizures and stroke, or killed me like Sybil on Downton Abbey) or doing an emergency c-section, which would have cost me my uterus at the very least, or killed me from hemorrhaging (again, the high blood pressure would have made me bleed furiously during a surgical procedure of any kind).
I was lucky that he was not only able, but willing to save me.
I was lucky that the procedure worked, I was cured, and a year later would be able to go through a much safer pregnancy with my marvelous, fabulous, and amazing daughter, now six and a half years old.
But I was also lucky because the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Ban was not yet in effect. If it had been, a panel of doctors and lawyers would had to have been convened, my case dissected and discussed at length, before my doctor would be allowed to perform the procedure that would save my life. How long would that have taken? Hours? A day? While my blood pressure continued to soar. Would I be able to type this after having profound seizures and a stroke? Would my daughter be here?
I’ve told this story a thousand times since 2004, and I have to keep telling it again and again, particularly when legislators – almost always men, almost never doctors, and almost never having heard of or seen a woman go through what I did (like those in Arkansas) – make rulings that put women like me at risk.
It’s easy to say, “But there’s a health exemption!” because in the Arkansas law there is – until 20 weeks, that is. But again, picture the lives of women being held in the balance while doctors and lawyers decide if those women’s lives are worth the legal risk to save.
It’s also easy to say, “Don’t worry, that law will never stand.” We thought that about the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Band, which was upheld and enforced beginning in 2005.
The truth is, there are nine states – including Arkansas – that ban the life saving procedure I had (termination after 20 weeks), with NO health exception. This means if I lived in Arkansas, I would be dead because my doctors did not have the legal right to save me.
The new Arkansas law – passed, by the way, with a senate and house override of a governor’s veto – is called the “Human Heartbeat Protection Act.”
Unless that heartbeat is a woman’s.
Many in the comments claim I’m making a false claim in the headline, but Arkansas has an older law on the books that bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, meaning I would still have been unable to have the procedure that saved my life without legal action to force the doctor’s hands – that combined with the federal ban on Partial Birth Abortions would have rendered me dead.