January 22, 2015
When I was in the seventh grade, I wrote an essay about abortion—I took the pro-choice stance. It seemed like common sense. But as I listened to my 12-year-old classmates present their essays, I worried that I had it all wrong: Babies are miracles, they argued. If you don’t want to have a baby, just give it up for adoption.
Over two decades later, my feelings became more complicated when I got pregnant. At the 12-week ultrasound, I watched my seahorse of a daughter lift her hand to her mouth to suck on her fingers. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. As I rewatched the DVD of the ultrasound with my grandmother, she said, “Could you imagine? People want to kill babies who can suck on their fingers?” On the screen we watched her heart beat. We saw her brain. Her ribcage. “No,” I said, “I could never imagine.”
Today marks the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and though lawmakers failed to bring the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act—a bill that would ban virtually all abortions after a fetus is 20 weeks old—to the floor today because they couldn't get enough votes, they have plenty more in store, like tightening restrictions on federal funding, which they are pushing forward. As someone who recently gave birth, I don’t believe anyone should have the power to legislate women’s reproductive rights unless they have ever experienced—or tried to experience—pregnancy first hand.
I recognize that this is an impossible expectation, so let me just attempt to summarize some of the physical and emotional challenges that may arise during a pregnancy, based on my own.
When the fertilized egg implants itself into your uterus, some women feel sharp, menstrual cramp pains. In my case, it felt like a blunt object had slid up my vagina and scraped my abdomen from the inside.
Almost immediately after implantation, the nausea starts. Morning sickness is not just a friendly puke in the morning. The nausea was with me all day, underlying everything I did. Sometimes it was mild, and sometimes it rolled through my body in waves so strong all I could do was close my eyes and wait for it to pass. I couldn’t eat, but if I didn’t eat, I’d become nauseated. I only actually vomited four or five times, but for two solid months, the nausea remained. You might only feel sick for a few weeks. Or you might vomit multiple times a day. Or if you’re really unlucky, you might be sick throughout the duration of your pregnancy.
I experienced a level of exhaustion like I had never felt before, as my body flooded with hormones to build the placenta—a whole new organ—to nourish my fetus. You might find that you’ll fall asleep anywhere and everywhere: upright in chairs, at your desk, on the bus, in the car, the moment your body hits the couch. And you are only allowed one small cup of coffee a day.
And yet, you might find that it’s hard to stay asleep at night, despite the fact that you’re exhausted, because you have to pee at least every two hours, as I did. Hormones can give you hot flashes, dark splotches on your face and stomach, and pimples across your cheeks. Hormones make you constipated, and they also make you rush to the bathroom with diarrhea.
The reality of your situation, of how your life is about to change, may terrify you, whether or not you plan to parent the baby or place the baby for adoption.
Your entire body will be transformed. It begins with your breasts. They are so sensitive you will barely be able to touch them. I had to cup them in my hands as I tip-toed down the stairs. Your fingers, face, arms and feet may swell. Some women’s feet never go back to the size they once were. Your eyeballs may change shape—so contacts now feel weird. As your belly grows, your skin may stretch and break, scars of stretch marks blooming over your belly, down your thighs and breasts, across your buttocks. Many women have pubic symphysis, the muscles in their pubis stretched to breaking so that it hurts to walk. Loosening ligaments in your back and weight in your abdomen will mean your back will hurt at all times. The ligaments of your abdomen and chest may stretch and tear, permanently separating for the rest of your life. Your heart will beat faster, your blood volume increasing, space inside your body tightening so that you will constantly feel out of breath, unable to take a full, deep inhale because most of your oxygen goes to the fetus.
Most of your nutrients go to your fetus as well, like calcium, so that many women develop tooth decay and bleeding gums.
You might get numb, and tingling hands and feet. Many women get hemorrhoids. My legs felt taut, especially in the middle of the night—restless leg syndrome. Just one of the many reasons you can’t sleep, the others being the racing thoughts, and the pain in your body (and of course the peeing). You can’t sleep on your stomach. You can’t sleep on your back. You can only sleep on your left side because of a vein in your back that should not be compressed, which means your left hip will hurt every moment of every day. Your might get heartburn, and will only able to sleep upright in a recliner in your living room. You might, out of desperation, google which foods are making you feel this heat in your esophagus—as I did.
You will need a whole new wardrobe because none of your old clothes will fit.
As you get bigger, it will be harder to walk. Sometimes your baby will kick your internal organs, your ribs. You may get gestational diabetes. Your blood pressure may soar or drop. You may be put on best rest, at home, or in the hospital.
Toward the end of my pregnancy, I climbed the stairs on all fours, like a dog, and I stared at my bed, wondering how I could possibly get in.
And then, there’s labor. It’s common to have agonizing contractions for days. A contraction can be described as giant invisible hands giving your abdomen a twist, practice for pushing the baby out of the body. Your vagina will tear open or be sliced open with a knife. You may need a Caesarean section, which is major abdominal surgery that may take months to recover from. And there’s always the chance you can die during childbirth.
If you decide to place your baby for adoption, it would generally happen at this point, but this is not where your pregnancy ends.
You will bleed for a month or maybe more. You will need disposable underwear. A week after I gave birth, a blood clot the size and shape of a heart tumbled out of my vagina.
If you are raising the baby, and are breastfeeding, your nipples will bleed and crack and be open sores. I didn’t know what hurt more, my ripped-open vagina, my cracked nipples, or the knots in my neck from the anxiety and lack of sleep. I did not sleep more than two hours in a row for weeks because I was feeding my baby.
And if you choose not to breastfeed, your breasts will become engorged. My mother says the pain of engorgement was worse than labor. You will have to put ice packs on your breasts for days and it will be almost impossible to sleep. And milk might still drip from your breasts for weeks or months, even if you are not breastfeeding.
As the hormones leave your body, you might find that your bed sheets are drenched with sweat every night. You might collapse into fits of screaming and tears. You might feel helpless, not knowing how you are going to survive.
Your old clothes might not fit for months, even years, because the bones of your body still need to migrate back to where they came from. Hormones can mess with your metabolism one way or another, so that you either find yourself losing weight, or unable to.
Three or four months after I had my baby, my hair began to fall out in clumps in the shower. The hair in my bald spots has started to grow back, but I have a little halo of fuzz around my head.
Because of the awful and ridiculous maternity leave laws in the United States, you won’t know if you still have a job when or if you return. Or if you’ll get demoted. You won’t know how you can afford childcare.
You might find that you’ll pee every time you sneeze. And worry about your vagina, your widened, dry as the Sahara vagina, and how you will get your partner to not seek a new, younger, wetter vagina elsewhere.
To compare: A man has an orgasm, deposits a load of sperm into you, and then he is done. It is the most grandiose act of presumptuousness to opine, much less pass legislation, on a woman’s body and what she does or does not do with her pregnancy.
I don’t know what it’s like to place a baby for adoption. I can only imagine it’s even more difficult than everything I’ve just described. And I’ve never had an abortion. I imagine it’s not a decision any woman makes lightly, or ever forgets. It is a choice that can only be made by the woman who has to live with it. What I do know is that a pregnancy—any pregnancy—is something that will stay with a woman always, no matter the outcome.
So when I say I couldn’t imagine having an abortion, I mean, at 33, I desperately wanted and needed to have a baby—my baby. Another version of myself, at another point in my life, one in which I was not ready or not willing, may have made a different decision.
Our society is constantly exercising authority over women’s bodies: over sex, reproduction, whether or not we should or can have epidurals, or we should or shouldn't breastfeed—everything. We’re all guilty of it. But the answer is and should always be: It’s each woman’s choice. No one, least of all the government, has the right to judge her, or shame her, or prosecute her. We have to respect her, support her, mind our own business. And get our laws off of her, and all women’s bodies.