On April 11, 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed Bill No. 23, The Human Rights and Heartbeat Protection Act amidst applause and laughter and a propaganda baby poised for a photo-op on her mother’s hip.
If passed, this bill, like many others being proposed around the country, will essentially ban abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat—which can be detected as early as six weeks—before many women even know they’re pregnant.
Even though the bill makes exceptions for a “medical emergency” or “medical necessity,” the ban does not cover pregnancies resulting from sexual assault or consider the mental health of the woman.
On July 7, 2011, I had an abortion. I remember crossing the parking lot, sweat trickling down my spine as I clung to my husband. The protestors’ angry screams and haunting images followed me into the cold medical facility. I was fifteen weeks pregnant with my daughter. Her name was Scarlett. At ten weeks, my doctor detected a “strong” heartbeat. At twelve weeks, he told us that our daughter was severely deformed. Her heart was beating outside her chest; her other internal organs, exposed and vulnerable. After consulting two high-risk doctors, my husband and I decided to terminate the pregnancy. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was my decision to make.
I grew up in a Christian home and went to Catholic schools. I once believed abortion was wrong. I even remember volunteering for a pro-life event hosted in some theater downtown. I wore a shirt that read, “A life is a life no matter how small. -Dr. Seuss.” The shirt was blue; it has since been thrown away. Then, one day, I was faced with a decision I never thought I’d make.
Now, in the harsh light of day, I realize how hollow this seems. Was I ignorant? Was I a hypocrite? Does my change of heart compensate for the countless women that my archaic, patriarchal, and illogical moral beliefs once helped to oppress? I am certain that before my abortion, I contributed to the oppression of women. When I walked into the chilly building—saline, sanitized—I felt hot with shame, the burning glare of the protesters drifting inside with me. I remember sitting in the waiting room, eyes cast down among a Red Sea of downcast eyes. If we didn’t see each other, maybe we could pretend that no one else saw us, either. We were all scared. Maybe the lonely fear I imagined in others was just a way for me to assuage my own fear and guilt.
Abortions are expensive. I bet no one tells you that. I paid $1,000 for mine. Despite my daughter’s inevitable death, my insurance would not pay for the procedure because a heartbeat had been detected. Oh, but I could have spent nine months carrying a child who would die as soon as air touched her heart—and deliver my child for free. They would cover that. Where is the mother’s interest in that? Nine months of questions like “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” and my favorite: “Can I feel your tummy?” Nine months of congratulations. Nine months of kicks. Nine months of torture.
After my intake, I remember the slew of questions the nurse asked me. What halted me in my tracks was this: “Do you want to be awake for the procedure? If the doctor administers anesthesia, it will cost an additional $200.” I stared at her dumbfounded. Of course I didn’t want to be awake, who would? But I also knew that we really couldn’t afford an additional $200. I was a full-time student, and my husband didn’t make much money. I started to say that I would forgo the anesthesia, but my husband squeezed my hand. I didn’t want to see those images I had seen walking in from the parking lot. I nodded and consented to anesthesia. To this day, my heart breaks for those women who can’t afford it, who have to decline anesthesia.
The morning before my abortion, I was afraid, anxious, disgusted—but I was also hopeful. I felt hope that my daughter might die inside me, hope that I wouldn’t have to make the choice. Did you know that in Ohio, you have to wait 24 hours to get an abortion—that it’s a two-day affair? You know, so that women can really think things through? We are irrational creatures, you see; our emotions cloud our judgment. Or so they say. We can’t possibly know what is best for our bodies.
On the day that I had my intake at the abortion clinic, I had another appointment across town to have an amniocentesis: a procedure where a doctor uses a large needle to extract amniotic fluid from the uterus for further genetic testing. Did you know that an amniocentesis carries a risk of 0.1-0.3% chance of miscarriage? I did. But to me, this offered some measure of hope, not simply risk. I hoped that I would miscarry my daughter. I hoped that she would die, and not just for Scarlett’s sake (for her, the birth would be painful, and she would suffer), but also for my own. I didn’t want to go back to the abortion clinic. I didn’t want to see those protestors ever again. I didn’t want to have to make the painful decision to terminate my pregnancy. I didn’t want to spend another second pregnant. I wanted it to be over.
I remember lying on a table, this one plush and padded, not sterile steel. The doctor didn’t numb me, but I wish he had. He pierced my belly five times with a long sharp needle, straight into my uterus. I wanted him to stop. But as tears trickled down my cheek, I wiped them away so he wouldn’t see, so he wouldn’t stop. Despite the repeated jabs of the needle, the doctor couldn’t get the fluid. He told me he normally doesn’t try more than two punctures, but that he had hoped to give us answers. He did not.
Before he left, the doctor said that if my husband could get a tissue sample from the clinic and bring it to the hospital, he might be able to give us answers. I wondered why he didn’t suggest this before he stabbed me repeatedly, but I told myself it would be worth it, if she would only die. The irony isn’t lost on me: I remember how much I had judged other women for terminating their pregnancies, yet here I was praying for my daughter to die.
We went home that day and with each cramp, my hope rose again—false.
The abortion took a few hours, followed by days of disorientation. Shortly after I woke up from the procedure, my husband left the clinic carrying a piece of my daughter in a small cardboard box. How could it be so simple, I wondered. Although I felt dazed, more than anything else, I felt relief. My mom walked the halls with me as blood poured out of me into a diaper—to be a woman comes with a million indecencies. My husband delivered the tissue sample to our specialist and picked me up from the clinic. He told the protestors on the way out to fuck off. I hope they did.
When I got home, I stripped naked and took a scalding hot shower. I wanted to scour away the memories. My body ached, and I slumped into a ball on the floor of the shower, I cried and watched the blood drain away in sanguine tendrils. Good bye.
Years later, I no longer feel shame; I feel rage. Although they never asked about my experiences or those of countless other women, Ohio legislators believe they should dictate women’s rights and control women’s bodies.
In 2019, the memoir of Abby Johnson—a former Planned Parenthood employee turned pro-life crusader—was made into a film. Unplanned has been condemned for its inaccurate portrayal of abortion. As one doctor begins to perform an abortion, he quips, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Unplanned manipulates women’s pain. When I had my abortion nine years ago, the doctor counseled me at length. She said that abortions, especially at my daughter’s gestational age, were safer than childbirth. In the film, one patient cries, “It hurts! It hurts!” as a callous nurse retorts, “You want it done, don’t you?” As if women who visit abortion clinics have limitless options.
even more alarming than these inaccuracies is the film’s assertion that abortion providers will risk anything, even a patient’s life, to keep the money coming in. This is the true crux of the film—that abortion is unsafe—and it comes into focus when Johnson helps a friend’s teenage daughter terminate a pregnancy … When the doctor botches the abortion by perforating the girl’s uterus—something the audience learns through an announcement from the clinic director—Johnson rushes in to see what’s wrong and is shoved out the way. She wants to call an ambulance, but the director refuses: “No, we never do that,” she says, arguing that all the protesters outside will see and it will look bad.
However, the film’s most alarming moment comes at the very end. In response to the protestors who stand outside abortion clinics, Johnson claims, “It works.” Protesting outside abortion clinics absolutely doesn’t work. What these protestors do—what this film does—is perpetuate a culture that stigmatizes abortion and dehumanizes women. The government, the insurance companies, the media, the protestors, our culture, all of it, fail women.
Recently, I went to a bible study class, and the first passage we read began: “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Gah, I can’t. I just can’t.
The passage from Luke continues, “[w]hen Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41-42). After reading the passage out loud, we were instructed to pick a word that stood out to us and explain why. A man, a nice guy, I suppose, I don’t really know him, explained that “fruit” stood out to him because fruit is a positive image and children should be celebrated. I found his assertion that “fruit” was “a positive image” interesting. I can count several myths where fruit figuratively screwed women over. What would he say to the myth of Persephone and that pomegranate seed? Or better yet, Adam and Eve? Why yes, snake. Thank you. If anything, symbolic representations of fruit are complex and contradictory. Pregnancy, despite how it is portrayed in the Bible, is not always a joyous occasion.
I am reminded of Lauren Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds,” which begins in France during World War II. A group of journalists—all men except one woman, Bern—flees the approaching Germans. During their escape across the French countryside, they encounter a German sympathizer, Nicolas. He offers the group provisions and gas to aid in their escape to Bordeaux on one condition: that Bern sleeps with him for one night. Disgusted and irate, the journalists adamantly refuse, so Nicolas has his two sons imprison the party in a barn while they wait for the Germans to come.
Quickly, the resolve of the male journalists begins to disintegrate, and with hunger gnawing at their bones and the sounds of Nazis flying above, the men begin to turn on Bern. Frank, one of the male journalists, thinks, “Damn Bern. She’s starting to get on his nerves. Frankly, in the light of day, he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. She’d slept with everyone and his brother, so why one more peasant meant anything at all, he didn’t know. Phony, prissy bitch.” Soon, all of the men begin to talk about Bern’s frequent and numerous, sexual escapades, until every man turns against her and willingly offers her up to Nicolas like a piece of fine meat. Buying their freedom, Bern returns from the house, a shadowy ghost.
Again, I turn to the Bible: “The owner of the house went out to them and said, ‘No, my brothers; do not be so wicked. Since this man is my guest, do not commit this crime. Rather let me bring out my maiden daughter or his concubine. Ravish them, or do whatever you want with them; but against the man you must not commit this wanton crime’” (Judges 19:23-24).
I am a woman, and yet I will never be seen as a whole, complex human being. I am merely a vessel, an incubator; my sole role as a woman can only ever be to bear children and to raise them. We can dispose of fertilized eggs in science labs and fertility clinics that disproportionately serve middle-class white families, but abortions!? Never!
Almost daily I drive by a pro-life billboard or read a pro-life post on Facebook. The messages range from pictorially “innocent”—a sleeping baby in a mother’s arms with the caption underneath, “Believe in miracles”—to incendiary, all of which are uninformed. After Mike DeWine signed Bill No. 23, my Facebook feed was flooded with responses and reactions. Before I unplugged for several days, one of my friends posted: “The 7th state to get with the program!!!! Super proud to be an Ohioan today!!! #savethebabies #abortionismurder #alwaysotheroptions #heartbeatbill.” Most people might not suspect that I—a mother of two, a soccer coach, and a Catholic—am adamantly pro-choice, let alone that I have had an abortion.
I don’t often share this part of myself. For a long time, as I said before, I was ashamed. I spent years remembering the angry cries of the protesters and visualizing my daughter’s dismembered body. How can I be anything but a monster? I spent years trying to confront this side of me, but each attempt inevitably dissolved into tears. Eventually, I realized that I had a choice: I could choose the self-righteous road, which many of us choose—well I am different; I’m not like those women—or I could realize that I am exactly like those women. We made a choice where no good choices existed. Every woman who walks into an abortion clinic has a story, and mine is but one of many. These women are brave and strong—they are warriors; they are my heroes. Like me, they walked across a parking lot, surrounded by an angry throng of men and women who think they are protecting human life but instead are devaluing the lives of women and creating long-lasting sites of trauma.
It doesn’t work. It really doesn’t. Those women who turned and left the abortion clinic, did anyone follow them? Does anyone know how they are doing now? Does anyone care?
Why can’t we trust women to choose for themselves? If the Heartbeat Bill and others like it survive (thankfully, U.S District. Judge Michael Barret blocked Ohio’s bill on July 3, 2019) many women will suffer. As a woman and as a mother of a daughter, I implore women across the country to speak out. Even if you are personally pro-life, that doesn’t mean that you cannot uphold the choice—and the human rights—of other women.
Samantha Doggett is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and MA candidate in English Literature at Wright State University.