The day I realized I was pregnant, I was volunteering in the library of our son’s elementary school. As I shelved books and chatted with the librarian, my face flushed, my breasts ached, and I just knew that what I’d suspected for a few days was true. Unreasonably, I thought the middle-aged librarian must know, too.
I wasn’t a kid, wasn’t single, wasn’t a victim of anything more sinister than a dumb miscalculation of my menstrual cycle. I was a married, 38-year-old mother of two, a part-time newspaper editor, and an active member of our church. We could have afforded another baby, probably. My husband and I both grew up in families of four kids, so three didn’t seem too big. But I didn’t want another pregnancy.
For one thing, I had a lousy track record when it came to late pregnancy. Our son was born at 32 weeks, weighing about 4 pounds and requiring CPR before he could take his first breath. When our daughter threatened to come early too, I was placed on bed rest for 10 weeks. Her delivery was complicated by high blood pressure and placenta problems and ended with a c-section.
I didn’t want to wait and see what could go wrong the third time.
For another, a few weeks earlier I had called the doctor because I had all the symptoms of a sinus infection. The doctor agreed to phone in a prescription for a sulfa drug but cautioned, “There’s no chance that you’re pregnant, is there?” No, of course not, I said. Later, I calculated that the start of the pregnancy coincided almost exactly with the start of the two-week course of antibiotics. I had also downed a couple of heavy-duty painkillers left over from dental surgery to treat a sore back. If I were to go through with a pregnancy now, my high-risk, “elderly” mother status would be elevated even further.
Simply put, I didn’t want to push my luck. I had two kids and a husband who all needed me. I didn’t want to risk my health and my family’s well-being. And this was two decades after Roe v. Wade. I wasn’t my mother, who had needed my father’s permission to get an abortion near the bitter tail end of their marriage. I wasn’t my grandmother, who would have risked her life to end a pregnancy. (I heard she did that once; anyone who could confirm it now is gone.) Unlike all the generations of women before me, I was guaranteed a safe choice.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. The nurse at my gynecologist’s office sounded surprisingly distant as she gave me two names. “We can’t actually refer you,” she said. “But there are a couple of places.” If this was legal and commonplace, I wondered, why did it feel just a little bit dirty?
I made the call and learned that we would have to arrive with $320 cash. I would have to be counseled before making the final decision. But I was able to get an appointment quickly, just days after the pregnancy was far enough along to be reliably detected with an at-home test.
The clinic was in a nondescript building not far from Route 1 in a suburb of Portland, Maine. Unlike the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Portland, it had no demonstrators parked outside with pictures of fetuses and signs asking any woman who approached to “save your baby.” We signed in, waited, then had a brief interview with a sympathetic worker.
“Have you considered adoption?” she asked.
“No, if we wanted to have another baby, we’d have it ourselves,” I answered.
My husband gently jogged my foggy brain: “She means putting this baby up for adoption.”
“Oh — no” I said, slightly embarrassed. I was an adult in the 1990s, not a high school sophomore in the 1960s. If I were going to go through a pregnancy, it would be to have another baby of our own. But that wasn’t happening now.
The doctor was gentle and efficient, and the procedure was over in little time. I remember about the same level of discomfort as a routine pelvic exam, followed by a bit of cramping. I thanked the doctor for persevering in an unpopular but necessary line of work. He gave a tired smile.
My husband was tender and caring, cushioning me from most of the harshness of the situation. But as he drove us the final bend toward home, I started to cry. Because I’d been pregnant before, I knew this was pregnancy hormones already at work. Alongside the relief and the certainty that we’d done the right thing sat the biological trigger that had been partially sprung — the trigger that enables mothers to go through months of discomfort and all kinds of pain for the sake of a baby they’re going to love.
If some self-righteous protester had confronted me outside the clinic, I would have been tempted to spit in their face. This was the definition of a personal decision, none of anybody else’s damn business. But there was no way around it entirely: We could have had kid number three and we didn’t. It was a sad business and always will be.
About the Author
Gail Burnett is a former newspaper editor who now teaches English to adult immigrants in Portland, Maine. She’s married and has two adult children.
Supporting Reproductive Rights
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