Not long ago, in a pre-Covid world, I had an abortion.
I am certainly not the first clergy person to terminate a pregnancy, nor am I first to share a personal reflection on the topic. But perhaps not since the 1970s have real-life stories of abortion felt so significant, so illuminating, so necessary to hear.
In the midst of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination hearings — which are being held while early voting for a critical election is well underway — hard-fought reproductive rights in America hang by a thread. This moment requires each of us to listen to the millions of women who’ve experienced abortion first-hand.
Our sacred stories have the power to humanize an act of healthcare that’s so often vilified and misrepresented by others, particularly those purporting to represent their faith. So if my story can add just a small amount of weight to a much greater tapestry of truth, then consider this one of the most sacred offerings I could make in a lifetime.
Here’s where our story begins: My husband and I are the proud parents of a healthy, beautiful boy who is nearly 5 years old. For some time that boy (and his parents) longed to expand our family by at least one more. Yet, for years after our son’s arrival, it seemed there were nothing but obstacles on our path to growing a family. We faced multiple health challenges, an interstate move, job transitions, and financial strain brought on by all of the above.
Then, just when we thought things had settled down a bit — just when we finally felt “ready” — well, the joke was on us. We couldn’t get pregnant. Month after month, cycle after cycle, our long-awaited dream of a healthy baby slipped further and further away.
But then, one morning in early December, those two little lines appeared like a telepathic message from our future selves.
You finally got it right, the tiny piece of plastic said.
We were ecstatic — and, of course, very anxious. While my first pregnancy had been mostly free of complications, our circle of friends, family, and congregants contains dozens of stories of loss: miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death. We were painfully aware of what could possibly go wrong.
And so, we carefully yet thoughtfully forged ahead. We told almost no one I was pregnant. I purchased pants with forgiving waistlines and my husband quietly planned for parental leave come August. I had a handful of doctor’s appointments and everything seemed fine — until it wasn’t.
The night before my 12-week ultrasound, a doctor I did not know left a voicemail sharing I “had to call her back immediately.” The instant I heard her words — shared in such a cold, indifferent manner — my heart started racing.
It turned out my bloodwork was, in her words, “a total mess.” Nothing looked right, she said, but she wasn’t sure if it was laboratory error or the sad reality of a not-ideal pregnancy.
We found out the next morning it was the latter.
A “non-viable pregnancy” is what they called it. But during the ultrasound at my doctor’s office, I just couldn’t believe it. I stared at the screen, which showed a tiny human fluttering around inside me, waving its arms. I thought, That little being is non-viable? It just didn’t seem plausible.
We stayed in that office for hours talking with doctors, lab technicians, a genetic counselor, and a handful of nurses whose faces grew blurry through my tears. They all assured us, compassionately, that this pregnancy would come to an end long before my due date. They offered timelines, research, statistics. And they reminded us what we already knew to be true: This unfortunate reality was far more common than any of us cared to admit.
At one point, a nurse brought us to the lobby as they prepared an exam room; we’d elected to do a CVS (chorionic villus sampling) to evaluate the fetal tissue. Sitting there were a half dozen pregnant women stroking round, healthy bellies, trying hard to avoid the manic-looking lady with snot pouring out her nose, mascara running down her face, desperately attempting to stifle her sobs.
I prayed that none of them was a congregant.
Our ultrasound was the day before my 36th birthday. In Judaism, the number 36 represents “chai” — life — two times over. “Double chai” = double life. Two full lives. An abundance of blessing.
I found it particularly cruel that on the eve of this auspicious birthday a second life was growing inside me — but it would never, ever breathe or walk or exist in this world on its own. This potential second life would meet its end long before it should, and that felt absolutely horrible.
We left the ultrasound and immediately called my father, a physician, to seek his guidance and comfort. Next, we called my family doctor for the same. By the end of the day, we’d spoken to four more doctors — two OB/GYNs and two general practitioners — in an effort to affirm what was emerging as our truth: We needed to terminate this pregnancy. Their voices were unanimous. And, unlike the first doctor with whom I’d spoken the night prior, they each recognized our profound sense of heartbreak. They allowed — no, encouraged — our tears, our shock, and our grief.
And so the following day — yes, my 36th birthday — it finally clicked into place that this was real. I had to face it. I needed to schedule a D&C (dilation and curettage) surgery.
If I didn’t — if I chose instead to let nature run its course — I was told I would be putting my own life at risk. I would open myself to numerous physical complications and unlimited emotional anguish. As a survivor of severe postpartum depression, it dawned on me that choosing not to have an abortion might potentially leave my son without a mother.
And so, I chose life. My life. My son’s and my husband’s lives. Our family’s collective life. I took the science being offered me and I listened. As painful as it was, and as heartbroken as I felt, I listened. I recalled my own education, from adolescence up through rabbinical school, on Judaism’s nuanced approach to abortion. In the Mishnah, our post-biblical pre-Talmudic sacred text, we read: “If a woman is in hard labor [that threatens her life]… her life takes precedence over its life.” In other words, the health and well-being of the mother is of utmost importance, even through childbirth.
While entire denominations, Jewish communities, and religious leaders take varied approaches to the topic of abortion, for a wide majority of us there exists one universal, shared truth: Jewish tradition — my faith — honors a woman’s right to choose.
My faith honors my right to choose my future.
The truth is, women have abortions. All types of women — not just 36-year-old married Jewish women with health insurance trying for their second child. Women who are younger have abortions, so do women who are older. Women in relationships have abortions, and so do those who are single. Women who want to have children have abortions, and women who do not want children have abortions. Religious women have abortions, secular women have abortions, and women who are still figuring out the whole “faith” thing have abortions, too. Women with means have abortions as do women living in poverty. Women in red states, women in blue states, and women of all colors and shapes and traditions across the globe — we all have abortions.
At this unprecedented moment, there is so much about the future we do not know. There is so much uncertainty, about everything from the makeup of the Supreme Court, to who will inhabit the White House, to the full impact of Covid-19, to effects of our rapidly changing climate, to the nature of the steps toward legitimate racial justice in America.
There is so much unknown, and it can be overwhelming. But here’s one thing I am certain of: Every single one of us deserves access to safe, legal abortions. Anything less is unacceptable. Anything less is the opposite of “pro-life.” And we all deserve a right to life. My faith tells me so.
Header image via GeorgePeters/Getty Images