Medical Examiner

Women Who Had Abortions After 22 Weeks Explain the Importance of Colorado’s Law

Once again, the state with one of the least restrictive abortion policies in the country is voting on whether to change that.

A Colorado voting ballot shows Prop 115, with certain words highlighted.
Slate

Every year, on the anniversary of my first baby’s death, I write a thank-you card to Dr. Warren Hern, the physician who ended her life. Then I mail it to Boulder Abortion Clinic, 1,200 miles from my home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My baby was diagnosed with an incurable brain abnormality called lissencephaly when I was 28 weeks pregnant, well past the 24-week limit on abortions in Michigan.* So her father and I decided, in our first and most important parenting decision to date, that abortion was the most loving choice, and we made the 1,200-mile journey ourselves.

Colorado is one of just seven states in the U.S. that currently allow women to access abortion care after 22 weeks of pregnancy, for whatever reason. Its stance has meant that women in other states with more restrictive limitations often travel to Colorado for care, just like I did. Coloradans have voted on whether to maintain this right in the last three presidential election years, and they will do so again this year—Proposition 115 seeks to ban abortions after 22 weeks unless the mother’s life is directly threatened. While such propositions have been rejected in the previous three cycles, they only require a simple majority to pass. Prop 115 is polling about 50-50.

I wrote about my decision to get an abortion at 28 weeks, and the women that decision connected me to, for Slate last year. I have met many bereaved parents like me in the support group Ending a Wanted Pregnancy. Several dozen of us traveled to Boulder Abortion Clinic and were seen by Hern. In light of the Colorado vote, we compiled the letter below to show our gratitude. These women live in California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Our stories are all different, but we share at least two things: We will grieve the babies we lost forever, and we will forever be grateful we had access to the later abortion care that Coloradans now hold in the balance.

Dear Dr. Hern,

Thank you for being there when our own doctors turned us away.

I don’t even know how to begin to thank you for taking care of me after I was turned away from my doctor in a supposedly pro-choice state. It was shocking and scary to learn my pregnancy was no longer healthy. I couldn’t understand how our doctors could share that information, understand the situation, include abortion care as one possible treatment, and then just … send me away. (Erika)

I believe in fates worse than death, among them violent medical resuscitation without hope of recovery. Most physicians refuse this kind of invasive life-extending treatment for themselves, but because my baby Laurel would be an infant, and because her condition, which doctors assured me would kill her half a dozen different ways, was not legally, politically “fatal,” our hospital would deny her the right to die naturally. (Kate)

My doctors in Iowa told me they felt “uncomfortable” with me continuing my pregnancy; they listed off spine, heart, brain, and kidney defects while showing me vivid ultrasound images of my baby being crushed inside of me. Yet, they refused to help me and my baby. (Leah)

Thank you for picking up the phone. For saying, “Yes, we can help you.” Thank you for risking your life to be there when nobody else would.

Your clinic was my first call when I realized that I had to make the heartbreaking decision to say goodbye to our baby boy. I could barely get through a full sentence without taking a minute to breathe and cry. Your receptionist was the kindest person I ever could have imagined. Ultimately you let me know that, given the nature of our complications, it would be best to seek services closer to our home. Even though I did not end up visiting your clinic, I am forever grateful that you were the first one I called because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone in finding help. (Jeni)

Twenty-one weeks into my pregnancy, I called your office. I was terrified, afraid that I would hear, “I am sorry you are faced with T21.” I wasn’t sorry. I wanted that baby with Down syndrome, but my country has not given me the tools to raise my first child with T21. I’ve had to scrounge for those tools and fight. I am sorry for that fight, but not for Down syndrome. Instead, your counselor Deb said, “Remember, this is out of love.” And I can’t say I knew it would be OK, but I knew that I had found the right people to help me move through the darkness. You understood that each story is unique and complex and mine would be no different. Out of love. (L.S.)

There was no other clinic to call. Too “viable” for California. Too “late” for New Mexico. Maryland just happened to be closed that week and I had no weeks to spare. (Kate)

When our doctors detected signs of abnormal brain development right at the 24-week limit, they offered to perform an abortion themselves.* They assured us we would be making the same choice as a majority of parents who receive a poor prenatal diagnosis. But my baby didn’t have a diagnosis yet. There was still a good chance her impairments might be mild to moderate. We knew she would likely be disabled, but thought she could have a decent life. We said no to the abortion then. By the time we got her diagnosis, there were only four clinics they knew of to refer us to. Boulder Abortion Clinic was closest. (Margot)

Thank you for your unfailing compassion through the deaths of our babies. Every person at your clinic treated every one of us with care, dignity, and scrupulous attention to our safety. Thank you for valuing our lives.

I had never wanted to be in a doctor’s office less than I wanted to be in yours, but I have never received better health care than I did from you and your staff. You are one of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever encountered. (R.J.)

Thank you for treating me with compassion and respect during what was, without a doubt, the worst days of my life. Thank you for all the hardships and sacrifices you have endured as you have provided women from all over the world with the health care they deserve. You are my hero and I most definitely would not be living the life I am today without you. (H.J.)

Thank you for that moment, when I was grieving in a way I have never grieved before. You held my hand in silence while I cried. Thank you for the tissues you handed me and the space you gave me. Thank you for making me feel safe and taken care of by surrounding yourself with the most compassionate staff I’ve ever encountered, who show up to work past constant protesters, to walk women through what is often the most difficult journey of their lives. Thank you for dedicating your life to the knowledge of how to safely and effectively perform an abortion under the most difficult and complex of circumstances. When you held my hand that day, I knew it wasn’t because you felt sorry for me. It was because you knew my strength. Thank you for showing women, when they feel at their weakest, that they are actually evolving into a stronger version of themselves. (L.S.)

Thank you for doing everything in your power to help us survive the loss of our babies physically and psychologically intact.

I didn’t know, when I boarded that plane, if I was doing something safe or legal. I did not ask what I was afraid to know. I was willing to take any risk not to face the hell on Earth offered up for me and my daughter here at home. How easy it would be to die of my own desperation. How relieved I was to find myself in your legal, ethical, skilled, compassionate care. (Kate)

In May of 2019, you were over 80 years old during my termination. When I came to your clinic just over 25 weeks pregnant, I was petrified and didn’t know if I’d survive. But you keep women safe. You and your young doctor-in-training treated me with kindness, dignity, and compassion. Both of you gave me and my son the health care we deserved as humans. I was a woman carrying a baby incompatible with life. A few days earlier, I wasn’t even considered human enough to receive health care in my own state of Iowa. I’ll never forget that you fought for me while my state abandoned me. (Leah)

Your clinic has a pamphlet that says (if I remember correctly), “YOU ARE A GOOD PERSON,” in bold letters on green paper. When I am tired, or sad, or weary of the constant fight for abortion rights in this country, I think about that pamphlet. I think about your life and your unflagging determination, your willingness to put your safety and your family’s safety on the line to state unequivocally that women do not forfeit the right to control their own bodies simply because they are pregnant. You and your staff risk your lives every day to provide care to those of us whom governments and doctors have failed. I know you would scoff at the label, but this daily act of showing up for others, this is what it means to be a hero. (Tara)

Thank you for the many still-unfolding gifts of healing.

Your acts of loving kindness helped me on my journey. Because the wound from our loss was not as deep and jagged as it could have been, it allowed for better healing and a faster recovery. As a result, we now have a healthy baby girl, Isadora. While she in no way replaces the child we had to let go, we have infinite gratitude for both of our daughters, for what they have taught us, and for what they will teach us yet. (Kelly)

Now that we have living children, I always include a photograph of them in the letter I send each year to you: Please, behold the luminous siblings of the baby whose lifeless body I birthed into your big, thick-knuckled hands five years ago, today. Every good thing in my life is thanks to you. (Margot)

When I called to ask you if it was OK to share my abortion story publicly, if you wanted me to maybe edit out some of what I would say about the clinic, you said, “Erika, you do not ask anyone permission to tell your story. It is your story and you tell it the way you want to.” And I did. And continue to. These are dark times for people who care about self-determination, autonomy, and the separation of church and state. When I am feeling particularly helpless, I think of you and everyone at Boulder Abortion Clinic showing up every day for your patients. Then I dry my tears and keep working. (Erika)

No one likes hearing our stories, but we will keep telling them until all families have access to the medical autonomy and human dignity you ensured for us and our children. Thank you for giving us everything you have. Thank you for everything we have.

With love and gratitude,
Margot Finn from Michigan, 2014
Kate Carson from Massachusetts, 2012
Erika Christensen from New York, 2016
Tara Mendola from Massachusetts, 2017
Zoe from New York, 2017
Kelly Wolff from Wisconsin, 2018
Leah Huff from Iowa, 2019
Jeni Frudden from California, 2020
R.J. from North Carolina, 2019
H.J. from South Dakota, 2019
L.S. from Colorado, 2020

Correction, Nov. 10, 2020: This story originally stated that Michigan bans abortions after 22 weeks. The state does so after 24 weeks.