Susan had a choice: Wait two weeks for her unborn child to grow to viability while risking dire health consequences herself or have a late-term abortion. With her kidneys failing and her blood pressure soaring, her husband implored her to save her own life. The baby—a boy—was not developed enough to survive. So she was forced to make what she describes as the “most painful decision” of her life. She chose the abortion.
Donald Trump has no idea what that feels like, and he doesn’t seem to care to learn.
During the final presidential debate last week, the Republican candidate demonstrated a startling lack of empathy for women who’ve had late-term abortions and a fundamental ignorance of when and why these procedures are administered. Many watching the political jousting at home were blown away by Trump’s assertion that late-term abortion providers will “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day.”
This level of ignorance would be almost funny if not for the possibility that the lives of women and children could soon be in his hands. And while polls suggest a Trump presidency is less likely, his words have already damaged the women and their partners who’ve been forced to make this choice. In reality, a late-term abortion is a straightforward medical procedure performed in a doctor’s office. And though they received prominent mention in the final debate, they’re a small percentage of all abortions—in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 7.2% of abortions were performed on women who were between 14 and 20 weeks pregnant and just 1.3% of abortions were performed on women more than 21 weeks.
As with many issues, candidates often talk about late-term abortion like everyone knows exactly what they mean. But because of the kind of violent language Trump used to the describe the procedure, many Americans have a skewed perception of it. A late-term abortion is not, in fact, performed days before the due date. The term typically refers to an abortion performed after a woman’s first trimester. Many states set a cut-off week, after which an abortion becomes illegal. Texas, for example, has a 20-week cut-off, and Massachusetts’s is 24 weeks. While a first-trimester abortion can be performed either via a pill or a short procedure, a late-term abortion is a bit more involved. Through a procedure known as dilation and evacuation—D and E for short—the cervix is slowly stretched open, and the uterus is emptied using medical instruments and a suction machine. Sometimes a shot is administered through the woman’s stomach before the D and E to make sure the fetus’s heart has stopped. It’s far from the gruesome procedure described by anti-abortion advocates.
Trump also used the term “partial birth abortion” to describe late-term abortions, vowing to ban this lurid-sounding procedure. In reality, “partial birth abortion” is a fear-inducing term for something that doesn’t actually exist. A baby can be born or aborted—there is no in between. If the baby is carried to term, it is delivered via natural birth or C-section. If it is aborted, it’s done via one of the previously mentioned methods.
While the “rip” comment didn’t sit well with any pro-choice voters, it was especially difficult for women who’ve experienced the trauma of a late-term abortion. The graphic language made my stomach turn, and in the moment, all I could think was, “What must these women be feeling right now?” In her response to her opponent, Hillary Clinton mentioned that she knew and had spoken with women who’ve gone through this—and so I endeavored to do the same.
After my conversations with four of these women, all of whom live in states where late-term abortion is legal to a certain point, I learned that Trump’s comments triggered post-traumatic stress and dredged up heartbreaking memories.
In a phone conversation with Susan, who requested that I only use her first name and whose story I mentioned above, she remarked how “he used the most inflammatory language possible” to describe her “horrible, heartbreaking, devastating experience.” But she said she also couldn’t help but marvel at his ignorance. “In a weird way, I wanted to laugh,” she said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ What is an abortion three days before the due day? It doesn’t even exist.”
When the Californian was asked what she’d say to Trump, given the chance to discuss abortion with him, she said she had a few questions. “Could you give me a medical terminology for ‘ripping’? What do you mean by ‘ripping’? Ripping right at the due date—that’s a healthy viable baby!”
Susan has had many years to meditate on her abortion and the impact it’s had on her life. The now-57-year-old terminated her pregnancy in 1989 during the 26th week after a doctor’s visit revealed her blood pressure was off the charts and her kidneys had effectively shut down. She was diagnosed with a condition called preeclampsia. If the doctor induced labor, there was a chance both mother and child would not survive. If they waited two more weeks, there was a chance Susan would have a stroke or worse, and the child would be a micro preemie with severe health complications. She was forced to make one of the most important decisions of her life moments after seeing her baby boy on the monitor, swirling inside her visibly-pregnant stomach. Mind clouded with grief, Susan signed the paperwork, and the doctor went ahead with the surgical abortion.
“It was horrible,” she said. She explained how the baby’s heart was stopped with an injection and then removed via D and E, the procedure explained above. One minute she was pregnant, the next, she was not. But in a way, she still considers herself fortunate. “If this was not law, if this was not legal, I would be dead or in jail. The fact that I was able to get through it, recover physically, and have more children,” proved to her that having a choice in matters of reproductive health is the only choice.
She sees the real heroes in our country’s body wars not as the lawmakers who make abortions possible but the doctors who perform these procedures. Susan remembers visiting her doctor’s office shortly after her abortion for a checkup. The space was wallpapered with photos of happy, healthy babies smiling back at her—all babies who had been born to mothers who’d previously had abortions. It gave her hope that she’d be able to add a photo or two of her own to that wall. One year later, she was pregnant again, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. And another one after that.
“He saved my life,” she said of her doctor, “and he made it so I could go on.”
Trump’s comments didn’t just make Elise angry—they spurred her into action. Elise, who requested that I change her name to protect her privacy, posted on Facebook the very next day to “come out” (as she put it) to her friends for the first time about the story of her own late-term abortion.
“After hearing what Trump said, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” the 29-year-old Minnesota resident told me over email. “I publicly posted a short blurb about our loss and asked my Facebook friends to vote responsibly. I also said that abortion is not the black-and-white issue that some politicians have manipulated us into believing it is.”
Elise knows that the decision to have an abortion can be devastating. Two years ago, when she was 20 weeks into her pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed her fetus had a severe case of spina bifida. The condition meant he had “a bubble coming out of his back where the spine did not fully close,” according to Elise. If he survived being born, the exposed nerves would leave him in excruciating pain. His life expectancy would be short and he’d require monthly surgery to stay alive.
Her doctor gave her the option of performing surgery in utero to lessen brain damage and improve mobility, which creates a higher chance of keeping the baby alive through birth, but could cause irreversible damage to Elise’s uterus, leaving her unable to conceive in the future. After weighing all the options, Elise and her husband decided on what they felt was the best one: Terminating the pregnancy before the baby’s pain receptors developed. Her 22-week peaceful termination guaranteed Elise’s future reproductive health and spared her baby any further pain.
After sharing her story, she says the response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly positive—a reaction, she told me, that gave her the strength to share her story with me, if anonymously.
“If we can accept that sometimes a termination is the right thing to do, then the next logical step is to allow women to decide when it is the right thing to do and when it isn’t,” Elise said. “Because to think that the state needs to tell us when it’s okay and when it’s not is ultimately saying that we are not capable of making that decision—which is nothing short of sexism. We are capable. We are intelligent. And we want what is best for our children and our families and our own health.”
Twenty-one weeks into her pregnancy, Aislinn Woody was given the heartbreaking news that if she attempted to give birth, her child would certainly die in the process. He was diagnosed with arthrogryposis multiplex, which meant every joint in his body was fused in full extension. Being pushed through the birth canal would cause every bone in his body to break, and would lead to death by either blood loss or suffocation. To make the situation even more dire, Aislinn, then 26, was told carrying to term could cause life-threatening damage to her uterus.
In some ways, the extreme nature of the baby’s condition, plus the threat to her life, made Aislinn and her husband’s decision to have an abortion more simple. Now, at 30 years old, she looks back on how fortunate she was to be able to have that choice.
“I have always been pro-choice. I always understood that there were people who were not. I did not, until this experience, know how dangerous those people were,” she told me via email. Her own abortion put into sharp focus just how important it is for women to have full agency over their reproductive decisions. And no one—especially a man who is neither a medical doctor nor someone who’s experienced an abortion—should be able to control a woman’s body.
While some people felt demoralized by Trump’s violent rhetoric, the Massachusetts resident said it empowered her to continue sharing her story and counteract widespread ignorance about the power of choice.
“I feel the need to humanize the people having these abortions,” she said. “We are not irresponsible, ‘loose’ women who couldn’t make up our minds. Aside from a basic lesson about obstetrics and what constitutes a valid medical resource, this is what I would tell [Trump]: We are, above anything else, mothers making a compassionate choice for our babies. We are women (and supportive partners) who love so deeply that we wish to spare our babies even a moment of suffering. We are informed and educated and autonomous. We will not be threatened by small men who know nothing of compassion.”
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Valerie R. Peterson’s abortion. This milestone made it all the more difficult for the and single mother of two teenage daughters to stomach Trump’s comments.
“I wanted to run up to him and show him a picture of my son’s ultrasound,” Valerie told me by email of her reaction. “[My abortion] wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn’t a seamless process. I have PTSD because of it. Why would I voluntarily sign up for that?”
When she was 16 weeks into her pregnancy, Valerie was told the fetus had alobar holoprosensephaly, a disorder marked by improper division of the brain through fetal development and resulting in severe facial defects. The doctor then told her the condition was “100% incompatible with life.” At 36 years old, she had high blood pressure and the pregnancy was considered high risk. All told, there was no way this pregnancy would end happily.
That’s why Valerie made the heartbreaking decision to terminate the pregnancy, despite the fact that in Texas the procedure is considered “elective” and not covered by insurance. Though her doctor supported her choice, he had to refer her to Planned Parenthood for the procedure. But the next appointment wasn’t for another two to three weeks, and emotionally, she couldn’t wait that long. So she boarded a plane to Florida, and within a few days, she was no longer pregnant.
“I told [the doctor] I needed the best anesthesia they had. I didn’t want to feel anything. I didn’t want to remember anything,” she said. “But I did. I felt the moment they pulled him out. It wasn’t until the next day in the shower I had a breakdown. He wasn’t moving anymore. He wasn’t there. He was gone.”
Because of her experience, however, Valerie decided to make her voice heard. She now speaks out as a pro-choice advocate, educating Texans on why abortions can be medically necessary and why they should remain a choice.
“This is something the world needs to know, and politicians and non-politicians need to know,” she said. “While I hope that no one they love would ever have to go through this, sometimes experience is the BEST teacher. The only question I have is: When will pro-lifers listen? When will they stop spewing hate around, and accusing women like me of murder? I don’t need political correctness at this moment. I need support and empathy.”