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See the Heart
I’ve mentioned that in addition to my current novel project, I’ve been working on a nonfiction manuscript about my 2019 birth injury and postpartum experience. Most of the following is something I cut from that manuscript, but it feels relevant to share now. If you want to help, I hope you’ll join me in donating to the Kentucky Health Justice Network.
When a pregnant woman is around 20 weeks, most doctors in the U.S. do what is called an anatomy scan. This scan looks closely at every part of the baby to ensure it has developed. I had mine at 22 weeks and was given the all-clear: limbs, fingers, toes, nose were all there on the screen for me to see, along with the baby’s organs. “See the heart?” the doctor said. “See the lungs?” I couldn’t, but that didn’t matter because the doctor could, and they looked fine.
Two days later, a Twitter thread by a journalist in Kentucky named Robert Kahne came across my timeline. He and his wife had just had their anatomy scan and their baby’s brain had not developed. They were informed that their baby would likely die before being born and, if carried to term, would not live more than a few hours outside the womb. Kahne’s wife underwent a procedure that right-wing politicians like to call a “late-term abortion,” but that is not a medical term. It generally refers to abortions obtained between 21 and 24 weeks, late in the second trimester but before the fetus is viable outside the womb.
Kahne said the experience was “harrowing.” Even more harrowing was the fact that, while he and his wife were receiving compassionate care and treatment from their medical team at EMW Women’s Surgical Center, the last remaining abortion clinic in Kentucky, a so-called “heartbeat bill” (SB 9) was poised to pass the Kentucky state legislature. While Kahne’s baby had no brain and a malformed spine, she had a heartbeat, which under this new law would make performing an abortion a felony.
Kentucky’s heartbeat bill made an exception for abortions “intended to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman,” but an amendment filed to make exceptions for fetuses with “abnormalities that are incompatible with life outside the womb” was rejected. Just days after Kahne and his wife obtained the abortion that would leave them devastated — though surely not as devastated as they would have been had she been required to carry and birth a full-term baby only to watch her die — SB 9 was signed into law by then-Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.
The law was immediately challenged by the ACLU and temporarily blocked by a federal judge, though it was quickly followed by other attempts to outlaw abortion in Kentucky. Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade made it a moot point for now because Kentucky, along with 12 other states, had in place an abortion trigger ban, a law ready to go into effect should Roe be overturned. As of this moment in Kentucky, it’s now a Class D felony to “administer to, prescribe for, procure for, or sell to any pregnant woman any medicine, drug, or other substance” that would terminate a pregnancy.
That day in early 2019, two days after the happy news from my own anatomy scan, reading about a stranger’s heartbreak and thinking about how much worse it could have been, I completely lost it. Hand on my belly, which had just begun to show but which might still have been mistaken for the aftermath of a big lunch, I sobbed.
The womb is sometimes able to sustain life that cannot exist outside of it. Every day, there are women who find themselves hosts of fetuses that will not make it, and it just became much harder for many of them to obtain the healthcare they need when faced with that already difficult reality.
To be clear, I believe that abortion is healthcare no matter what the reason, and it’s a choice that should reside with a woman and doctor. What makes the type of legislation that just went into effect in Kentucky and elsewhere so dangerous to our autonomy over our bodies is that many pregnant women do not even know they are pregnant until after there is a detectable vibration in the egg sac. For most, the pregnancy is diagnosed and confirmed by the very ultrasound that detects this vibration. You may already understand all of this. Some people — including, it seems, some lawmakers in this country — don’t.
Once more: the Kentucky Health Justice Network.