My partner wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. That’s why she had an IUD — to prevent the pregnancy we agreed we didn’t want. Liz and I have been together for years, and though we had discussed the idea of having children, we knew we weren’t ready , at least not yet. And yet there we were, two New Yorkers in a Utah emergency room, holding a brand-new sonogram printout. Near the top, a nurse had drawn a white arrow pointing to the six-week-old embryo, and labeled it in big block letters: “BABY.”
We’d rushed to the hospital earlier that day, knowing a failed IUD can be a life-threatening emergency. Luckily, the sonogram showed that her life was safe, but we were less confident about her rights. The date was October 7, 2018. A day before, two thousand miles away, Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.
Kavanaugh had written opinions signaling interest in weakening Roe v. Wade, if not outright reversing it. Many predicted his appointment would open the floodgates for attacks on reproductive rights, and they weren’t wrong. In the months since Kavanaugh took the bench, at least eight states, including Utah, have rolled out draconian restrictions criminalizing abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
Liz was at least six weeks pregnant, which meant under some new laws, an abortion would have made her a felon, facing a prison sentence up to 99 years — as would the doctor who performed the procedure. Under Georgia’s newest law, had we been residents and left the state to obtain a legal abortion elsewhere, we’d both be eligible for long prison sentences.
Sitting in her hospital bed, wearing her paper gown, Liz asked whether I was okay with an abortion. My answer was twofold: First, I agreed with her choice. A baby was the last thing I was ready for. Second — and more importantly — while I appreciated being asked, my opinion didn’t matter. Her body belonged to her, not me, and no pregnancy would change that.
While the decision was entirely hers, Liz’s choice to terminate benefitted me. It meant I could continue pursuing the personal and professional life I wanted. The laws that protect that choice also meant I wouldn’t lose my partner to a botched back-alley abortion — as so many partners, children, family, and friends did before Roe v Wade — or to a long prison sentence.
Reproductive rights are not only women’s issues — they benefit men, too. We don’t say that often enough.
The 2018 St. George Marathon was supposed to be Liz’s best ever. She spent months training hard for this, her 20th full marathon, and hoped to finish in less than three hours for the first time. Instead, she spent the race miserable, fighting nausea, which we blamed on a change in sports drink. Pregnancy never occurred to us. We knew her period was a couple of weeks late, but with her rigorous athletic training, her cycle was sometimes inconsistent — and she had an IUD. The IUD is a tiny flexible bit of plastic that can remain in the uterus for years. Modern IUDs are safe, affordable (often free, thanks to Obamacare) and very, very reliable. But those rare failures come with increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening emergency.
When Liz woke up nauseous again the morning after the race, I started to worry. Pregnancy still seemed like a long shot, but when we stopped by the local Wal-Mart for our traditional celebratory post-race six-pack, we put a pregnancy test on the checkout belt. Better safe than sorry, right? We were both certain the tests would come back negative.
Back at the hotel, we opened two beers and she took the first test. I expected to watch anxiously for a few minutes, waiting to see if the little blue line changed into a plus sign. Nope. It changed immediately. So fast, I thought we must have done something wrong. She took the second test — I assume they put two in the pack because everybody thinks that first positive result is a mistake — and if anything, that plus sign came up faster. Liz was pregnant. Really, really pregnant.
Most importantly, there was that “life-threatening emergency” thing. We called Liz’s gynecologist, who sent us straight to urgent care — who in turn sent us to the nearest hospital ER. Our celebratory beers sat forgotten on the hotel countertop as I anxiously drove the picturesque Utah highways, on our way to the hospital.
We talked on the ride about what came next. If the pregnancy was ectopic, doctors would have to terminate. Since ectopic pregnancy is both life-threatening and non-viable, termination to protect the mother’s health is legal without restriction in every state — at least for now. But what if this was a normal uterine pregnancy? We knew the laws in New York protected Liz’s reproductive rights, but what were the laws in Utah?
The fight for reproductive rights had been front-page news for weeks, as Kavanaugh worked his way through a contentious confirmation fight. Liz and I sent money to Planned Parenthood, we called and emailed our senators asking them to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination, but suddenly the stakes felt much more personal. For the first time, it wasn’t the concept of abortion that worried us. It was our abortion.
The hospital in St. George sent Liz for an immediate ultrasound, which ruled out ectopic pregnancy. Her IUD had shifted from her uterus down toward her cervix, rendering it ineffective. It’s incredibly rare, and the technician seemed surprised that Liz hadn’t felt it. Based on the date of Liz’s last period, and some measurements on the sonogram screen, she estimated Liz was six or seven weeks along.
At this point, we learned about abortion laws in Utah. The technician played us the embryo’s heartbeat. She told us the due date and printed a picture for Liz to take home. But first, she took the time to add her little arrow and the word “BABY” in big bold letters. I quietly seethed watching this. The technician knew Liz wanted to terminate. But under Utah law, these steps are mandatory before a woman is allowed an abortion. Patients are forced to hear the heartbeat, learn the due date, receive pamphlets, and then wait 72 hours before the abortion would be legal.
But state abortion laws vary dramatically, and our home state of New York places few barriers or restrictions on the right to an abortion before the 24-week mark. In fact, just this past January, New York prohibited the criminal prosecution of any person who performs an abortion in good faith.
Since the doctors said Liz’s life wasn’t in danger, she elected to wait until we returned to New York City to undergo the procedure. A week later, we visited Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Health Center in Manhattan, where Liz could undergo a safe, legal abortion — and get a new IUD.
Afterward, Liz wanted to fight the stigma around abortion by vocally and publicly sharing her experience. Since then, she’s been approached by dozens of women — friends, family, and even total strangers at races and running classes — to thank her for sharing her story, many confessing that they never felt comfortable telling people about their own abortions. Shame and stigma are powerful weapons for the anti-abortion movement.
And me? While I’ve never denied or covered up the experience, I’ve never before written about it. I thought of it as Liz’s story to tell — but, with her consent, it’s my story, too.
Abortion is often branded “a woman’s right to choose.” While millions of women have benefitted from safe, legal abortion, so have millions of men like me — though many of us might not know it. Nearly one in four women under age 45 have had an abortion. The stories Liz heard prove that many women keep their abortions secret — including, often, from the men who played their part.
So, gentlemen, there’s a fair-to-good chance that you, too, have benefited from the right to reproductive choice. Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t. And those of you who have children, I’m talking to you, too: More than half of women who have abortions are already mothers.
Thanks to the state of Utah, we know our baby would have been due any day now, had Liz chosen (or been forced) to carry the pregnancy to term. She and I could be overhauling our lives to accommodate the child we never wanted. Instead, thanks to the availability of safe, legal abortion, we are both free to pursue the lives we choose.