Over the last few months, there has been a resurgence of stringent abortion laws across several US states, focusing on restricting the bodily autonomy of women as well as criminalizing doctors who perform abortions, even in cases where the mother's life is at stake. Many have written how the laws put women at risk of losing not only their freedom or livelihood but also their lives.
An essay has now been published anonymously by a doctor in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled “The Myth of Choice”. It tells the story of a woman who had to give birth to an infant who suffered from anencephaly. The fetus had no skull and no brain, just a stem. It affects 1,206 pregnancies a year in the US and is fatal to the baby.
The doctor writing the essay recalls an encounter with an expecting mother, heavily pregnant at the time of the visit. It was her first visit. Due to her circumstances and the US healthcare system, she was unable to come earlier. Then, the fateful diagnosis arrived.
“You wait for the patient to break the silence. The baby's heartbeat trots through the monitors while you softly hold her gaze,” the doctor writes in the essay. “Her eyes plead with you. End it. You talk to the obstetricians, because eventually it will end. But nobody will do it. Not in this state. Not in this hospital. And so, the mother goes home, pregnant and grieving.”
The mother came back after a few days when she began to miscarry. The medical staff helped her through labor. The baby was born with no skull and no brain. "Grotesque" is the description the doctor gave. The baby was premature and fatally deformed.
“Some of the nurses need you to fix it, to save this baby with the magic of medicine. You remind them that he is very premature, that he has no brain, that he cannot survive. This is not an ambiguous diagnosis.”
The doctor then goes on to describe the emotional and physical changes the mother experienced in the days after the birth of her child: pain, loose hips, a struggled gait.
“You've done this before, cared for women whose wishes were warped by politics. You've commanded millions of health care dollars on behalf of infants born with fatal diagnoses. You've seen these infants cut, lanced, and battered in the name of intensive care,” the essay continues.
The story was written to illustrate how this is just one of the thousands that could happen to women every year without access to safe abortion services. Many are concerned that defunding institutions that provide healthcare and family planning, while simultaneously putting doctors in positions where their interventions could be deemed criminal, will lead to the unnecessary death of many women.