Living with myself Roe v. Wade—vs. Me.

Katja Brunkhorst August 2, 2022

As the news of Roe v. Wade possibly being overturned is dominating the media—even here in Europe—there is only one thing I can begin this article with:

I am so sorry.

I’m not a politician, an expert, an activist or even an American citizen.

But I’m a human woman, so please bear with me as I finally feel moved by the imminent threat to a woman’s right to choose to break my 13-year silence on my own abortion account.

Because we need to break that taboo still—as that is what each and every abortion is: a choice. The most deeply personal choice someone can make. And while often, there are two parents involved, certainly, the hardest part is for the woman who ultimately must make, and face, the choice alone.

What I could have done with 13 years ago, though, was a wise quote, or a comforting book. Or really any account of somebody who had been through what I was facing and come out alive the other end.

Back then, I found nothing. So let me share my own small attempt, despite feeling afraid of the vitriol it could draw, and its potential to retraumatise. Because the toughest choice I ever had to make was still mine to make, and if you’ve made a similar choice, as you’re reading this story: may it be of benefit. You are not alone.

One day, in June 2009, in the khaki-green toilet stall at work, my tummy pulsed with stabs of giddy excitement when the second faint line appeared in the window of the pregnancy test I held in my shaking hand.

All kinds of emotions were jostling for space in my body as I walked back to my tiny office with a view over the rooftops of the Northern German city I lived in, and I sat down at my desk in slow motion.

After staring into the distance for at least 10 minutes, I picked up the phone to call the guy I was seeing at the time and broke the news: “There’s no easy way to say this. I’m pregnant!”

Not surprisingly, he was underwhelmed. A 32-year-old rock musician who ran his own small but legendary dive bar by the North Sea in a Dutch marine town, having kids didn’t exactly feature in his life plan yet, if he even had one. Let alone with a German chick four years his senior who he’d met only five weeks prior when she played a festival at his bar with her all-grrrl band.

My decision, however, was clear the second I saw that second pink line.

It hadn’t been a conscious choice to risk a pregnancy (I had typically been über-careful all my life), but our fling was passionate from the get-go and precautions may have slipped here or there. In his case, he’d just assumed my thyroid medication was the pill. And if you’re thinking: “They both probably subconsciously wanted it—and that chick’s biological clock must have been loud at 36,” I reckon you nailed it.

To my own surprise, I informed him relatively calmly that I would go ahead and have that baby, with or without him. He asked me for some time to consider, and the weeks went by.

A month later, back in that same office, I received a text message: “I’m in! Can’t wait to see you and your belly full of trouble! Let’s do this.”

I was over the moon. Turns out, so was my man! We were excited and happy to begin a new phase in both our lives, together.

That joyous phase lasted only a month.

Both as innocent as they come—again, neither of us had planned this or made a conscious decision to have kids—we were entirely unprepared to hear the doctor make concerned remarks about irregularities at the 12-week ultrasound. We had been looking forward to that milestone and had no clue what her remarks could mean.

Cue seven weeks of—I can’t put it any other way—hell.

An odyssey of appointments with specialists followed—our baby had several different and serious things wrong with her. I felt such a strong connection with Josephine already, but it was becoming clear she might not be able to be with us.

One of the specialists said things like “complete and utter catastrophe” while doing an ultrasound; yet they refused to tell me what we should do. As far as I was concerned, I loved our daughter dearly already, but did I want her to lead a short life of suffering? No. Also, my family made it crystal clear I would be on my own if I went through with the pregnancy.

I was in agony. I do not wish that situation on anyone! The choice was mine, and mine alone:

Would I have the strength to care for a kid like her—the severity of her various conditions uncertain—and face her suffering all alone, without a job? My two-year postdoc position was about to end, and I had just moved to that town for it, hardly knowing anyone. On the other hand, was it the kinder thing to have—an unthinkable word—an abortion, even at such a late stage, or would I not survive that?

I nearly didn’t, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Finally, one of my doctors, a woman a few years older than me who’d done most of the prenatal diagnostic tests, took pity on me and showed me a kindness I will never forget. She said:

“Truthfully? I’m not legally allowed to say this, but if it was me in your shoes, I’d terminate this pregnancy. You’d be doing this child a favour.”

With a heart heavier than I’d ever felt before, one last tormenting discussion with my partner followed, and we made the decision to follow her advice. It was the 19th week already and I will spare you the details of my brief stay in the hospital. Suffice it to say it started with me alone in a room that felt cold with a similarly cold nurse; wordlessly, she stabbed the thick needle for the IV into the back of my hand. It hurt and she left.

After the abortion, my ordeal still wasn’t over.

I had crying fits while attending my man’s concerts where, to my eyes, he and everyone seemed to carry on as if nothing had happened, whereas I was firmly in the grip of an acute, heavy, and worsening depression without realizing it.

I felt utter loneliness and longing for my child, plus the suffocating guilt—so much worse than the grief of losing her—along with rage. It had been so easy for everyone else to say no to her when I was the only one who had been able to feel her in me. And then to endure the process that, in effect, killed her inside of me…no wonder I could only sleep some nights with the aid of red wine and strong sleeping pills that would knock me out in a scarily short amount of time.

Things finally came to a head one evening in Berlin. Having broken down at a friend’s house where my partner’s band and I stayed after their gig—with everyone getting wasted and partying like nothing had happened—I fled to the flat of some other friends, both of whom were the kindest people I knew. Thank God they were home.

I stayed the night after much sobbing and berating myself. The next morning, Diana took one look at me and said:

If lightning were about to strike where you are standing right now, you wouldn’t move out of the way, would you?

To my surprise, I found myself nodding agreement, and she proceeded to make me find a place for stationary psychotherapy—“I will have you sectioned if I have to! You need help, and you need it now!” At the grief clinic, I was diagnosed with heavy depression instantly and ended up staying for two months. It’s because of Diana and her empathy and experience with depression that I was able to recover from the debilitating guilt eventually and am here to tell the tale.

The thing is, over the years, I have slowly started to realize that I also need to own my part in that decision. Yes, it was a difficult situation and yes, if I hadn’t then been alone or unemployed, I probably would have fought harder for Josephine.

Still, it was my choice in the end, and today, I can say it was the right one. The kind one, not just for her, but also for me and my man, who is my husband today. And I am glad I got to make that choice—even if I fervently wish for others in that position to receive more counseling and advice.

A few days into my stay in the “looney bin” that saved my life, we discovered I was pregnant again. Our daughter is 11 years old today, we’re still together, and family life is intensely beautiful. But equally, it is hard enough—without the unknown hardships I and my firstborn daughter would have faced, had we been on our own and without financial or emotional support.

To own that choice, which meant I also chose me and the life I knew I could handle, has made me nearly whole again. There will always be one person missing from our family and I wish I could have gotten to know her, but I’m also extremely grateful our second daughter was born—on the exact same day I lost my first one, a year later.

It’s a choice, that, to quote a friend, absolutely no one ever makes for fun. I do hope I am doing my bit by sharing my personal story, while realizing just how privileged I still am and have been throughout.

Even if it’s the hardest call to make—you do get to choose you. And absolutely no one should be able to take away that right.

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