Court Coverage Got Personal for Pregnant Reporter

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Allison Stevens

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–My pregnancy officially began the way many end: with a late-night trip to the hospital.

Last October, I took an at-home pregnancy test that turned up positive, but before I was able to confirm the results with my doctor I headed to the emergency room after I experienced some bleeding, a possible sign of miscarriage.

After passing several nerve-wracking hours with my husband in the waiting room, I was finally able to see a doctor around midnight. I was told to lie down to prepare for an ultrasound examination, a prospect that delivered with it a stiff emotional cocktail that was one part awe (at the chance to see a tiny embryo forming in my uterus for the first time) and one part dread (at the possibility that the embryo might not actually be there).

The doctor spread some clear gel on my belly and rubbed the “camera” over my skin as my husband and I fixed our eyes on the monitor and eventually saw the embryo that would grow into a fetus and (we hope) our first child.

When I first laid eyes on that tiny white egg, I had the kind of reaction that opponents of abortion say often accompanies ultrasounds: a deeper connection to the growing life within me. Taking a look into the “window of the womb” certainly intensified my excitement and fears about becoming a first-time parent.

With a good report, I quickly resumed my work schedule. Within days, I covered a Supreme Court hearing for Women’s eNews on a 2003 law that banned a specific kind of abortion procedure and did not include an exception for the health of the woman, a requirement of a precedent laid out more than three decades ago in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, and reaffirmed in several court cases since then.

In my condition, I was required to juggle my professional distance and my reactions to what I was now experiencing.

I sat among the many reporters straining for a view from the wings of the courtroom and listened as the high court justices gamely debated the merits of protecting women’s health during pregnancy, an experience only one–Ruth Bader Ginsburg–had ever had.

Different Kind of Ultrasound

It was, for me, a different kind of ultrasound, a look into the minds of those who have the ultimate say over my reproductive life. Like its medical counterpart, this inside look had the effect of intensifying my feelings about my pregnancy. I became more acutely aware of my health–and my vulnerability–as a pregnant woman.

Of course, heading into the courtroom I knew that pregnancy is safer now than it has ever been, thanks to advances in medical technology and prenatal care.

Maternal mortality remains stubbornly high in developing countries. The U.S. rate is surprisingly high for an industrial nation and 20 other nations have better statistics.

In the first pregnancy book I read, the classic “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” I encountered a long list what could go wrong with the fetus, and me. I was warned of potential dangers lurking in such innocuous everyday products as electric blankets, cat litter, household cleaners, hair dye and–of all things–herbal tea.

Scarier still was the chapter on possible complications, which covered everything from relatively benign problems such as gestational diabetes to choriocarcinoma, a cancer related to pregnancy; eclampsia, a condition that can lead to seizures and coma; and a disease that can cause permanent damage to the mother’s nervous system, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys and other organs.

Assignment Adds Worries

Preparing to cover the Supreme Court hearing only added to my worries, especially when I pulled up a 2004 Women’s eNews story that documented some cases in which women told of how second- and third-trimester abortions had saved their lives.

In one case, Tammy Watts told of undergoing a late-term abortion after her fetus was diagnosed with Trisomy 13, a fatal chromosomal anomaly that endangered Watts’ life. Two other women–Viki Wilson of California and Vikki Stella of Illinois–told of choosing to undergo late-term abortions to prevent dangers such as stroke, paralysis, infertility and even death after their fetuses were found with anomalies.

As I continued covering abortion jurisprudence, it became clearer to me what the lack of a health exception could mean if I encountered one of these seemingly countless complications. If the court upheld the law–as it eventually did in April–I would still be able to access certain kinds of abortion procedures in the second and third trimesters, but not necessarily the procedure my doctor might consider the safest for me.

Thanks to the court’s ruling, I, like all U.S. women, am no longer able to have an “intact dilation and evacuation” abortion, a method in which the fetus is partly delivered before it is aborted. The procedure (sometimes called “dilation and extraction”) is often considered safer, and by many less gruesome, than a commonly used alternative known as “standard dilation and evacuation” in which the fetus is dismembered and removed from the uterus in pieces.

The banned procedure, Ginsburg noted in a dissent to the 5-4 decision, is safer for many women because it reduces the number of times a physician must insert medical instruments through the cervix and into the uterus, which can damage or puncture the uterine lining. It also decreases the likelihood that fetal tissue or sharp, bony fragments will be left in the uterus, which can cause infection, hemorrhage, and infertility, and it is faster to complete than other procedures, potentially reducing bleeding, the risk of infection and complications due to anesthesia.

Ginsburg Probes Logic

Moreover, the ban “saves not a single fetus from destruction, for it targets only a method of performing abortion,” Ginsburg said.

In other words, if I wanted to exercise my right to an abortion for whatever reason–even to protect my health–the government would not necessarily allow me to do so in the healthiest way possible. Older women are especially vulnerable: Women over 35 are more likely to have problematic pregnancies, and the results of prenatal tests such as amniocentesis are generally not released until mid-pregnancy.

The decision’s implications may go further than that. It has a “chilling effect” on doctors who may be more reluctant to perform other, legal procedures for fear they will be perceived as violating the law. And it paves the way for anti-choice legislators to pursue more restrictions to abortion that lack exceptions for women’s health.

As a pregnant woman, I understand why abortion opponents are pushing state laws to give women the opportunity to view their fetuses in ultrasound images; at least for me, seeing the embryo on the screen helped the reality of the pregnancy sink in.

I just wish those same activists had access to the kind of journalistic ultrasound I viewed as a Supreme Court reporter. And I certainly wish the justices–especially the eight male ones–could take a look inside the minds of pregnant women and experience not just the hopes but the fears and anxieties associated with pregnancy.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

“Court’s Abortion Ruling Undercuts Roe”:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3139/

“Abortion Case Turns Attention to Justice Kennedy”:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2954/

“Late-Term Abortion Saved These Women’s Lives”:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2046/

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