The Burden of Pregnancy
I have had four pregnancies. I have two children.
Two of my pregnancies ended in miscarriage, and the other two resulted in the greatest joys of my life. But all four were a burden — emotionally and physically, personally and professionally.
Right now, the constitutional right that protects pregnant people’s ability to make our own decisions about our pregnancies is in jeopardy, and I can’t sit by and watch it happen.
The first time I learned I had miscarried was at the 12-week ultrasound of my first pregnancy. At eight weeks, the fetus and its heartbeat measured normally. But now, at 12 weeks, it was the size of a nine-week fetus. For three weeks it had sat inside me, no longer growing.
I got pregnant again. After 41 long, grueling weeks, I was induced. 50 hours later, I had an emergency cesarean section and gave birth to our son. I didn’t enjoy much of anything during those 41 weeks, but I love being his mom.
The second time I learned I had miscarried was during my third pregnancy—again, at the 12- week ultrasound. I had spent the summer nauseated and miserable. This time, the miscarriage was more serious: a rare molar pregnancy. Again, the doctor let me know there was no fetal heartbeat, the fetus wasn’t measuring correctly, and there was concern the placenta looked “mottled.”
I was not allowed to try to get pregnant for six months afterward, to ensure the molar pregnancy didn’t progress into a rare form of cancer. How did this pregnancy suddenly become a conversation about possible cancer? I was terrified. All we wanted was to give our son a younger sibling, and now this pregnancy had taken a turn I could never have expected. But I was so lucky. The threat subsided and I was cleared to start trying again.
I told my husband the fourth pregnancy would be the last pregnancy, no matter what. As many can attest, the first trimester of a pregnancy can be awful, and I had already lived through three of them.. Working conferences and events at my job when more than 30 weeks pregnant with our son had been pure exhaustion. And getting blood work for six months following the molar pregnancy brought anxiety I really didn’t need. But building a family was important to me. I would give it a fourth try.
Again, I was lucky. I spent the first 39 weeks of the pandemic pregnant for the fourth and final time. During the waning days of the Trump presidency, we gave birth to our daughter. She’s fantastic.
But the pregnancy that produced her was a burden. I use the word “burden” very carefully, because it’s also a legal term that’s at the crux of the abortion debate. Who gets to decide whether a pregnancy is a burden?
In 1992, the Supreme Court established in its ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that regulations on abortion must not place an “undue burden” on those seeking the procedure. That decision has been the prevailing norm for the last twenty years.
Cut to this past December. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case poised to deprive people with uteruses in the U.S. of their constitutional right to abortion and bodily autonomy, Justice Amy Coney Barrett callously suggested that pregnancies are no longer a burden because it’s easier now to relinquish children for adoption. Justice Barrett might dress her questions up in whatever flowery legal language helps her sleep at night, but this is the cold logic of a jurist who devalues the life and health of pregnant bodies. How dare she decide whether a pregnancy is a burden to anyone else?
I had every advantage and privilege one can have when experiencing pregnancy. I am a married, white, cisgender, heterosexual woman. My village includes a close dear friend who is an OB-GYN whom I could call and text for advice and counsel, and others who delivered Cheez-Its and Slurpees and gift baskets from Target to my door after I miscarried. I navigated the reproductive health system through four pregnancies in a two-income family with employee- sponsored health care and amazing doctors.
With all of that support and access, my pregnancies were still burdens. And because our health system is riddled with inequity, pregnancy can be even more onerous for Black and Indigenous people, for other people of color, for those marginalized or struggling to make ends meet. For young people, people living with disabilities, people in rural communities, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals.
Being pregnant, trying to get pregnant, ending an unwanted pregnancy, giving birth — all of it will test you. Even those who experience pregnancy as a joy will face moments that ask more of them than they could ever have imagined themselves capable. We who create life are blessed and burdened by the imperatives of biology.
We cannot force people to stay pregnant. It’s immoral and it should remain illegal. Forcing people to carry pregnancies to term is imposing an undue burden, full stop. Pregnancy can damage lives, potential, dignity, health, safety, and wellbeing. We must aspire to create policies and systems that protect people in these vulnerable, emotional and often brutal moments.
Is this really who we want to be? The book of Psalms says, “Olam chesed yibaneh” (89:3), or as Rabbi Menachem Creditor adapts in a beautiful song, “We will build this world from love.” Through my pregnancies I experienced the painful reality of being a human with a body I can never fully control. But because of my privilege, and with endless gratitude for my village, I had every possible advantage as my family grew. Now I work towards a reimagined world, one built from love, that acknowledges the pain humans experience in all of our embodied and spiritual complexity.
Now, as Co-Director of National Council of Jewish Women’s 73Forward abortion access campaign, I fight every day for abortion access and a reproductive health system that heals entire systems. Learn more at 73Forward.org