My Abortion Story That Wasn’t

Not having had that abortion impacted my family for decades; I’ve carried anger and secrets while my husband carried hope—for a family that I wasn’t prepared to have.

My abortion story is not the typical story. I’ve never had an abortion. Ironically— and sadly, if I had been able to have an abortion, there would have been at least one more child in our family.

Choice is far more complicated than the “pro-lifers” would have you believe. At 40, I found myself pregnant with my third child. Happily married with two beautiful children, I was living in Haifa. We had many good friends in Haifa—but no grandparents on whom to rely for baby-sitting, carpooling, a meal now and then—or just another shoulder to cry on.

As a 40-year-old, I was considered a “geriatric pregnancy,” one to be carefully monitored and watched. This was also the first time I was pregnant in Israel, which was something I swore I would never experience. I feared the country’s crowded obstetrics wards and its insistence on no intervention or painkillers during labor. I was, and remain, a firm believer in epidurals. The less pain, the better.

Rather than offering an amniocentesis, a procedure usually performed in the 15th or 16th week, my doctor suggested that I have a CVS (chorionic villus sampling) to be performed in the ninth week. If abnormalities are found via amniocentesis, the pregnancy ends with a second-trimester abortion. CVS allows for a much easier procedure in the 10th week.

What I didn’t know was that this would be the doctor’s first ever attempt at the then brand-new procedure. Almost immediately after the procedure, I started to bleed.

Bleeding continued for days, getting worse. I was hospitalized and told that I would have to remain in the hospital until my bleeding stopped. It never did. Not only was I confined to bed, I was confined to bed and told I must lie on my back—no turning over, no change of position. There was a danger of hemorrhage; repeatedly, I was told that my life was in danger if I were to move too much—and, definitely in danger if I dared to leave the hospital.

My children were three and five years old; without a real backup system in place, we were a very close family unit. They needed their mother, and frankly, I needed them as well. My husband and I had looked forward to our 3rd child. But this did not look like a viable pregnancy or a reasonable situation. If my life was in danger, I could not see making it through the next six months in a hospital bed, flat on my back, in a ward with seven other women, all in varying stages of trying to maintain pregnancies or undergoing IVF procedures.

In an untenable situation and fearing for my life, I asked my doctor to end my pregnancy. This was Israel; I knew that as a 40-year-old woman, I could request an abortion and receive it. What I didn’t realize was that I needed to go before a committee of rabbis and medical professionals (all men) to get that permission. I literally had to physically go before the committee—something I could not do, at risk of death.

And it turned out that the head of the department at the hospital was opposed to abortion and so would not ask for the committee to come to the hospital. He also opposed allowing any of the staff doctors (including my personal obstetrician, who agreed with me) to perform the abortion or help me get safely to another hospital where I could end the pregnancy.

I remained in that hospital for two months; I met with a psychologist who decided that my problem wasn’t physical, but rather psychological. I pointed out that mental status of the mother was grounds for an abortion, and that I wanted her assessment written on to my chart. With classic Catch-22 reasoning, she indicated that my asking for this annotation was actually proof that I wasn’t psychologically impaired.

Sometime during my pregnancy, my water broke. No one knew exactly when, but it was discovered in an ultrasound I finally had in my 26th week of pregnancy. It was also determined that I had lost 20 pounds during that pregnancy, none of these good signs for the health of the fetus or the mother.

My obstetrician told me and my husband that it was over; the delivery was scheduled for the next morning. The children were told; I was relieved. But the nightmare really was only beginning.

Next morning, I was prepped and ready for the Cesarean delivery. My husband arrived; the children were with a babysitter. And once again, the head of the department arrived to inform me that he had decided that I would not end my pregnancy that morning. He was going to send me to the obstetrics ward where I would be placed with my legs raised above my head for the next two weeks.

I admit, I went ballistic; I told the Head of Department and everyone else that it was over. Nobody, including my husband, paid any attention, other than to scream at me to “Shut up and have the baby in two weeks.” I spent that day in tears, and in pain with severe labor pains, refusing to eat while everyone else refused to listen to me. At 3:00pm, the doctors went home. At 4:00pm I learned what hemorrhaging felt like. The last thing I remember was a nurse shouting to get a surgeon back to the hospital and a technician shouting that I must be turned on a 180-degree angle with my feet in the air and my head down because “she is in shock.” Ironically, it was my nemesis, the head of the department, who performed my surgery. The baby boy was born and lived for 14 hours. Unfortunately, I was only given this information two weeks after I was released from the hospital. My husband saw a covered bassinet and doctors shaking their heads”no” when he asked if the baby was alive and if he could see him. Ten years later, with the help of Rabbanit Naomi Cohen (z”l), I learned that my baby boy was buried in a mass grave in Haifa. There is nothing good about this story of abortion denial. The baby died; the mother nearly died; and all hope we had of ever having another child was dead and buried. Dead and buried, not because I couldn’t physically bear another child but because I was damned if I would ever, ever allow another man, another person, to put my life in jeopardy. I no longer trusted doctors, rabbis, or even my husband to have my best interests at heart. I trusted only myself— and I made certain I would never be pregnant again. Not having had that abortion impacted my family for decades; I’ve carried anger and secrets while my husband carried hope—for a family that I wasn’t prepared to have. He only recently learned that I actively prevented another pregnancy.

When my mother came to New York in 1936, as a newlywed, desperately trying to have a child, she became fast friends with her neighbor, a young Italian woman in an unhappy marriage. Raped by her husband repeatedly, Marie turned to my mother for support and help. My mother accompanied her to several back-alley abortions and helped nurse her back to health afterwards.

At the same time, she was seeing doctors on her own trying to become pregnant. As far back as I can remember, my mother would tell me about her friend, Marie and the pain she suffered. She would point out the buildings in our Bronx neighborhood that housed the doctors who would perform the secret abortions. I grew up in the 1960s, a time when abortions remained illegal. It was a time of whispers, of friends suddenly disappearing for several months—or worse, for good. It was a time of fear, of shame, of pain.

Who knew that, oceans and decades away, I would experience once again that shame, that pain, lying in a crowded hospital ward in Haifa? Abortion is never an easy choice, no matter what the antiabortion crowd would like to have you think. But it’s a choice everyone deserves to have if we are to truly value all lives, including those to come.

Judith Rubin Golub served over four decades as an Executive in leading national Jewish nonprofits. She splits her time between Israel and New York City.