What it taught me about the deeply personal nature of reproductive choice.
By Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic congresswoman
I call my child a miracle. Born unexpectedly in India at 26.5 weeks, shortly before I was due to come back to the United States, and weighing only 1 pound 14 ounces, Janak survived against all odds.
Their early months were spent in Mumbai, in a neonatal intensive care unit that had only just opened. Many of their medications were too expensive and rare for the hospital to stock and had to be procured, by Janak’s father and me, from pharmacies around the city, whenever needed, often in the middle of the night.
In those early months, Janak went through multiple blood transfusions and was unable to eat because their internal organs were not developed enough to take in or process milk. They had complications related to undeveloped lungs and water in the brain. They were kept in a small translucent box in the neonatal intensive care unit and were stuck with needles constantly, each time emitting a painful bleating sound because their vocal cords were simply not developed. I, too, was physically and emotionally weak, having gone through an emergency cesarean section, with concerns about infection that threatened my own life. The worries didn’t end when we left Mumbai: In the ensuing years, we faced endless trips to the emergency room because of weak lungs and repeated pneumonia, a seizure and delays in speaking that made us worry about the future.
The fact that Janak survived this extraordinarily dangerous birth and thrived (indeed, just graduated from college!) is something for which I give endless thanks to the remarkable doctors, nurses and caregivers — in India and later at Seattle Children’s Hospital — who took such good care of this fragile being. I prayed multiple times a day to any being above that was listening that my child would live. And by all measures, we were incredibly fortunate.
Even so, as a new mom taking care of a very sick baby, I struggled mightily. My parents lived across the ocean, and I had no family close by to help. I was experiencing postpartum depression, which went undiagnosed for many years. When I finally did seek help from a therapist, she surmised that I also had a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, given everything I had gone through. My marriage did not survive, and — while Janak’s father and I split custody — for the time that Janak was with me, I was fully a single parent, even as I was starting a brand-new civil rights organization in the wake of Sept 11. Those were rough years.
Some years later, I met a wonderful man, who is my husband today. I wanted more children, but in numerous conversations with my doctors, they told me that any future pregnancy would be extremely high-risk and could result in a birth similar to Janak’s.
I knew that I simply would not be able to go through what I had gone through again. Janak was far from out of the woods, and I needed to preserve my strength for them. I hoped there would be a time in the future when I could be ready again for children, but for the time being, my husband and I diligently took precautions to make sure that I did not get pregnant.
But pregnancy methods are not foolproof. I got pregnant and I had to decide what to do.
It was excruciating. I wanted children, but I wasn’t ready, nor was I fully recovered. I was so grateful that Janak had survived, but I could not tempt fate again. It had to be my choice, because in the end, I would be the one to carry the fetus in my body, I would be the one to potentially face another emergency cesarean section, and I would be the one whose baby could suffer the serious, sometimes fatal consequences of extreme prematurity. I could not simply hope for the best — I had to make a decision based on the tremendous risks that had been clearly laid out for me.
I decided I could not responsibly have the baby. It was a heartbreaking decision, but it was the only one I was capable of making.
The doctor who performed my abortion was incredible: extremely skilled, thoughtful, kind and compassionate. She knew and had seen, over and over again, what it took for women to make these choices. My husband, too, knew that it had to be my decision and offered only support and comfort through the most difficult moments.
I am fortunate to live in a state where pregnant people’s right to make choices about their own bodies is protected, where so many less fortunate than me can still afford to have abortions, without encountering barriers like forced counseling and waiting periods. The network around me helped me to exercise my own choice, rather than imposing someone else’s views on me.
I do not begrudge any pregnant person’s personal choice, whatever it is. That is, in fact, the whole point. Women should be allowed to choose, and that choice should not be dependent on anyone else’s opinion. I respect the perspectives of friends of mine who do not believe in abortion and say they would not choose it for themselves. I never try to convince someone that they should share my views on abortion, and I don’t want anyone to try to do that to me. I also do not begrudge lawmakers who are against abortion for themselves; but as elected officials, they must commit to preserving the constitutionally protected right of others to choose. These reproductive choices — especially in situations involving trauma, be it rape or a desperate prognosis for the baby — are deeply private and personal, and should be made only by the pregnant person.
I have never spoken publicly about my abortion. In some ways, I have felt I should not have to, because it is an intensely personal decision. But I have decided to speak about it now because I am deeply concerned about the intensified efforts to strip choice and constitutional rights away from pregnant people and the simplistic ways of trying to criminalize abortion. There are so many stories that are far more traumatic than mine — low-income pregnant people, including people of color and rape victims who face untenable choices. There are also stories that are not traumatic at all — just the free exercise of a protected constitutional right. I am grateful to those across the country who are speaking out about the tremendous diversity of experiences and what it truly means to be empowered, even as I respect the choices of those who keep their stories private.
To this day, 22 years later, I think about those moments on the table in the doctor’s office. Circumstances prevented me from giving birth again, though I am blessed with a wonderful stepson. To this day, I have deep emotions about all the events of my life. For me, terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, but it was my choice. That is the single thing that has allowed me to live with the consequences of my decisions. And that is what must be preserved, for every pregnant