As an abortion provider, I know abortion rhetoric too often ignores the complexities of real women's lives. Choosing adoption, ending a pregnancy, or raising a child is a personal, often complicated and emotional decision. But one thing is pretty simple: that decision is better left to a woman and her family. I know this firsthand.
When I met the man of my dreams we talked about having a family of our own. We worked to build our careers and our lives together. As a doctor, a provider, and an advocate, my career took off, lobbying for increased family planning access and speaking at town hall meetings and rallies in support of comprehensive reproductive health care for all.
The time came when we decided we were ready to take the big leap and become parents. I was thrilled when I got pregnant, and in my excitement I didn't follow the advice I give my patients to wait to tell people. We told our family and friends right away.
Things progressed well and without medical complication for 14 weeks. That's when my maternal intuition told me that something was wrong. With my training and access to equipment, I could not resist investigating. To my devastation, I diagnosed my little one with a brain anomaly. I had not seen anything like it. It was later confirmed by a specialist as a severe condition incompatible with life.
The decision I made, along with my husband, to have an abortion was one of the hardest I've had to make.
Being the operating room table and not the one performing the procedure, I went through all of the things I try to prepare my patients for, including the IV, the anesthesia, a little bleeding afterwards. But there was more—the tears. I cried over the loss of a much-wanted pregnancy and worried about how I would answer well-meaning questions from loved ones and colleagues. It was an experience that changed me.
I changed as a woman, but also as doctor. I redesigned my patient counseling, and now I talk with my patients about how they are doing emotionally and really listen when they share their pain and their challenges.
One challenge that I hear often is fear about even having access to an abortion. I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been, if in the midst of one of the toughest moments I and my family has faced, I had to also worry about a law interfering with our decision, or if I had to struggle to pay for the abortion because my health insurance plan would not cover the care that I needed. I was lucky not to live in a state with a 12-week or heartbeat ban on abortion, or a restriction on my insurance coverage, or simply without the money to travel to and pay for the care I needed.
Currently, federal law includes unfair restrictions on abortion care for women who use Medicaid or other federal insurance benefits. Similar restrictions are continually being passed at the state level for private insurance, state exchanges, and public employees' plans. I am shocked by the cruelty of withholding health assistance funds from a woman who needs it -- not just in a case like mine, but for any woman who needs and chooses abortion care.
Like most of my fellow providers, I am often asked by a patient or a friend, "How do you do this all day?" I became a provider because there was a need and women should have safe, medical care for any health procedure, including abortion. What I came to realize over time, though, is that we each have an individual situation and our choices are unique. I am there to support a woman for whom it is not the right time to become a parent or add to their family, just as the doctors I worked with were there to support me and my husband.
Not every woman's experience is the same. Some women do feel sadness, but others feel relief. Recently, a patient thanked me and hugged me for "giving [her] life back" to her after I had performed her abortion. It made me smile and it made me remember that my experience is not the only one that matters, that no one doctor will ever imagine all of the possible circumstances of each women's life. In fact, no one will ever know all of the unique circumstances of women's lives; that is why we have to give her the care she needs in that moment. So while certain politicians judge women who seek abortion and try to eliminate access, I will continue to provide care to real women to support their health and their lives.
After I became pregnant again, I continued to be a provider. When a patient or support person asked about providing abortion care while pregnant, I said that it was my time to have a family and theirs would come at another time if they wished. A provider was there for me and I am committed to being there for my patients. I am also committed to fighting against laws that aim to shame women and to chip away at the availability and affordability of abortion care.
Now, when I stare into the eyes of our son, I hope that my journey will have meaning for him and help him to trust and respect women and their ability to make decisions about their health and lives.
This article is part of the Strong Families Mama's Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.
Pratima Gupta, MD, MPH serves on the board of the California Family Health Council. She currently practices and provides abortions at Kaiser Permanente East Bay in Oakland, CA, and the University of California, San Francisco. She is the volunteer medical director of St. James Infirmary, a free clinic in San Francisco for sex workers and transgender individuals, and has provided obstetric and gynecology services in South Sudan with Doctors Without Borders.
["Happy Mother With Her Baby" on Shutterstock]
[Editor's note: Gupta's bio has been updated.]