Health

Women Who Experience ‘A Socially Unacceptable Kind Of Grief’ Find Community Online

CREDIT: Shutterstock

After picking out a baby name and decorating a nursery, the last thing you expect to do is have an abortion.

So, when Grace made the painful decision to end her pregnancy at 20 weeks after she learned her unborn son Leo had serious health defects, she thought she was the only woman in the world who had ever gone through that. When she stumbled onto a website filled with stories from other women who had also terminated wanted pregnancies, she couldn’t believe her eyes.

“I had never heard of this happening to anybody,” Grace told ThinkProgress. “I read all the stories. It was a huge relief to me.”

Fifteen years later, Grace has become deeply involved in the online community — first called “A Heartbreaking Choice” and later renamed to “Ending A Wanted Pregnancy” — and remains a moderator of the site. She says it provides an important space for women who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere amid the contentious political debate about abortion, which typically pits “fetuses” and “choice” against “babies” and “life.”

The members of this particular community say that language doesn’t describe their experiences. They want to celebrate the humanity of their children, and mourn those losses, while affirming their decision to have an abortion.

“It’s kind of a socially unacceptable kind of grief,” Grace said.

Later abortion procedures — a term that typically refers to abortions that take place after the first trimester — are very rare. The women who seek them are often ending their pregnancies only after receiving a diagnosis of serious fetal abnormalities that weren’t evident earlier. They’re not having abortions because they want to dismember their babies, although that’s often the political rhetoric that’s used around later procedures. In fact, these women typically believe that abortion is the most compassionate choice available to them, because their unborn child has serious health complications that won’t allow them to survive for very long outside the womb.

“There were really two options for my daughter, considering her limitations. There was peace, or there was life — and she couldn’t have both,” Kate C., another website moderator who chose to end her pregnancy after discovering her daughter’s brain was riddled with holes, told ThinkProgress. “I chose peace.”

Kate C. said that before she discovered the Ending A Wanted Pregnancy site, she felt completely outside the conversation about reproductive rights — almost as if she were an alien. She desperately needed to talk to other people who could relate to her experience. Once she found online forums filled with women who had dealt with similar grief, she saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I needed to hear so badly in those early months that it was going to get better,” she said. “On the one hand, everyone there is totally accepting that you’re sad and confused and upset. But some of them are also happy! And that helps you know that you will be happy again some day, too.”

“It was a lifeline for me,” agreed Katie S., another moderator, who has ended three pregnancies because she’s a carrier for a serious genetic anomaly. “You just feel like you’re in this dark hole, and you can’t even begin to know how to claw your way out. These women don’t just throw a rope down to you. They climb down in that dark hole with you, and they sit there beside you, and they help you through.”

Ending A Wanted Pregnancy was first formed in the mid-1990s, when a grief counselor named Maribeth Wilder Doerr was working with a woman who was distraught over terminating a pregnancy because of a chromosomal defect. Wilder Doerr wanted her client to know she wasn’t alone. So she started a Yahoo email list serv.

The community has since evolved into a new website, a story bank, a series of online forums for parents, a published book, and a private Facebook group. The site administrators also maintain an online memorial garden on Tumblr to honor members’ babies. And it’s not just virtual: Renee, who ended a pregnancy because her unborn son was not viable outside of the womb, said she’s now met about 50 of the members of the group in person, and they have “built friendships that go far and wide.”

“I really think we do help women realize that they deserve the life they’ve chosen,” Kate C. said. “They deserve love, and they deserve to not be pariahs all of the time.”

In some ways, Ended A Wanted Pregnancy fits into a bigger story. Over the past several years, the internet has helped facilitate connections in new ways among women who have had abortions. Forming those bonds can be a powerful method of combating abortion stigma — which primarily functions as a way of making women feel too ashamed to talk about their experiences, ultimately keeping them isolated and alone.

There are a lot of theories about how challenging abortion stigma, and empowering women to speak openly about their reproductive health care, can lead to social and political change. Members of the Ending A Wanted Pregnancy group have witnessed that firsthand.

“Online communities are amazing, and I think they kind of build that foundation to get you strong enough and back on your feet,” Katie S. said. “I love to see the transition between the women healing, and then going on do two things: Coming back and supporting the women who are newly bereaved, and also going out publicly and supporting women’s right to choose to have an abortion.”

After processing their grief with the online community, women who used to tell their family members that they “lost the baby” eventually feel more comfortable sharing the whole story — reaching a place where they can claim the full reality of their experience and explicitly say, “I had an abortion.” After getting to that point, many of them feel strongly about working to protect other women’s ability to make the same choice.

And a political atmosphere that’s increasingly hostile to abortion leaves some women feeling like they have a responsibility to stand up. Five years ago, when Dr. George Tiller was gunned down for providing later abortion services to his patients, Katie S. said she was moved to share her story more publicly because the murder made her feel “personally threatened on behalf of women.” She couldn’t bear the thought that patients might lose access to the dwindling pool of qualified late-term providers. Renee, meanwhile, hopes to someday testify about abortion access in her home state of Texas, which has become a critical battleground in the war over reproductive rights.

Particularly as multiple states have moved to ban abortions after 20 weeks, the individuals who have accessed later services have felt inspired to fight back. The way that abortion opponents frame the effort to criminalize later abortions, claiming that post-20-week procedures will cause fetuses to feel pain, is particularly difficult for women who have made the decision to end a wanted pregnancy.

“The irony is so bitter. They call them ‘fetal pain’ laws — and it’s like, fetal pain? What do you think we were trying to prevent? It doesn’t make any sense,” Grace said.

When its members decide to get involved at the political level, the Ending A Wanted Pregnancy community comes full circle. It can be difficult and draining to share personal medical details in front of a panel of legislators (and plenty of reproductive rights supporters argue this is too high of an emotional cost to continually demand of women). But, according to Grace, the online group is able to support people who choose to become vocal advocates.

For the women who are both grieving the losses of their unborn children and refusing to feel regretful about having an abortion, and avoiding calling their sons and daughters “fetuses” while rejecting efforts to roll back access to safe abortion care, that safety net is what makes all the difference.

“In any situation, it’s scary to stand up by yourself and say I did this, and this was my choice. It’s completely different when you’re holding hands with another women, or one hundred women, or five hundred women,” Katie S. said. “We stand taller and stronger, and our voices are louder and clearer, when we stand together.”