Nova Scotia·First Person

I never thought I would need an abortion

Medical student Kirsten Murray was overjoyed when she discovered she was pregnant. Access to abortion must be protected for everyone, she writes, not just for people in circumstances like hers.

Truly, abortion is health care — no matter the reason for seeking it

A nurse uses an ultrasound machine in a clinic in this file photo. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

This First Person article is written by Kirsten Murray, a medical student in Halifax. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

After eight long years of infertility, we conceived. 

The day I found out I was pregnant, I was scheduled to get an ultrasound to guide a surgery that might improve my chances of conception. We had just completed the painful, invasive and expensive testing that revealed waning fertility. The prescription for the drugs I needed to jump start in-vitro fertilization were waiting for me at the pharmacy. 

I was three weeks late with my period but after eight years I didn't have the heart to take another home pregnancy test only to see a negative result – just another missed period and a reminder that the window of hope was quickly closing. 

I sat in a room full of expectant mothers waiting for their 20-week ultrasounds, and I felt resentful. After a sympathetic technician ushered me into the examination room, I burst into tears. 

I explained the frustration and heartache of it all and she cried with me. She assured me that I would get through yet another intravaginal ultrasound and soon this would all be behind me. 

Partway through the ultrasound, the technician suddenly said, "I'm just going to have a closer look at a blood vessel." She turned on the speaker: Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump

I thought to myself, "If I didn't know better I'd think it was a fetal heartbeat."

It was. The technician and I hugged as I cried again; this time with tears of relief and happiness. 

Although I desperately wanted this child, I was miserable for my first trimester. First came the fatigue. I was so tired I would often crawl into bed at 7:30 p.m., significantly curtailing the long hours I would normally be studying medicine. I would use my school's wellness room to nap on the couch between classes rather than cram anatomy. 

The nausea was constant, as was the relentless insomnia — ironic when combined with the fatigue. Then came pityriasis rosea – a rash that was so itchy it woke me at night and left my clothing and sheets stained with blood from maniacal scratching. At six weeks gestation, I spent two days in the emergency room with bleeding that I thought was a miscarriage. It wasn't – the baby's heart was strong.

On the Wednesday of my 12th week of pregnancy, my obstetrician called. The maternal fetal serum blood test had come back positive. She reassured me that while this did increase the chances of a chromosomal or other abnormality in the fetus, the odds for a healthy pregnancy were still much more likely than not.

At the 13-week ultrasound, my husband would later describe a welling sense of dread in the examination room. Something didn't seem right. Shouldn't they have offered to let us listen to the baby's heartbeat? 

I saw a blurry image do a couple of flips from the corner of my eye as the technician announced she was bringing in the doctor. The doctor did the remainder of the exam in silence. As I dressed, my husband and I agreed that it felt like bad news was about to be delivered. 

At the 13-week ultrasound, my husband would later describe a welling sense of dread in the examination room. Something didn't seem right.

I peered at the tiny images on the ultrasound machine – I'd left my reading glasses in the car. But even my blurry, untrained eyes could see the news the doctor was about to deliver.

He re-entered the room and explained that the child was not compatible with life outside the womb. 

It was a condition called anencephaly, a neural tube defect that causes the brain not to form. Its reflexes intact, the fetus flipped and danced around energetically – but it would never experience pain, joy, fear, or consciousness. The options were to terminate the pregnancy, or carry it to term and proceed with palliative care after birth. We chose to end the pregnancy. 

The week between receiving the news of the fatal diagnosis and scheduling the surgical termination was the most painful week of my life. Paralyzed with grief, I mourned what might have been. I was convinced I'd never recover. 

It was heartbreaking to schedule an abortion for the child I have dreamed about for years. But being forced to carry a pregnancy to term — only to wait for death to lay claim in the coming moments, days or weeks after birth — would have been unbearable.

In the end, the surgery brought rapid relief — both physically and mentally. I have hope again for the future, even in the face of uncertainty. I am reminded of my therapist's advice on infertility: If I keep my heart open, love and family will find me in other ways even though children may never happen.

Being pregnant can be brutal, and motherhood daunting under the best of circumstances. I cannot imagine carrying a child that you felt ill-equipped to care for without an excellent support system, secure housing or a sound financial future. I have all these things and it was still terrifying.

Access to abortion must be protected for everyone, not just for people in circumstances like mine. I never thought I would need an abortion — especially not at my age, considering I want a child. Abortion in cases of fatal conditions have the fewest objectors (but alarmingly, they still exist). 

Regulating access to health care based on personal values is dangerous for all patients. It is unfair and presumptuous to judge another person's health care decisions without fully understanding their challenges, resources and values — something that only they and their chosen health care providers should endeavour to do.

Now that I truly appreciate the toll pregnancy takes on a person, it feels even more unconscionable to force anyone to go through it. I only carried a fetus that would never be mine for a week. I can't fathom that being stretched out into months, particularly when a termination procedure is a low-risk day surgery with an easy recovery. 

Truly, abortion is health care — no matter the reason for seeking it.

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Kirsten Murray

Freelance contributor

Kirsten Murray is a medical student and comedian living in Nova Scotia.