I watched and watched as the infertile became fertile. As a Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility fellow, I became acutely aware of time and its passing. After months of waiting for my turn, it felt as though I crossed over to the other side. And I cherished every minute. I didn’t take it for granted. But still.
I sat in the ultrasound room in disbelief as my doctor confirmed what I suspected I had seen on the screen. My fetus had a rare and severe neural tube defect. How was it possible that what was growing inside of me, bouncing around with life on the ultrasound screen, was not meant to be?
I had deja vu of all the times I had watched my patients suffer. The woman with a visible belly bump falling into her partner’s arms crying by the elevator after her ultrasound, evident she had received terrible news. I had comforted myself, “so I’m not pregnant yet, but at least I haven’t suffered like that.” The irony was, only a few months later I stood by those same elevators, my eyes red with similar news.
Did I eat something?
Not enough of something?
I thought I knew too much to start blaming myself.
These were all the thoughts going through my head as I sat and listened to the prognosis. It was the day before arguably the biggest test in my career. I was flying from Los Angeles to Dallas to take my oral boards. This exam was expensive in both time and money, and I had been preparing for it for 6 years. My license and entire career depended on passing this exam, which was given only once a year.
I had studied for months while nauseous and vomiting, but without complaining. I was happy to just be pregnant. And then…I had to fly to Dallas with this life inside me that wasn’t meant to be. The “doctor side” of my brain knew it wasn’t my fault. But my “human side” felt lost and disgusting. Like I failed at being this baby’s mother. Like I was keeping a secret from him. I was plotting against him. He was alive now only because I didn’t have time to end it all before my test. I was tricking him into thinking he was safe, when the truth was- I couldn’t wait to get home to have my procedure. I wanted to stop being a hypocrite more than anything.
I called my Rav the night I found out about the diagnosis to discuss the potential termination of the pregnancy. He wanted to do some research and get back to me. I acutely remember the nerves and anxiety in my stomach when I landed in Dallas for my exam. All I wanted was to know I could terminate the fetus with peace of mind, so I could go tackle my test with a singular focus and deal with the rest later. The thought of being told I’d need to continue this pregnancy from a Jewish law perspective literally made me sick. A pregnancy that may die inside of me anyways. A pregnancy that may yield a child that may not live. And if it lived- would live a torturous life.
As I expected from my experience with Jewish law on these cases, I was permitted to terminate my pregnancy. The immense relief was what I needed to get through my next day. The peace of mind, I still draw from to this day.
After my test, my mind started wandering back to the task I had at hand. How was I going to make it, tricking my baby for one more week, while I waited for the time available in the operating room. I thought back to all my patients in the Bronx who were similarly given limited time slots, sometimes a week away from their initial consults. I had never ever thought of how horrible it was to live with a pregnancy inside of you, while knowing you wanted to terminate it. It’s really just inhumane.
By the grace of G-d, I bumped into our Family Planning specialist in the airport on the way home from my test. She had been one of the physicians who served as an oral boards examiner and had also flown to Dallas. I will never forget the kindness she showed me, both with her empathy and with getting me booked for the operating room the very next day. That was the second immense relief I felt throughout my whole ordeal.
Terminations are rarely simple. The contrast of falling asleep one night, nauseous but excited, a new sensation of a bulge in my belly hitting the bed, and then just two nights later, uterus emptied, pregnant no longer. Did I betray the fruit of my womb? …Life was not meant to be stripped from a yearning mother’s body. Even now, many months later, I have moments when I wonder what that baby would’ve been. And though I believe I did the right thing, I wonder if I really did. It’s real and fresh as the day it happened.
A an OB/GYN, I counsel patients about the risks of pregnancy; even in the best-case scenario, and in the healthiest woman, a pregnancy is not without risks. Maternal risks of pregnancy can be serious and long lasting; they include hypertensive disorders, diabetes, hemorrhage, or worsening of pre-existing diseases. In rare cases of extreme hemorrhage, a woman may need her uterus removed to save her life, which in addition to complications of blood loss, puts future childbearing at risk. The list goes on and on.
Should a woman be obligated to bear these risks in cases where she and her team of experts deem the pregnancy is not worth the risk to her life? In cases of non-viable pregnancies? Pregnancies that will result in children that won’t survive? Pregnancies that threaten her mental capacity and health?
I think back to other religious patients I have cared for and the terminations sanctioned by their rabbis: anencephaly, severe genetic syndromes, conceptions by rape. I think about the shame these women experienced and the heavy silence and guilt they carry with them, mostly because they feel their world doesn’t understand.
As an Orthodox female OB/GYN, I am grateful that I was able to obtain quality and timely access to an abortion, according to my religious principles, unchallenged by any external pressures. I was lucky to have the support and care I needed. By sharing my story, I hope to decrease the stigma surrounding these decisions, so that other women in similar situations can get the support and care they deserve.
Bio: Sahar Wertheimer, MD received her medical degree at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Health at Montefiore Medical Center and is currently completing her fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Instagram @saharwertheimermd