North Dakota voters will decide on Election Day whether to add an amendment to the state constitution defining life as beginning at conception. While the debate surrounding so-called personhood amendments often takes the form of competing ideological and political differences, the human impact is often omitted, or wildly distorted.
North Dakota’s radical “personhood” amendment, giving full legal rights to zygotes, is widely seen as the country’s most sweeping crackdown on abortion rights.
Becky Matthews was born in South Dakota and moved to North Dakota in 1984 while she was in the fourth grade. “I’m a good ‘ol Dakota girl,” she said in a heavy Dakotan accent during an interview with Rewire.
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“I grew up in a very conservative church,” Matthews said. “I was never going to be a woman that needed an abortion.”
After having two children, Matthews and her husband decided that they wanted to once again grow their family.
Matthews remembers the exact date. “It was May 30, 2007.” She was 16 weeks pregnant and an ultrasound had revealed that she was pregnant with identical twins. A day later she received a phone call and was told that the twins shared a placenta.
A week after that phone call, it was revealed that her doctor suspected twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare condition that causes the fetuses to share blood. One fetus becomes a “donor” and the other becomes the “recipient.” At the time only 14 health-care facilities in the country could treat such a condition.
Matthews and her husband flew to Cincinnati to seek care at one of those facilities.
After testing and consultation with medical professionals at the Cincinnati Fetal Center, Matthews and her husband carefully considered their options. One option was for Matthews to go on bed rest in an attempt to prolong the pregnancy until at least 24 weeks of gestation and attempt to deliver both twins early. Another option was an invasive laser surgery to separate the fetuses, which could have had negative consequences for both of them.
The final option was termination: abort the “recipient” fetus to save the “donor.”
Matthews and her husband flew back home to North Dakota on Father’s Day weekend. She was nearly 20 weeks pregnant. All of the options were on the table. On the Tuesday after Father’s Day she went to her doctor’s office for an ultrasound.
“We didn’t have heartbeats. I delivered them on June 21, stillborn.”
Matthews looks back at her memories at the Cincinnati Fetal Center and the difficult decisions she and her husband had to contemplate and comes to one conclusion: “There’s no right decision, they all stink,” she said, her voice brimming with emotion. “I remember saying to my husband ‘How did we end up here?’ Three weeks ago we were in a healthy pregnancy. How did we get here?”
“I remember looking out the hospital window at the busy street and thinking, ‘Everyone else’s life is going on.’ I felt like my life was never going to be the same. To be honest, after a loss like that, your life is never the same,” she said.
While Matthews never struggled with questioning the decisions she and her husband made, she questioned her faith. “It was really hard to make sense of how … you’re supposed to be six months along and all of a sudden you’re visiting a cemetery.”
When a friend shared with her that she had an abortion due to a genetic diagnosis, she realized how close to that decision they had been. “I was like, that could have been me,” Matthews said.
North Dakota lawmakers considered HB 1305 during the 2013 legislative session, raising red flags for abortion rights advocates nationwide. The bill would have made it a Class A misdemeanor for a physician to perform an abortion based on gender or a genetic abnormality. Matthews said that reading about the bill in the local newspaper made her angry. The conversation around HB 1305 had no consideration for the difficult decisions women and families are forced to make.
“I just kept thinking about how difficult it is to make those decisions and how dare [lawmakers] think they should tell a family what their decisions should or should not be,” said Matthews.
After contacting reproductive rights advocates in the state, she told her family that she would testify against HB 1305. Matthews would also testify against other anti-choice bills, including SCR 4009, which was the legislatively referred amendment that became Measure 1, the ballot initiative North Dakotans will vote on next Tuesday.
After being signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in May 2013, the Center for Reproductive Rights, on behalf of Red River Women’s Clinic, filed a federal lawsuit challenging HB 1305. The lawsuit was later dismissed at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Matthews said she’s been motivated to speak out about her experience in part because of the countless people who have shared their stories with her privately. Many opponents to the anti-choice measures, she said, feel they can’t speak publicly about their opposition.
“There is some family that will hear my story and not know it will impact them for years to come. I hope they know that whatever decision they make is OK,” she said.
Many of Matthews’ friends and family consider themselves “pro-life.” But, she said, “they still love and respect me” because they see her story as “different.”
“It’s not different,” she said.
“I don’t feel horrible about the decision I made. I feel horrible about the people who called me … a baby killer”
Angie Brown, born and raised in rural North Dakota, had an abortion a quarter century ago. She has never spoken about her abortion publicly, and said that she has only told three people in those 25 years. Brown said the stigma surrounding abortion in her home state is so pervasive, she fears that if her story became publicly known she would be shunned by friends and family. She even fears being fired from her job.
Brown spoke to Rewire on the condition that a pseudonym be used to protect her identity.
Brown was sexually assaulted when she was a student in college. Her first boyfriend in the wake of the rape pressured her into having sex, and she became pregnant as a result. She was 19 years old. She had quit college due to the trauma of the assault, and then her boyfriend left her.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Brown went to a crisis pregnancy center—facilities that are infamous for distributing false information and deploying scare tactics—but she was concerned about the singular focus the counselors had on her carrying the pregnancy to term. “It was pretty clear that she was more interesting in the pregnancy than she was me as a human being,” she said of a CPC staffer.
Brown’s mother was the first person who told her abortion was an option.
“Don’t you have to go to the cities for that?” Brown asked her mother. “She said that I could go to Fargo. I actually had no idea that there was a clinic in Fargo or that [abortion] was an option at all.”
This was in the late 1980s.
When Brown confided in a friend about the situation, he put her in touch with his sister, who had both carried a pregnancy to term and had an abortion. “She didn’t tell me to do one or the other. She just told me what it was like to have an abortion, and what it was like to have a baby,” Brown said.
At nine weeks pregnant, Brown made an appointment to terminate the pregnancy. A friend drove her to Fargo, three hours away from her home, where she had an abortion.
Now 44 years old, Brown is a college graduate with a career. She is also a mother to a 13-year-old son. She does not regret her decision.
“I don’t feel horrible about the decision I made. I feel horrible about the people who called me a ‘slut’ and the people that called me a ‘baby killer,’” Brown said, “knowing that those people could be living next door to me, or working with me or could be my friends and family.”
“The stigma is the judgement people place on you for doing what you know is best for you,” she said.
Recent research reveals how difficult it can be to even study the stigma of abortion, and advocates at organizations like the Sea Change Program are working to both understand and combat the stigma surrounding abortion.
Both Matthews and Brown think that if more women spoke about their abortion experiences, it might change minds and add much-needed voices to conversations dominated by extreme anti-choice politicians.
“If I’m a group of 50 women or 100 women that came out and said, ‘Yes, I did this,’ that would be different. But as far as I know, I’m a group of one,” Brown said.
Matthews worries about the consequences on women and their families if Measure 1 is passed on Election Day. “I’ve thought about that,” Matthews said, no longer able to control her tears. “I have two daughters, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay here and raise them.”
“For a girl that loves horseback riding and doing stuff with the cattle—I just don’t know how long I could stay [in North Dakota] and fight.”