Commentary Human Rights

A Love Letter to My Husband, an Abortion Warrior

Erika A. Christensen

Even after 13 years of learning this person through friendship, courtship, and marriage, my husband still awes me with the depths of his goodness and ferocious loyalty.

Two years into dating my now-husband, I had a seizure. Garin and I were eating dinner and watching TV in our cozy, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn when it happened. I don’t remember anything about the seizure itself, but Garin describes it as grotesque and terrifying.

I’d felt “off” all day. And as I walked home that evening from one of my side jobs after a full day of work in an office, I recall feeling like I could just lay down in the snow and die; I felt so exhausted. I also had a splitting headache, but that wasn’t so unusual.

He rode with me in an ambulance to Bellevue Hospital, where medics asked me basic questions I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know what year it was or my own last name. Eventually, they asked me who the president was and with great relief, I exclaimed “OBAMA!” They all laughed.

Soon after that seizure, I was scheduled for surgery to remove a tumbleweed of blood vessels the size of a golf ball from the right side of my brain. Before that happened, though, I proposed to Garin on his birthday with a shiny Leatherman, encrusted with a small wing I found in a charm shop. I called it his “engagement wing.”

We had been friends for years before transitioning to a make-out relationship, and I honestly can’t believe I made it as long as I did before proposing. Sure, timing is everything, but this is a man you set your clocks for.

A year later, we got married and—like all couples—received our fair share of advice, both solicited and not. One refrain we heard a lot was “Marriage is hard. Just keep working at it.” We heard this from those who had weathered decades of marriage, and most emphatically from those who had divorced. As products of divorced parents ourselves, we drank up these words, nodding gravely and gratefully; scared to curse our union by considering marriage could be any other way.

At the risk of tempting the most colossal jinx of my life, I’d now like to offer an alternative to this advice, rooted in four years of trauma, heartbreak, and radical change: Marriage is not always what’s hard. Life is hard. Marry someone who will go to war with you.

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A year into marriage, we decided to have a baby (ah, the naïveté!). Our first attempt resulted in a devastating miscarriage at 10 weeks. We knew miscarriages were common, but that knowledge does not help in the moments after your OB solemnly tells you there is no heartbeat.

Soon I was pregnant again. Early indicators were good. We found out we were having a boy and the prospect of bringing home a miniature Garin began to form in my mind: a deeply funny, blue-eyed tinkerer, who stops to move sidewalk debris he deems unsafe to his fellow pedestrians. I tease him for being such a concerned citizen, but I also love it. I hoped our little boy would be the same.

As the pregnancy progressed, we started to receive a series of bad news from our doctors. The baby’s feet were clubbed, which on its own was a treatable condition. We met with a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, so we could start preparing for what postnatal treatment might look like.

Then doctors noticed our baby’s hands were tightly clenched. They noted it as something to watch; we soldiered on.

The weeks stacked up and we started to notice his hands were always clenched. Doctors assured us that, as long as the baby continued to grow, it was very possible these rare anomalies were unrelated and, more importantly, treatable.

Then at 30 weeks, the optimism drained from our doctor’s voice. Until this point, our baby had been measuring on the small side of normal. Now his growth markers had fallen off a cliff. At the same time, I had developed dangerously high amniotic fluid levels. High fluid coupled with a total lack of growth indicated to our doctors that he was not swallowing. As our doctor explained this to us, putting the puzzle pieces of the past eight months together, he finally got to his point: “Swallowing is how the baby practices breathing on the outside. If he cannot swallow, he will not be able to breathe.”

I asked what would happen if we continued the pregnancy. He explained that, if I did not have a late miscarriage, our baby would live for a very short time before choking to death.

The next couple of weeks were a blur of shower sobbing and logistical planning. As I explained in a piece for Rewire, because of the law in New York, we would have to travel to Colorado to mercifully terminate our pregnancy.

Days after Mother’s Day, we got on a plane to fly thousands of miles away from our home and our doctors to spare our baby a painful death. At the airport, strangers congratulated us. They asked if we were having our first baby or wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. I did my best to smile and say “thank you,” blinking back tears. Walking away, Garin would squeeze my hand.

It struck me, not for the first time, the public nature of pregnancy. At no other time is it socially acceptable for strangers to remark on your body or ask personal questions spontaneously—unless you are a child.

That night in a Boulder hotel, I drank bourbon for my nerves, because it no longer mattered what I drank.

Once we were back home, our neighborhood became a battleground. We asked ourselves when it was that every single person in Brooklyn had a baby. We avoided our pregnant friends or friends with babies. We told ourselves it was to spare them our misery, but the truth is that it was just too hard. For weeks I went to work with my husband because I couldn’t bear to be alone. If his partners minded his sad wife sitting in the corner, they didn’t mention it.

I couldn’t leave Garin for even a second, because he was the only person in the entire universe who lived in this new version of reality with me, where we could do all the right things and still lose our baby. Where we could vote, pay our taxes, and regularly volunteer to help our neighbors in their times of need, yet still be denied care and treated like criminals by our state government.

To be sure, no one deserves to be denied doctor-recommended medical care, whatever the circumstances. But in my darkest hours, when I was trying desperately to make a deal with the universe, the “merits” of these details felt like my only bargaining chips.

Something no one ever tells you after a loss like this is that you won’t only grieve the pregnancy itself. You will also grieve the idea of the version of you and your partner you were so looking forward to meeting. Our regular activities suddenly felt meaningless and we simply didn’t know what to do with all of the anticipation we’d channeled into impending parenthood.

So we quit our jobs and sold everything. We gave up our beloved apartment between two parks where we’d fallen in love, gotten married, and spent many hours playing Settlers of Catan with our friends. We packed up our old Subaru and embarked for Baltimore to renovate an old, broken-down row house that my mom bought in 1978.

The house on Fait Avenue was, and this is putting it gently, a total quagmire. Built around 1900, our best guess is that its construction provided extra work to drunken sailors who had never built so much as a sandwich. Not one right angle to be found, coupled with decades of neglect and bare minimum upkeep left an ugly, water-damaged hovel. But the place had soul.

Daily trips to Home Depot became our only lifeline to other humans. Thanks to a textured wall treatment big in the ‘80s, I learned to sand and found it meditative in a wax-on-wax-off, Karate Kid kind of way. The bricks literally crumbling, Garin taught himself masonry using YouTube tutorials. With great relief, we crashed every night totally exhausted. The grief gradually grew less acute and settled into an underlying ache.

Through the sweat and demolition, a new feeling arose from the actual and metaphorical rubble: rage. What happened to us was terrible and, we grew to understand, more common than we ever could have thought. I found an incredible support group online that connected me with women all across the country who had ended wanted pregnancies. All of our situations were so different, but when you join a club like that, you immediately gain hundreds of sisters.

We learned that while outcomes like ours are outliers among pregnancy as a whole, they are absolutely representative of the 1.3 percent of abortions that happen after 21 weeks’ gestation. Stories like ours, requiring quite a heavy emotional lift from those willing to go public, I should add, are out there. Patient storytellers trade their precious privacy to right the record, while our representatives espouse misleading rhetoric about abortion, particularly abortions that happen later in pregnancy.

Garin holding his daughter (Courtesy of Erika Christensen)

Over the next 12 months, Garin and I became immersed in all things reproductive rights and justice, connecting with experts in law, medicine, and genetics. And when we were given the opportunity to lobby the state senate on behalf of a bill that would take New York’s outdated abortion law out of the criminal code, we jumped at the chance. For us, the Reproductive Health Act became a kind of life raft.

We also learned I was pregnant again.

The first time we drove the seven hours from Baltimore to lobby in Albany, I was nine months pregnant with our daughter. While there, we spoke publicly about our loss for the first time, at a rally outside in the freezing January cold.

As I listened to my husband demand full-throated support for my rights into a microphone in front of hundreds of strangers, I cried. I cried because even after 13 years of learning this person through friendship, courtship, and marriage, he could still awe me with the depths of his goodness and ferocious loyalty.

I thought he is so in this with me, and it felt like the most powerful act of love.

Our daughter was born less than a year after my abortion. If I had not been able to receive the safe abortion I did, when I did, this specific little girl may not exist.

I cannot fathom this alternate version of reality, because she is literally everything to us. For subsequent trips upstate, we brought her along for meetings with Democrat and Republican senators alike. She was very popular, to say the least.

Many remarked on her big blue eyes, which look a lot like Garin’s.

Garin is going to battle for her too.

Today in New York state, abortion still sits in the criminal code. The Reproductive Health Act, debated in open air and passed by the New York Assembly, sits dormant in the state senate. Republican senators and staff members who have been willing to meet with us express their sympathy for our loss, but ultimately scapegoat their constituents as an excuse to not support our efforts to decriminalize abortion in the state. The implication is that their constituents would not be able to understand the need for later abortions, even when given the information. We disagree.

So the war continues and we fight to inject context and humanity into the debate about our cruel and unconstitutional state abortion law. New York did not cause us to lose our baby, but the law did compound our suffering with avoidable pain and shame.

We fight for each other and for every person deserted in their time of need. And in fighting together, we love.

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