Two women share their abortion stories ahead of a decision on Roe v. Wade

By: - June 22, 2022 7:00 am

Hundreds rally at the state Capitol for the MI Body MI Choice event on Oct. 2, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

When now-state Rep. Christine Morse went to the doctors to get an MRI in 2011, she wasn’t expecting to find out she was pregnant.      

She was trying to find out how far along her breast cancer had developed. 

Before her diagnosis, the mother of three and her husband were trying for another baby. Yet the treatment for cancer called for a drug that was incompatible with pregnancy.

“At first, I kind of wondered what I should do, but then it quickly became clear. The way my doctor laid it out was like, ‘you’re putting your life at extreme risk if you don’t do this,’’’ said Morse (D-Texas Twp.). 

She and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy.

According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based abortion rights think tank, 1 in 4 women will have an abortion by age 45. And many will keep their experience private as abortion care has been stigmatized. 

But with a leaked draft decision from the U.S. Supreme Court hinting at its intention to overturn the 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which enshrined the right to an abortion in the U.S. Constitution, more people are sharing their stories. 

Michigan state Rep. Christine Morse (D-Texas Twp.) | Courtesy photo

“I felt like my story is one that’s important because I’m a person who had to make a difficult choice, but there was still a lot of ambiguity in my story,” Morse said, adding she feels by sharing that she’ll help others. 

Still the future of abortion in Michigan isn’t exactly clear. 

A 1931 state law that would make nearly all abortions, with the exception to “save the life of the pregnant woman,” a felony could take effect if Roe is overturned. 

But a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of Michigan aims to block enforcement of the 1931 law, with a Court of Claims judge granting a preliminary injunction in April. 

That same month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also filed a lawsuit that seeks to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state constitution. 

And a third effort is being driven by the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative that seeks to protect abortion and other reproductive health services in Michigan. The initiative must collect 425,059 signatures by July 11 — 10% of the total votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election — to go directly to the ballot for voters to decide. 

At first, I kind of wondered what I should do, but then it quickly became clear. The way my doctor laid it out was like, ‘you're putting your life at extreme risk if you don't do this.'

– State Rep. Christine Morse

Morse’s type of breast cancer was HER2-positive, which means it had a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells. In order to treat the breast cancer, Morse would have to take Herceptin. 

However, Herceptin is incompatible with pregnancy, so the cancer-treating drug wasn’t an option if Morse was to stay pregnant. 

But without Herceptin, Morse’s doctor said there was about a three-year survival rate.

“When I initially found out I was pregnant, I was very angry because I just had this diagnosis. I was scared, and I didn’t even have any details yet. I hadn’t even seen my oncologist yet,” recalled Morse, who was 38 at the time. 

Morse’s doctor told her she could wait until her second trimester to start chemotherapy treatment, but she had a large mass under her arm that needed to be treated soon. 

“The decision for me did feel a little fraught. I mean, I felt like I was kicking it around a little bit, wondering if I should try and delay the chemo or not,” Morse said. “My husband said, ‘absolutely not. I want you to be alive. I want you to be here for our children.’ He was certainly encouraging me to have an abortion. And obviously for me in the end, that was the only decision. I wanted to be there to raise my three kids.”

Initially, Morse went to Planned Parenthood to get the medication abortion, but when they did the ultrasound they couldn’t find the fetus. From there, she was sent to Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo. 

There, the doctors thought Morse had an ectopic pregnancy, but after treating her for that with a chemotherapy drug called methotrexate, she was still pregnant. 

After another trip to Bronson Hospital and another ultrasound, it was confirmed that it was a partial molar pregnancy, meaning the embryo either develops incompletely or doesn’t develop at all. The doctor performed a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure to remove the molar tissue from the lining of her uterus, because that can also be cancerous.

“I didn’t feel bad about the decision. … I wanted to live. I got to the point where that was my entire focus. I needed to not be pregnant. And so everything was focused on that,” Morse said.

For a while, Morse and her husband kept the abortion private between a small group of friends and family.

“I kind of felt like it’s nobody’s business really. I wasn’t ashamed of my decision. But, I guess, maybe on some level, you’re concerned people will judge you,” Morse said. “Even in 2011, people weren’t talking about abortion regularly and putting it out there.”

Medical community should raise alarm

But after she started campaigning for office in 2018, she knew her story would help other people in similar situations. 

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade due for release any day and the constitutionality of the 1931 Michigan law undecided, Morse feels her story is even more relevant. 

“The [1931] law as it is now highlights the fact that my doctor’s decisions could have put them subject to a felony possibly,” Morse said. “I suppose if abortion were illegal, perhaps my oncologist would have treated it as an emergency. … It was not treated as an emergency. It was treated as completely my choice, but if it were illegal, maybe she would have treated it differently.”

Morse said she has looked into the 1931 law and what it means to “save the life of the mother. Now, she wonders if her own life would have been saved under the state’s 90-year-old abortion ban. 

“Even in my case, where at the end of the day it was a judgment call and the law is not clear. … I could not find any decisions on what it meant to save the life of the mother,” she said. “I think that the medical community should really be raising the alarm because their ability to practice healthcare is at risk.”

1 in 4 women will have an abortion by age 45. And many will keep their experience private as abortion care has been stigmatized.

– Guttmacher Institute

Confronting abortion stigma

Even though abortion is protected by Roe, it is not exempt from the court of public opinion.

Many people still do not feel comfortable sharing their own personal stories about their experiences with abortion.

Reproductive health experts define abortion stigma as “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood.”

One study in 2020 surveyed more than 4,000 abortion patients in the U.S. and found that nearly two-thirds of the participants reported “people would look down on them” if they went public about their abortion.  

Many of the people who the Advance interviewed for this story declined to use their names or personal details, even though they wanted their stories to be out there. 

Most of them cited fears of being judged by family members or coworkers, despite having confidence in their own decision.

Humanizing abortion care

She was just 24 at the time, when she made two appointments with Planned Parenthood after finding out she was pregnant, but canceled them both. 

The Advance agreed to keep the identity of this woman anonymous to protect the identity of her health care provider. 

It wasn’t that the woman wasn’t sure about whether or not she wanted to get an abortion. She was confident that was the right choice for her, but after spending years in school studying to be a midwife, she knew she wanted to go a different route for the procedure than in a doctor’s office. 

The woman, who is now 26, remembered sitting in the parking lot of a Planned Parenthood clinic in West Michigan, where she lives, thinking: “This is not where I want to end this pregnancy. I do not want to end it under sterile lights. I don’t want to do it around strangers.”

For the woman, being pro-choice means more than choosing whether or not to get an abortion, but having a variety of options for abortion care. 

“Not only do people deserve choice, but they also deserve choices that are going to empower them, be healing and be what they need in a moment of huge transition,” she said. “You go from being pregnant to not being pregnant, and that is a huge thing for someone to go through. And I think right now the conversation is so political, but we can go one step deeper. Abortions are still going to happen, so how do we get people humanized care, knowing that this is a huge transition for people and for people’s bodies to go through?”

The woman knew through her studies that midwives carry pitocin, which is a natural hormone that causes the uterus to contract to induce labor, strengthen labor contractions during childbirth, control bleeding after childbirth or to induce an abortion.

So the woman reached out to a midwife who agreed to help her with her abortion and give her the pitocin. The two talked discreetly through a secure app for a few days, then the woman drove about three hours away to meet the midwife at her house. The woman was instructed to leave her phone in her car and was handed the medication in an envelope. 

About two weeks later, she decided to take the medication. 

She and the midwife talked via the app during the whole process. She said the midwife checked in on her every hour until late into the night. 

For a couple days, everything was fine and the abortion seemed successful. 

“I really was able to do it in my own way and I have zero regrets of how that happened. I’m so thankful that I got to do it in a very intentional and personally spiritual way to me,” the woman said. 

But a few days after she thought the abortion was complete, she felt an intense pain and had excessive bleeding. 

The midwife told her she would have to go to the hospital to make sure everything was alright. 

“Through my training from midwifery school, I knew that I was going to have to lie when I went to the hospital and say that I had a miscarriage,” the woman said. “So I went in and I was like, ‘Hey, like I am a student midwife. I know what’s going on. I’ve been having a miscarriage for a few days, but something is not right.’ ”

Through an ultrasound, the doctors found that parts of the pregnancy were stuck in her cervix and weren’t draining out through the uterus. 

“They had to assist in getting all of that out. And I was satisfied in a way by the hospital because they were there for this emergency service, but they were super cold,” she said. 

She recalled sitting in the hospital gown covered in blood, sitting on the bloody bed sheet, dodging questions about where the father was and about her family dynamics. 

“To all their knowing, I’m having a miscarriage. Like, in their perspective, I didn’t make this choice. So, make this a little easier on me,” the woman said. 

She said she is concerned for pregnant people in states where abortion will be illegal if Roe is overturned who might turn to at-home abortions and not feel safe enough to go to the hospital if things go wrong. 

“On a grassroots level, I feel like we need to be training women to say they’re having a miscarriage and to just stick to that,” the woman said. “It feels weird to lie, but you have to do what you have to do, and I wasn’t about to get myself or my midwife in any possible trouble.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.