We Had to End My Daughter's Life at 23 Weeks, but I Didn't Realize I Had an Abortion
Hanna Neuschwander was 21 weeks pregnant when she learned that her daughter's brain was not forming normally. Faced with the hardest decision of her life, the 38-year-old chose to induce labor at 23 weeks and spend the all-too-brief moments holding her daughter before she died. It was only weeks later that Neuschwander, from Portland, Oregon, realized that what she had was considered an abortion, and would be restricted in many other states. She shared her story with PEOPLE to raise awareness of why people have abortions in their second trimester.
I have two living children, a 5 year old and a 1 year old. I’ve had five pregnancies. The first one ended in early miscarriage. Then I had my oldest daughter. And then I got pregnant again in 2016. My husband and weren’t trying, but we were thrilled. I went for my 20-week ultrasound and everything seemed fine, but about a week and half later we got a call from a genetic counselor who said there were some abnormalities and they wanted to get us in as soon as possible. It was a very confusing conversation because she had incomplete information — she said they found a cyst in our daughter’s brain but couldn’t answer any of our questions. What she ended up revealing was, “Well, if you choose to terminate the pregnancy, it would need to be done by 24 weeks.” That’s how I learned something was really wrong. I hung up the phone and cried for a really long time.
We went back and the doctor did more scans, and she really didn’t know what she was seeing. They sent the images to a specialist and we still didn’t get firm answers. The spot on our daughter’s brain, they said, could be something common that 20 percent of the population has and doesn’t know it, or it could be something associated with severe learning disabilities and an extremely poor prenatal prognosis. There was clearly a cyst in her brain in the corpus callosum. It was filled with fluid. They eventually confirmed there were a series of problems in her brain that were not associated with a single named syndrome or disorder. The multiple structural problems added up to one result: poor prenatal outcome.
Suddenly we were in this situation where we were tasked with making a decision without having any idea what the reality was going to be. You’re trying to answer this fundamentally unanswerable question — yes, everyone experiences some pain and suffering, but is our daughter going to experience joy and feel love to make whatever difficulty she would have worth it?
The thing that was really frustrating was that no other person, no medical professional, no paper that I read, no one could answer that question for us. At the time I was extremely angry about that, but at the end of the day, that decision ended up being ours to make. I got really quiet and tried to discern, what do you want? Who are you? Are you there? Do you want to live? And I got nothing back. I got no answer. And for me, that was the answer.
I don’t think she would’ve had any kind of life. So for us, that translated into the choice to end her life as peacefully and lovingly as we could. We made that decision right around 22½ weeks. Oregon actually does not have a legal cutoff for abortions, but most hospitals have policies in place that they want terminations to be complete by 24 weeks. We were able to opt for an induction of labor. The one thing I knew without any uncertainty is that I wanted to give birth. She was my daughter. I wanted to hold her if I could. I wanted to meet her. We also wanted to get an autopsy.
They induced me on a Monday with Pitocin and my labor lasted about 24 hours. I ended up getting an epidural about halfway through. And then she came on Tuesday afternoon. And she was tiny. She was 1 lb. and 3 oz. She didn’t look like a baby who was ready to be born. But she was my baby. We held her. We sang songs to her. We stayed four hours and just held on to her. Then it was time to go. That was worse than making the decision, worse than any of the sort of grief or anything that came after — the moment of having to pick myself up and move my body out of the room and separate myself from her body was the most pain I’ve ever experienced.
About two weeks later was the third 2016 presidential debate, where Clinton and Trump got into it over abortion. He painted this caricature of late-term abortions that was completely opposite of my experience, and so mean and violent in the way that he described it. I literally ran into the bathroom, vomited, and couldn’t stop. I was so sick. And the weirdest thing is, that was the moment I realized that I’d had an abortion. I hadn’t even connected it to that because nobody had used the word during our ordeal. People told me they would call our experience an early induction of labor. But the laws around abortion govern that. I would not have been able to do what I did if there were legal restrictions in place against abortion.
I can’t speak for people who are anti-abortion, but I suspect they have a strain of thinking that a miracle could happen and my baby would have survived. But that’s not the kind of parent I am. I’m not going to gamble with her life. I gathered all the information I could and I asked the hardest questions of myself, and this is what made sense for our family. I believe very strongly that this was the most moral decision I’ve ever made. At one point my midwife told me something beautiful. She said, being a parent is all about making really hard decisions with imperfect information. It was so humane of her to say that and grant me that I wasn’t ending my motherhood or my daughter’s life. I was just being her mom.
- As told to Julie Mazziotta