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My Choice

Why one ultra-Orthodox woman chose to have an abortion—and how she felt about her decision

Sara Shamansky
February 19, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The second pink line was so pale, it was barely there at all, but when I saw it on the pregnancy test, I felt my whole soul light up. Already a mother of two, I would love this third baby so much.

Seven weeks later, I went for the nuchal translucency test. I lay back in the chair, and smiled at my husband as I pulled up my shirt from where a slight bulge was beginning to appear. We were looking forward to seeing our baby on the screen. The doctor smeared warm gel on my stomach, placed the smooth round disc against me, and adjusted it until the heartbeat showed up in the corner of the screen.

“There’s his hand,” the doctor said.

“Look, he’s waving at us,” said my husband, and he smiled at me.

“It’s too thick,” the doctor stated.

I didn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he meant the baby was in a position that made it difficult to measure, that following would come prods at my stomach or adjustments to the equipment.

“We expect to see a nuchal fluid value of under two, this is over four.” He spoke calmly.

“You mean you need to measure it again?”

“No, I did measure again. Look, here, at this number that shows on the screen, at this thick buildup of fluid behind the neck. “

I started to understand that something was wrong.

“What does this mean?”

My only conscious thought was thank God my husband was here, holding my hand, I couldn’t survive this alone.

The doctor played around with numbers on the computer. “There is a 1 in 2 likelihood of a chromosomal abnormality. I recommend further testing.”

We opted for the fetal DNA testing, despite it not being covered by our insurance, because it was noninvasive and there was no risk of it causing harm to the baby. The receptionist swiped my credit card and passed over forms for me to sign, waivers and explanations of the test’s precision. What followed was a simple blood test. It was hard to understand that one ultrasound measurement and one blood test had the power to turn our lives upside down.

Downstairs in the parking lot after that horrible appointment, I told my husband: “If he’s right, and it’s allowed, I want an abortion.”

“An abortion?” my husband replied. “How can you say that? We saw him. He waved at us.”

“I’m not saying I would terminate, but we do have to ask a rabbi, see what he says. We speak to a rabbi when we want to know if a pot became treyf,” I said. “This is the biggest decision in our lives, shouldn’t we find out the Torah’s opinion and not assume that we know?”

“You’re right”, he said, “but let’s daven that it doesn’t come to that.”

I never thought I would have an abortion. It wasn’t that I was against abortion per se; it just wasn’t something that I personally would ever do. Living in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, I compartmentalized abortions as belonging to a different world; I bunched them together with the other things irrelevant to my life, like partying in a nightclub or experimenting with weed. But now, suddenly, it was immediately relevant, part of my world.

The doctor said the fetal DNA test results would take one to two weeks to arrive; meanwhile, there was nothing we could do but wait. At home, I chose hairbands, found matching socks, and picked up Duplo and crayons from the living room floor. At night, I waited, prayed, and cried. I Googled words and terms and statistics that before I never gave much thought to, because they were part of other people’s lives, not mine.

That Friday night I lit the Shabbat candles, and prayed for the well-being of my husband and children. I also prayed for the baby I carried inside me—for ubari—inserting the Hebrew word for “my fetus” into the prayer, my own private modification, something I did every week since finding out I was pregnant.

When the doctor finally called, I was alone in my office. I closed the door, and listened to his words: “I’m very sorry,” he said.

The tree-lined street was empty, the Israeli sun bright, as my husband and I again held hands, and walked down the street paved with Jerusalem stone, toward the rabbi’s office. We had gone back to the specialist for a full, second-trimester, ultrasound screening, and now knew that the child I carried had a chromosomal abnormality, and would be born with some level of both mental and physical disability, together with health issues that would require surgery. Talk abounds on the internet about doctors “not knowing what they are talking about,” and “after everything the tests showed, the baby was born fine,” however in most case that applies to the stage where the diagnosis is a “statistical likeliness” of a problem. Here, unfortunately, the repeated testing showed that the diagnosis was certain. I could no longer pray for a miracle.

There are 70 faces to the Torah, because it is a living Torah, created for living, breathing, souls; each person unique. There are many different opinions in Judaism on abortion. The same rabbi could say different things to different couples facing the same medical diagnoses, based on their unique situation. In our case, he listened, he counseled, and he finished off by saying it was our choice, it was our decision to make.

My husband told me that I needed to be the one to decide. He said that once he knew that the Torah was supportive of either decision, he felt he could live with whichever path we went down, and his primary concern was for me. Part of me wanted to beg him to tell me what to do, but the other part knew that if he did, and I went along, I ran the risk of blaming him forever. This wasn’t a situation where we could compromise and find a middle ground. Despite him being the father, and us both standing at a crossroads that would forever impact both our lives and our family’s; on a deep primal level, I felt that this was my body, carrying the life growing inside me, and this had to be my choice.

Choice, I thought. It makes it sound like a good thing. But what about when both options are bad?

I wanted to choose to keep the baby, no matter what. I wanted to put my hand on my stomach and tell my baby, “Don’t worry; you will be safe inside me. I will carry you, nourish you, and let you grow inside me. I will become fat and heavy, and waddle, my pregnant belly on display for the entire world to see. I will take prenatal vitamins, and not eat sushi or drink alcohol, and not go into Jacuzzis or saunas, everything to keep you safe, I will labor, breathing through the agony, and give birth to you, I will hold you and nurse you.”

I wanted to promise my baby that I would look after him forever, be his mother forever.

I wanted to be a strong and brave tiger mom who fights for her child; fights for his life and health in hospital wards, fights for his development in clinics and therapy offices, and fights for his pride and dignity in schools and in playgrounds.

I wanted to carry on lighting the Shabbat candles, week after week, and praying for my baby.

I wanted to bring him home from the hospital, wrapped in a blanket with a cute matching hat, and tell my children that here was our little baby. He was a little bit sick, so we would need to take good care of him, and he was special, and different from other babies, and we loved him so much because he was our special precious baby.

I wanted my children to grow up as caring, giving, accepting people, because they learned that at home, learned that it’s OK to be different, and that giving to others makes us better and stronger and happier.

But I was scared.

I was scared of failing him. Of one day, looking at him—as a baby, or a child, or a grown adult—and thinking: “I can’t do this, I can’t take it any longer, I can’t look after him any longer.” By then it would be too late; I wouldn’t be able to turn back the clock.

I was scared of failing my family. I was scared of a home descending into dysfunction and neglect. I didn’t know how I would be able look my other children in the eye, when their parents were caught up in hospital stays and surgeries and therapies, knowing that I chose to do this to them.

I was scared of failing my marriage. Of fights, with both of us stretched past breaking point. Of us turning into people we didn’t want to be. Of there not being a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to together, there not being any hope.

I was scared for myself. For selfish reasons, not stuff I can idealize, not stuff I can blame on anyone else. I was scared of feeling trapped, of wanting to escape, and run away, and there not being any way of running away, of leaving, because how could I ever leave my own child? I was scared of a lifetime of being a caretaker, a nurse, never being free.

I stopped putting my hand on my stomach and whispering to my baby. I stopped taking prenatal vitamins. I ate sushi and hoped to get sick, to end it the easy way. I didn’t pray for my unborn baby, that last Shabbat when I lit the candles. How could I pray for his health when I knew what was planned?

I scheduled the appointments, for the specialist, and for the social worker who would submit my request to the committee for the approval of pregnancy termination located at the hospital, in order to approve the procedure, the surgery. It looked like I was sure, but how could I be sure, with my child inside me, telling me something different? How could I do something that went against my very being?

It was the hardest thing I ever did.

The day before the scheduled D&E, I made the rounds at the hospital, from receptionist to nurse to doctor to social worker. I had to go over the details of why I wanted to do what I wanted to do, again with each of them. The words hurt every time. I was given a form, which I filled out on the back of a blue metal chair, and when I came to the question of “why I became pregnant,” I ran down a list including of “opposed to birth control,” “failure of birth control,” “rape and sexual violence,” until I reached the last option: “wanted pregnancy.” I think that is the moment when my heart broke, when I marked an X on that form, in the empty box next to “wanted pregnancy.”

The year that followed was a year of “should haves.” I should have been announcing my pregnancy, my family sharing in my joy. I should have been wearing maternity clothes. I should have been holding a baby. I should have been on maternity leave.

Together with the pain of pregnancy loss comes the guilt and self-doubt of pregnancy termination. Do I belong in the hospital support group, when the surgery I underwent was elective? Am I allowed to mourn my baby, after what I did to it?

I will feel guilty for the rest of my life. When I said vidui, the Jewish confession, on Yom Kippur, I didn’t feel any guilt, because I don’t feel guilty toward God. I know the Jewish way is a way of life, and I chose life—my life, my family’s life. The guilt that encompasses me is a different guilt, a Jewish mother’s guilt, toward my unborn baby, whom I gave up.

I carry the memories of a pregnancy that existed only to my husband and myself, look at our picture-perfect family portraits and see a shadow child there, hovering beside us. I feel very alone. In the world I live in, a world of annual pregnancies and large families, pregnancy loss is barely spoken of, aside for abstract mentions in magazine articles, posts in anonymous forums, and hushed whispers between friends in an empty room.

Abortion is even more taboo. Jewish law allows terminating a pregnancy, of course, when the life of the mother is in danger, everybody knows that. But when the life of the mother is not in danger? When the child may have lived? I am scared to tell the truth, even within my family and close friends. The official term is “Termination for Medical Reasons”—there are forums and poems and books, a sisterhood of women who went through “TFMR.” We write of loss, and love, and trying for our rainbow babies. But “in real life,” among the people I know, I remain silent. I don’t want to be judged, not by people who talk in broad strokes of “I would never.” I read the anti-abortion articles they link to on Facebook. I am so jealous of them for never having had to make that choice.

I see them everywhere, those who made the other choice. I want to tell them how much I admire them, and respect them, while not regretting my choice, only mourning it.

Sara Shamansky is a writer and blogger whose work has appeared in a wide range of Jewish publications. She writes about her experiences as a woman, wife, and mother in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. She is currently working on her first novel.