Democratic lawmakers and abortion rights advocates rally on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Capital-Star photo)
Anusha Viswanathan’s first pregnancy was meticulously planned and — at first — easily joyous.
There were “little hiccups” after 12 weeks. Every test came back “slightly out of range.” She and her husband, medical professionals, poured over medical journals, attempting to explain their significance.
“It’s just a one-off, we decided. Surely, it couldn’t be that every possible thing could go wrong in one pregnancy,” Viswanathan, a pediatric infectious disease doctor in the Philadelphia area, recounted during a reproductive rights rally Wednesday on the Capitol steps. “Despite all of this, we smiled on that ordinary morning as we walked into the hospital for our 20-week anatomy scan.”
But the couple faltered when the ultrasound technician turned quiet.
“We fell when the obstetrician was ushered into the room to tell us things were not looking well for our extraordinarily, profoundly growth-restricted pregnancy,” she said. “I needed amniocentesis, genetic testing, counseling — all of it now. Because there was a clock in Harrisburg that was ticking, ticking as my husband sobbed and I lay motionless on the table, ticking as we squeezed our hands until they became white and numb.”
Time did strange things as the couple fell into a limbo, “lost in a fog of uncertainty,” where they could only “hurry up and wait, as the saying goes,” Viswanathan said. Their newly selected apartment — chosen for its child-friendly layout — was “now heartbreaking.” A box of baked goods — “grief brownies” — arrived at their home. Viswanathan ate them exclusively for days, “sorrow and sweetness mingling seamlessly on my tongue,” she described.
Either by “fate or happenstance,” Viswanathan became involved in a case with a septic baby in neonatal intensive care. With the near impossibility of finding intravenous access if they took the infected IV out, the parents eventually withdrew care “with heartbreak, compassion, and love.”
She can still see the parents, now parallels, as they agonized over their circumstances while Viswanathan agonized over her own. And then, time was up for Viswanathan and her husband, “for this terrible exam we never wanted, for a pregnancy we desperately did.”
The obstetrician who counseled her through her abortion was “unfailingly kind and effortlessly competent.” She told Viswanathan the decision was “the right one.” On the day of the procedure, the anesthesiologist scanned her chart and said: “I’m sorry,” she recounted.
After her abortion, Viswanathan and her husband went home to grieve.
“In parting kindness, my first pregnancy stood guard over the two nail-biting ones that followed, which were closely monitored, thanks to knowledge and surveillance,” Viswanathan said.
Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, who has spoken openly about her miscarriages, broke into tears as Viswanathan spoke — both knowing that while abortion is still legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in Pennsylvania, there is no guarantee it’ll stay that way.
Just one day before Democratic lawmakers, physicians, and reproductive rights advocates gathered on the Capitol steps to support keeping abortion legal and accessible, thousands of anti-abortion proponents attended the Pennsylvania March for Life.
Republican lawmakers joined in celebrating Roe v. Wade’s reversal and touted a proposed constitutional change that — if approved by voters — would amend the state Constitution to declare there is “no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.
The measure was included as part of a five-pronged amendment package, Senate Bill 106, which passed the General Assembly in July. A governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment, which must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions.
The amendment package, currently the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, could reach voters as early as May 2023 if it passes again in the next legislative session.
Language for the abortion-related amendment came from a bill introduced by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, a former nurse, last year, who — along with Republicans and Democrats who supported the proposal — said existing law won’t change immediately. They’ve also argued that a ballot question gives voters the ultimate say on abortion access in Pennsylvania.
But on Tuesday, rally attendees argued that the proposed constitutional amendment could have fatal consequences, citing possible impacts to access to contraception, in vitro fertilization, treatment of ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and bodily autonomy in Pennsylvania.
“You can say what you want for our Republican friends, but they do know how to read a poll. They know public opinion is not on their side on this one,” Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, said, citing recent polling showing support among Pennsylvanians for keeping abortion legal under all or some circumstances.
Marianne Stein, a legislative associate for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while the ballot question will not automatically ban abortions in Pennsylvania, “its purpose is to enable the Legislature to pass more severe abortion restrictions.”
Jessica Klemens, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Pennsylvania, said some lawmakers don’t realize that every OB-GYN performs abortions, saying they are necessary for some obstetric emergencies.
Klemens described cases where a pregnant person is hemorrhaging because they’re starting to miscarry. Klemens would perform a dilation and evacuation procedure, a type of abortion. If that pregnant person still has a fetus with cardiac activity in their uterus and receives a D&E, “that is considered a pregnancy termination,” she explained.
“The same thing happens if I’m called to the emergency room for a young person with an ectopic pregnancy. This person may be very excited that she is pregnant. However, she finds out via ultrasound that the pain that she is having is because her pregnancy is located in her fallopian tube,” Klemens said. “On that ultrasound, it may show signs that that tube has ruptured, and her belly is filling with blood. That will be considered a pregnancy termination.”
These patients, Klemens said, don’t have time to drive for hours in a car, ride in an ambulance, or fly in a helicopter for care. They have minutes, she said.
“I bump the trauma cases to run my patient to the [operating room] to operate on her to save her life,” Klemens said. “Hopefully, I may save her fallopian tube, but most likely, it is damaged. I could at least save her life.”
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