People who already have kids are uncertain about having more in a state where abortion is illegal.
Abortion access—or the lack thereof—impacts anyone who can become pregnant, which of course includes people who have already been pregnant. In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 60% of people seeking abortions are already parents. This reality is reflected in the results of a survey Tone Madison and Madison Minutes conducted back in August of 2022 about how the loss of abortion rights in Wisconsin has impacted their family planning decisions. Of the 236 people who responded, 101 ( 43%) already have children. Within this group, 35 parents (35%) said that their family planning has changed due to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Responses made it clear that pregnancy, its impact on physical and mental health, and parenting, influence people’s thinking about abortion access, and abortion access (or a lack of it) in turn shapes people’s family planning. Tone Madison spoke with four Madison-area parents who responded to our survey about this interplay and how the Dobbs decision has changed their plans.
Waiting to parent
The average age of first-time mothers in the US rose from 21 to 26 between 1980 and 2016, according to a New York Times survey. The average age of first-time mothers with a college degree is even higher, at 30. Here in Dane County the average age of all first-time mothers lands at 28. More and more, people are delaying parenthood in order to pursue education and career goals or work toward greater personal or financial stability.
Morgan, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, didn’t think she wanted kids at all. She spent her twenties moving around, living in Mexico and a handful of different states, before moving back home to Wisconsin to deal with some mental health issues with the support of family. It wasn’t until later that she felt grounded, after establishing a career, buying a house, and getting together with her now-husband. By the time she decided she did want to have children, she was 37.
Morgan and her husband began trying for a pregnancy. Because of her age (37 is considered “advanced” when it comes to pregnancy), her doctor advised her that she should try for six months before pursuing fertility treatment, as opposed to the year recommended for people in their twenties and early thirties. But they conceived without intervention after seven months. Now Morgan has a two-year-old son.
She doesn’t regret waiting until her late thirties to become a mom.
“I was more sure about being a parent and I was ready for it,” Morgan says. “I spent a lot of time in my 20’s and 30’s not sure and not ready. And I was growing up but I was not ready to tackle helping somebody else grow up, and I think it was really a good gift to be able to wait until I was mentally prepared.”
Morgan says she’s always thought people should be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to have an abortion, and that pregnancy and becoming a parent didn’t weaken that conviction.
“I think becoming a parent has made me more aware of how important abortion is,” she says. “I don’t think I understood the complexity of how often abortions are performed, not just with unwanted pregnancies, but also with ectopic pregnancies and other complications that come along with pregnancies.”
The Dobbs decision hit her “like a bag of bricks.” She was on a camping trip with her family, and escaped to the bathroom to look at CNN on her phone. That’s when she saw the news.
She and her husband would like a second child. The Supreme Court decision—and Wisconsin’s abortion ban—hasn’t changed their plans from a practical perspective. But Morgan is also cognizant that there are more risks involved in another pregnancy due to her age, including a greater chance of miscarriage, stillbirth, and chromosomal issues. She knows that leaving the state to get abortion care under these circumstances would be very difficult—mentally, emotionally, and logistically. But she also knows that for people with fewer resources, it can be much worse.
“It makes me think about all my neighbors and folks in our community where it would be much more than an inconvenience,” she says. “It just breaks my heart for folks that don’t have that luxury.”
Anything can happen
Alice, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, didn’t give much thought to getting married or having kids until she met her husband in her early twenties. Both of them were one of two children in their respective families and based on their experiences, three children seemed ideal. They began trying to start their family when Alice was 28, but they struggled to conceive. They went through three rounds of intrauterine insemination, a step often taken before IVF, but were unsuccessful. When her husband got a new job with an employer in Seattle, they were excited to see that his health plan included IVF among its benefits, because it can be an extremely expensive procedure.
Alice finally became pregnant in 2019. Her son was born two months premature in February of 2020 and though he was healthy, he still spent over a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States. While acknowledging that many parents of babies in the NICU faced more difficult circumstances, Alice says her son’s early birth was “traumatic.”
“That definitely plays into how afraid I am of another pregnancy,” she says. “There was no issue during my pregnancy that would have led the doctors to believe that I might deliver early.”
After her first difficult experience with pregnancy and childbirth, Alice says she and her husband were already feeling a lot of hesitation about their original plan to have three children. Even two started to seem like a stretch.
“Parenting is so fucking hard,” Alice says. “And the more we did it, we were like, ‘Maybe one isn’t so bad. Maybe this is our family, maybe two is just too much for us.’ But we were waffling. Then Dobbs happened. I was just like, ‘No. I can’t do it. I can’t get pregnant in this environment and be subjected to God knows what.’”
Alice’s upbringing in a conservative evangelical family informed her ideas about abortion when she was young. But by the time she reached college, she was an adamant supporter of abortion access and other reproductive rights, even interning with NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. Becoming a parent has only strengthened her support for abortion access.
“No one should have to go through this without really, really intending to,” she says. “There are so many things that can go wrong. Things you have no control over, no matter how good of a pregnant person you try to be. And it’s abominable to me that anyone would say ‘No, you have to go through this. Your mind and your decisions are not important here. What’s important is this clump of cells.’”
Uncertainty about what could happen—and how a particular hospital or clinic would respond to an unforeseen health problem or emergency that might require pregnancy termination—was a theme throughout all of the interviews for this article. When I asked Alice if she’s spoken with any of her healthcare providers about some of her concerns to get some clarity, her response highlighted why this uncertainty is so interminable.
“You know, your personal gynecologist or OB-GYN can tell you what they think. But they’re not going to be in the room when you deliver or when you are in labor. At that point, your fate is in the hands of people you have probably never met or maybe met once depending on who’s on call,” she says. “Yes, hospitals have standards and policies and whatever, but personally I just can’t be in that position to begin with.”
Alice is firm about not having any more children, especially in light of Dobbs, but she says that accepting that her family is complete was “a journey.”
“For my husband and myself, coming to terms with our family of three—we love our son to death,” she says. “But when we were daydreaming and planning and talking about what our family would look like 10 years ago, it wasn’t this. It was at least one more kid. You have to accept reality, realize what your boundaries are, what you are and are not willing to risk. And this is where we wound up. And it’s still beautiful.”
Caitlin Warlick-Short, 33, is another parent whose intimate familiarity with the uncertainty and risks involved in pregnancy shapes her feelings about having more children. She and her husband knew they wanted to have children for a long time, but put it off for various reasons, including grad school. But by the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic convinced them that the future would always be uncertain, and they should stop waiting for a perfect time. That fall, Warlick-Short was pregnant. But when she and her husband went for their eight-week ultrasound, they got concerning news—their baby was measuring small for its gestational age. After a stressful week of waiting, they went in for a follow-up appointment where they learned that the pregnancy wasn’t viable.
Warlick-Short had to make a decision. She could wait and “let biology take its course,” i.e. hold out for a natural miscarriage; she could take medication to clear the pregnancy tissue from her uterus; or she could have the tissue removed via surgery.
In the end, Warlick-Short elected to have surgery, formally known as dilation and curettage (or a D&C, also how some abortions are performed). She didn’t like the idea of taking medication, which would have required her to carefully monitor her bleeding at home. The prospect of waiting also made her uncomfortable, especially since it would have required her to return to the clinic, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, for regular blood tests to make sure her pregnancy had ended. Ultimately she feels surgery was the right choice.
“I was really grateful for that experience,” Warlick-Short says. “And every single medical provider I talked to said, ‘Oh, you did the exact same thing I would have done’ or ‘the same thing I did.’ Which, especially with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, is super concerning to me, because I know that it’s the favorite option [for treating miscarriages.] But it’s the exact same procedure as an abortion.”
The next few months were difficult as Warlick-Short and her husband dealt with the grief of pregnancy loss over the holidays, a time when many people share pregnancy announcements. And the following spring, when she discovered she was pregnant again, she says she didn’t get her hopes up. She also learned everything she could about what a healthy pregnancy should look like before going in for her first ultrasound, including the baby’s size and heart rate, so that she would know right away if something was wrong. When she and her husband went in for the scan, the results were unexpected, but positive—Caitlin was pregnant with twins.
“I completely burst into tears,” she says. “We were in ultimate shock.”
Being pregnant with more than one baby—a multiple pregnancy—comes with its own challenges. Factors like whether the babies share a placenta, an amniotic sac, or both, create additional risks. Warlick-Short’s twins each had their own amniotic sac but shared a placenta.
“An analogy I read somewhere says it’s like two people going scuba diving with one air tank,” she says. “It’s never not complicated, even if nothing goes wrong.”
Complicated pregnancies mean additional screenings. Warlick-Short estimates that she had over 20 ultrasounds throughout her pregnancy. And at 20 weeks, she and her husband learned that one of their twin girls was growth-restricted, which led to even closer monitoring and more anxiety for the couple. Warlick-Short says she joined Facebook groups for parents of multiples for support. She was aware of the difficult decisions people with multiple pregnancies sometimes have to make, including the decision to selectively reduce the number of fetuses in a pregnancy to improve the chance of survival for the remaining fetus.
Luckily, Warlick-Short and her husband didn’t have to face such a decision themselves. Their twins were born via scheduled cesarean section at 35 weeks, and while they did spend some time in the hospital’s NICU, after they were born, Warlick-Short and her husband were able to take two healthy babies home in short order.
Still, Warlick-Short’s experiences had a politicizing effect. Knowing that even people with wanted pregnancies sometimes need access to care that is classified as a pregnancy termination makes Wisconsin’s abortion ban worrying. She says losing her first pregnancy was “a pretty traumatic experience.” The idea of going through that again, without being certain that she could get the care she needed, does make her think differently about having more children.
She also cites the cost of having and raising children as a reason why it’s wrong to force people to continue pregnancies, especially if they’re not viable. Even though her twins were both relatively healthy, one of them spent 11 days in the NICU, which is expensive. Some newborns require far more care and some newborns cannot survive at all due to fatal developmental anomalies. While Warlick-Short acknowledged that some parents find meaning and comfort in carrying such pregnancies to term, she believes that families should get to make their own decisions.
I can’t take the risk
Jordan, 32, who asked that we not disclose her last name, grew up with two siblings. Her husband was an only child. When they started their own family, they both knew they wanted multiple kids. After the birth of their first son, they thought three seemed like a realistic number. Jordan clarified that gender really wasn’t important to her and her husband but that after they found out she was pregnant with a second boy, trying for a third child made even more sense.
“If I had another boy, that’s awesome. I had three girls in my family. Three boys would be fun. But if I had a daughter, that would be pretty cool to see what it’s like to have a mother-son relationship and a mother-daughter relationship,” Jordan says. “And like I said, growing up with the three of us, I always assumed that I would have three as well.”
But the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs came down in the middle of Jordan’s second pregnancy. Now her plans have changed. Two months after the birth of her second son, she says that seeing stories about women with non-viable pregnancies who are denied care until their lives are endangered has convinced her that three kids is no longer in the cards.
“I’m the primary caregiver of my two sons,” she explains. “Once you have children, your perspective has to change. You have to take care of yourself and it just doesn’t feel worth the risk to leave two children without a mother to try for a third child.”
Privilege and abortion access
In one way or another, everyone who spoke with Tone Madison for this article acknowledged a sense of privilege compared to many other parents, whether because they have health insurance, the means to travel out of state if they needed an abortion, or because they know that the difficulties they experienced could have been worse. In other words, these experiences, which were difficult and even traumatic for the families involved, represent what pregnancy and birth can look like even in good circumstances.
What does that mean for parents who don’t have health insurance or access to regular healthcare? What about families whose dealings with the healthcare system are rife with discrimination, such as LGBTQ and BIPOC parents? How will Wisconsin’s abortion ban complicate their already fraught circumstances? Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate of any group in the country, a reality that holds true regardless of income level and got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin holds the additional terrible distinction of having the worst Black infant mortality rate in the entire country, with Black infants dying at three times the rate of white infants in the state. Is there any chance that the state’s abortion ban isn’t exacerbating existing health inequalities and posing unique dangers for Black parents and other parents of color and their children?
People with health insurance, the means to travel (plus proximity to a state where abortion is still legal), and the funds to pay for an out-of-state abortion if they needed one are re-evaluating their plans to have more children in light of Wisconsin’s now-enforceable abortion ban. Clearly overturning Roe v. Wade poses problems that even privilege can’t solve. It is alarming to consider what this means for people in more challenging circumstances.
Difficult terrain, no support
Almost one year after Roe v. Wade was overturned, speculation about what would happen in Wisconsin if its ancient abortion ban suddenly took effect has given way to grim reality. Reporting by the Wisconsin Examiner finds that the concerns of the mothers Tone Madison spoke with aren’t unfounded. At a press conference on January 23 (Maternal Health Awareness Day), Wisconsin doctors described nightmare scenarios that have already taken place, including women being denied care during miscarriages, or forced to wait until they’re gravely ill to get help. It is distressingly easy to imagine the Wisconsin abortion ban costing someone their life. It is already causing profound trauma and illness. And yet Republicans in the state legislature have abandoned Wisconsin to that fate by refusing to take up the ban in session, or even to allow a statewide vote on overturning the ban.
Meanwhile, all four of the mothers I spoke with have navigated pregnancy, birth, and parenting during a world-historic pandemic that has been notoriously difficult for parents. This same period has brought about dramatic inflation and cost of living increases, an ongoing childcare crisis, and shortages of essential goods like formula and infant Tylenol. This last shortage points to yet another ongoing hardship that began hitting the parents of young children last fall—a tripledemic of influenza, COVID, and RSV that has packed children’s hospitals and increased demand for baby Tylenol.
But while lawmakers see fit to leave a ban in place that intervenes in families’ reproductive healthcare decisions, there’s been little intervention to solve any of these problems or provide additional support to those who need it. Instead, families are left to navigate the hurdles as best they can on their own. In so many ways, the difficult circumstances facing families right now, and the lack of meaningful government response, reveal the hollow aims of the “pro-life” movement. In a post-Roe state, where the wildest fantasies of anti-abortion activists and politicians have come true, parents, families, and even children themselves are not being treated in ways that might indicate they’re held sacred. Any pretense that banning abortion was about making the world a better place has fallen flat.