Missed Abortion by Katie Sinback

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, October 24th, 2019

"Never have I felt more certain that a woman should not be forced to be the vessel for an unwanted pregnancy."


Personal Essay by Katie Sinback


                    First, I spot the sign: Warning: Graphic Images Ahead. The sign is a reverse-psychology lure planted by the anti-choice group whose national college tour has landed on my campus. I know what is coming, that I should change course and give a wide berth to the signs and the glum-faced men who flank them. But this past week has wrung me out, has introduced a new form of loss into my emotional landscape, a loss that propels me forward. Not bravery exactly, nor self-flagellation, but some intersection of the two. A need to witness, to test what is left of me in this afterwards state. I don’t alter course. I look.

          Huge pictures of gaunt Holocaust victims; their corpses in a careless pile loom beside images of bloody tissue purporting to be aborted embryos. I blink. Before last week, I would have felt outraged at the images for obvious reasons: abortion and the Holocaust are not the same. These images are intended to provoke and upset those who have had abortions and who may need this procedure in the future. The images violate people who lost their lives in the Holocaust and the privacy of the women who did have abortions and trusted that the contents of their uteruses would be disposed of with dignity and care, not photographed and sent on a tour of horror. Before last week my outrage was theoretical, but today I feel a dark hollow in the pit of my gut, a tingle in my hands, a directionless panic. Although my situation is different than women who seek abortions, I feel a kinship with them. Never have I felt more certain that a woman should not be forced to be the vessel for an unwanted pregnancy.


              Missed abortion, the doctor had said at my appointment last week, during what was supposed to be a routine round of pregnancy tests. Technically the term is missed abortion. A miscarriage that should have happened around the eighth week when the doctor estimates my embryo stopped growing, but which, for whatever reason, did not. Do you still feel pregnant?  she asked. &nbsp           Nauseous, tired?

          I nodded, feeling like an impostor. I had been impersonating a pregnant woman for the last two weeks because my body didn’t get the signal that my embryo was dead. Embryo. The word snagged in my spinning mind.  Since the positive pregnancy test, I had monitored the passing weeks, the milestones, anticipating the moment that embryo became fetus, that fetus became baby. Even in the excitement over the pregnancy, I had insisted on calling the being growing in me by its scientific name. An attempt to distance myself from potential disaster. But my tactics had failed me. As I lay in the darkened room, the breath was sucked from my lungs. I felt the sensation of falling.  I struggled to assemble words in my dry mouth. I didn’t even know this could happen, I said.

          Miscarriages conjure images of women gripping their stomachs, eyes wide with horror, before they rush into a bathroom and unleash a primal scream. But my miscarriage happened quietly. Cell division halting, a pulse flickering to stillness. A secret my body kept from me.

          Layered on top of the betrayal I felt, the betrayal of my body’s failure to sustain life, was embarrassment. My uterus was thirteen-year-old me at a school dance. I asked Carl to dance. Then Tony. I wheedled. Come on, it’ll be fun. No big deal, just as friends, I said, as tears bubbled in my eyes. Tony took pity on me and shuffled to the dance floor, sure to keep his arms straight as posts while we lumbered through the slow song. And I can’t fight this feeling anymore. I convinced myself that Tony’s acquiescence meant he liked me. He like-liked me and I hefted an unrequited crush around for a week until his nice guy ran out. I don’t like you like that. Leave me alone.  My uterus and me: two pathetic girls who couldn’t take a hint.

          The doctor warned that I could not wait for the miscarriage to happen naturally. I would need a D and C—dilation and curettage—as soon as possible due to the large amount of vascular tissue in my uterus. She said there might be other complications. Words flurried around me: molar pregnancy, missed abortion, cancer. I felt overwhelmed with the desire to have this dead embryo out of me immediately. For my stomach and breasts, the parts of my body that had started to swell and grow soft and tender, to contract and return to their pre-pregnancy state. For the nausea that lodged in the back of my throat whenever I went too long without eating to settle. To be vacant. To be free. To be not-pregnant now that the hope of my pregnancy was dead.     Mercifully, they could fit me in for a D and C the next morning.


              Do you want silence or distraction?, the nurse asks after I swallow a dose of Ativan and extra-strength Ibuprofen. I lay on the table, my feet in stirrups, my husband beside me, a shadow outlined by the surgical light above.

         Distraction, I say.

          The nurse asks me about my turquoise boots that both she and the doctor performing the D and C admired during our initial pre-procedure conversation. They had warned me to keep an eye out for passing blood clots larger than eggs, advised using the thickest maxi-pad I could find.  As the Ativan kicks in I tell the nurse I am a writer, a novelist, and feel a small surge of pride when she is impressed. Maybe I will be one of those writers who muses that her stories are her children. I am not done with creation. The nurse perfectly interweaves questions about my writing with warnings of This will hurt, You’ll feel some cramping here, and other advisories to brace myself while the doctor works between my legs, first dilating my cervix, then scraping away the remnants of my placenta and embryo.

          The Ativan erases most of the procedure, but I remember wrenching cramps, a metallic chill pinching my insides, in a dim room with my husband tightly gripping one hand and the nurse talking to me while holding the other. I remember tears leaking down the sides of my face, feeling glad that I had worn glasses instead of my usual contact lenses because things were already foggy and I didn’t need another layer smudging my vision. Even as I wanted to escape the room, burn past the moment into my non-pregnant future, the cramps kept me anchored and from spiraling into thoughts of what the doctor was removing from me. Images of bloody tissue.  My embryo, my baby. I remember the concern in the doctor’s fashionably bespectacled eyes, her assurances. You will have a child. This is not the end. Her kindness. I remember feeling frustrated that in my altered state I didn’t sound very smart in how I spoke about my writing. When the nurse spoke of her interest in penning a memoir, my answer was a slurred athletic shoe ad. You should totally do it. Just start writing. Just do it!  


           Between moments of awe at all the blood that is still left in me, at the parade of blood-soaked maxi pads that I stuff into the garbage can and which give our bathroom a coppery, sweet smell, I take stabs at normality. I crawl into downward dog. I take a puff of pot. I smoke cigarettes on our front porch, relishing the burn in my lungs. I return to work. I let my mind wander to the future that I am not living, the future where I am still pregnant and gleefully spreading the news to my friends. Then I scold myself for wallowing. I am tender with myself.  I am cruel. I wonder when our lives will return to any sense of normality, how this experience will integrate into who I am and who I was before the words “missed abortion” entered my vocabulary.

          The term sounds so flippant, so careless—Just another missed abortion, darling—like  the frivolous straw women conjured by the anti-choice contingent. The men who darken my path during my lunchtime walk, who stand guard beside the hideous posters with untaken pamphlets drooping from their hands, are part of this mob that takes refuge in false equivalencies and thinly veiled hunger for control over women’s bodies. I wish I could save up all my maxi-pads and toilet bowls full of clots of my failed pregnancy to hurl at their signs, slap one of the young men in the face with a soaked pad, bring him into the complicated, bloody reality of true life.

          Ma’am, one of them thrusts a pamphlet at me as I walk by.  I don’t stop.

          Later in the week I will see young women circling the men in silent protest. I will see hastily penned signs listing resources for women traumatized by the images staked into the edge of the lawn where the anti-abortion group has planted itself for the week. I will feel flickers of hope mixed with my anger. Hope for the women who are taking care of each other, speaking up against this form of violence against women. Women who should not have to suffer the agony of being a vessel for an unwanted child, for a wanted child with severe life-ending abnormalities, for a nonviable embryo. I will mourn my child-to-be-that-never-was. I will bleed.


Header image courtesy of Erik Jones. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, daCunha, Gravel, Foliate Oak, Clackamas Literary Review, The Equalizer, The Hunger Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, trampset, and Oyster River Pages,among other publications.  Her zine Crudbucket was featured in the Multnomah County Library “Zinesters Talking” series and was included in the Alien She exhibit at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.  Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. She blogs at ktcrud.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.


Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.