‘I Didn’t Have a Choice’

Texas women like Jeni Putalavage-Ross are already making agonizing decisions about abnormal pregnancies. Some anti-abortion lawmakers would put them in an even more impossible situation.

Jeni Putalavage-Ross and Scott Ross with their three children.
Courtesy of Jeni Putalavage-Ross
Jeni Putalavage-Ross and Scott Ross with their three children.

Newly married in 2010, Jeni Putalavage-Ross and her husband Scott Ross wanted to start a family right away. Upon returning from a two-week honeymoon in Spain to their home in Austin, Jeni discovered she was pregnant.

“We had a very wanted pregnancy,” said Jeni, a 38-year-old advertising professional with short brown hair and a sweet, calm voice. “We found out we were having a girl at 18 weeks.”

They were excited but Jeni’s first doctor found a few things that gave her pause: the fetus was smaller than it should have been, and Jeni’s hormone levels were off. Still, the baby had a strong heartbeat, and Jeni’s urine tests came back normal. Their second doctor assured the couple everything was fine. Jeni was already starting to show, and family, friends and coworkers knew about the forthcoming addition to the couple’s family. People stopped Jeni to ask about the sex of the baby, or whether she had any names picked out—the usual.

What happened a few weeks later at an ultrasound appointment shocked Jeni and her husband: The scan revealed that the baby’s brain was underdeveloped. Her organs were in the wrong places, and she was significantly smaller than the average six-and-a-half inches a fetus should be at that point in a woman’s pregnancy. The test also showed considerable problems with her heart. Jeni recalls the “a look of great concern” that washed over the ultrasound technician’s face.

Jeni remembers the tech telling her and her husband, “I have to go get the doctor but I’m going to be very honest: There are a lot of things that I see wrong with this pregnancy.” Those few minutes before the doctor came in were “awful,” she said.

“For us, the issues with the brain were extremely important,” Jeni recalled. “Both of us knew at that moment that this was a pregnancy that we weren’t going to continue.”

Jeni and Scott would find out later that their baby had triploidy, an extremely rare birth defect that occurs when three sets of chromosomes develop. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the rare disorder can occur in 1 to 2 percent of all pregnancies, and most women miscarry during their first trimester. In the extremely slim chance that fetuses with triploidy make it to full term, it’s “lethal, with no survivors reported beyond 10.5 months of age,” the state health department website reads.

Jeni and Scott made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy at nearly 21 weeks. In 2010, abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy was still legal in Texas. The 20-week abortion ban wouldn’t become law until 2013, when the Legislature passed House Bill 2, the now-infamous abortion law, which among other provisions bans the procedure after 20 weeks and places such onerous restrictions on providers that more than half in the state have closed.

Texas law does make an exception for late-term abortions in cases of fetal abnormalities—like Jeni’s and Scott’s situation—but a handful of ultra-conservative lawmakers are targeting that exception this session.

A few weeks ago, amid a House floor debate on a massive bill to overhaul one of the state health agencies, state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) tried to sneak an amendment onto the bill that would’ve eliminated the fetal abnormality provision.

“In my opinion, this practice just doesn’t value what God values, and God values that life inside the womb,” Schaefer told his colleagues during the late April debate.

The Texas House passed Schaefer’s measure, but a technicality raised by a House Democrat sent the bill back to committee, killing the amendment’s chances for now. Still, not all Republicans support Schaefer’s measure. This week, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, sent a letter to committee members urging them to keep the exception intact. However, Schaefer told the Observer this week that he’s keeping an eye open for when he might bring the measure up again.

If Schaefer and his anti-abortion colleagues get their way, families like Jeni and Scott facing fetal abnormalities or nonviable pregnancies would have no other option but to complete the pregnancy and deliver the fetus.

“We would not have been allowed to terminate as it was,” Jeni said. “We already talked about what we could handle as a family, we knew what our boundaries were. … This was not a special needs child. This was an anomaly, this was something that could not live.”

After arriving at their decision, Jeni remembers visiting with her doctor and receiving the state-mandated Woman’s Right to Know Act pamphlet, which among other questionable science includes language that links abortion to an increased risk for breast cancer. Also required under the 2003 Woman’s Right to Know Act, Jeni had to go home and wait 24 hours before going to the hospital for the procedure.

“If it had been up to me, I would’ve walked across the street from my doctor’s office to [the hospital] and had the procedure done and then recovered,” she said. “I had to go home and wait. … I had my friends come over. We watched funny movies to try and distract myself.”

After her procedure, she developed an infection, which required her to stay in the hospital for another seven days. She missed work and racked up nearly $67,000 in medical costs.

“[Doctors and nurses] were telling my husband things like ‘we think she’s going to make it,’ she said. “It was really dramatic and terrible. I didn’t think about what this might be costing us.”

Luckily, Jeni and Scott had health insurance and were able to file a claim for most of the costs, paying about $1,400 out of their own pockets. Looking back, Jeni says that without coverage the couple would have had to dip into retirement savings to pay for the procedure and hospital stay that followed.

However, another anti-abortion bill Republican lawmakers are peddling this session prohibits any private insurance company from covering an abortion. Instead, women would be required to buy a supplemental policy. The measure has already passed in the Senate and is on its way to the House. Senate Democrats tried to add an exception for rape or incest victims, but Republicans killed the amendment.

“I would not have had the forethought to add an extra policy to my insurance plan,” she said. “I was a normal person who got married, who wanted to start a family, who had a problem in my pregnancy. To me, I didn’t have a choice. To me, I had to end my pregnancy, and I didn’t choose to get sick from that process. If I had to then deal with going bankrupt because of that, can you imagine? It’s not fair, it’s terrible.”

Five years later, Jeni and Scott are parents to three daughters. Jeni talks openly about her family’s situation to help alleviate the stigma that swirls around abortion and pregnancy. Though the experience “blew [her] world apart,” she said she wants to help facilitate change.

“I think people need to see a real person and understand that this affects real families that are normal, that live in the neighborhood, who go to work every day, whose kids play with my kids,” she said. “To me, this is an unfortunate situation that I had to go through and it has had a big impact on my life, but it didn’t stop my life. It hasn’t ruined things for me, but it’s not anything that I can just brush under the table and just forget it ever happened either.”

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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