Editor’s note: This story includes images some people may find distressing.
DALLAS — Miranda Michel’s eyes popped open on the operating table, panic gripping her body. Was she too late?
Doctors had said her twins might only survive two or three minutes. She didn’t know if they’d already been born, how much time had passed, if she had missed it entirely, if they were already gone.
During the two-hour surgery, as doctors sawed through scar tissue from three previous C-sections, Miranda tried to fight the sedation, waking in alarm, then slipping back to sleep after her partner and mother-in-law assured her the babies were still safe inside her.
Miranda’s prognosis was as clear today as when she first heard it, four months ago: a zero percent chance of viability, for either twin. But Texas’ new abortion laws, which make no exception for lethal fetal anomalies, required Miranda to carry this pregnancy through to the bitter end.
Now, that end was here. Sliding in and out of consciousness, Miranda flashed through the possibilities she’d spent months preparing herself for. Maybe her babies would be born dead, so deformed the doctors wouldn’t show them to her. Maybe they’d live for a few hours. Maybe they’d be strong enough to go to the neonatal intensive care unit. Maybe she’d at least get to say hello and goodbye, a cataclysm of joy and grief she wasn’t sure she would ever recover from.
Or maybe — maybe it would all work out. For the eight months leading up to her August delivery, she’d fought to keep hope at bay, forcing herself to focus on the finality of the diagnosis. But now, with oxytocin flooding her body, she couldn’t resist. Miracles happen every day. Doctors can be wrong.
Why would the state of Texas make her carry this doomed pregnancy if there wasn’t some chance?
As a blur of blue scrubs bobbed around her, Miranda listened for the word “uterus.” The nurses had told her when she heard that word, it meant the doctors were preparing to move the twins from the safety of her womb into a world they couldn’t survive in.
She tried to stay awake long enough to find out whether she was going to get to meet her children. But it was no use. Darkness swirled around her. Her vision faded to black.
In December 2022, Miranda and her partner, Levi Langley, packed up the whole family, all their possessions and their pet chameleon and set out for Texas. It was time to come home.
The couple met at a Dungeons & Dragons game near Texarkana, in the northeastern corner of the state. Miranda, now 26, was a tattooed single mom with bright pink hair who had moved around a lot, seeking a better life for her two children; Levi was younger, goofier, very into video games, but easily stepped into a fatherly role.
The family had spent the last few months in Utah, where Levi, 25, worked as a coal miner. But after they had their first child together, they decided to return to this rural corner of the country, where Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas meet, to be closer to Levi’s family. They rented an apartment in New Boston, deep in the East Texas Pineywoods, and Levi got a job at the nearby Tyson chicken plant.
All that was left was to surprise his parents. In late December, Levi called and told them to check the mailbox for an early Christmas present. When they got outside, they saw Levi and Miranda’s dusty minivan making its way up the driveway.
Angela Langley, Levi’s mom, was thrilled, rushing to the store to buy more presents for Christmas morning.
Miranda had a difficult upbringing and wasn’t close to much of her family, so she loved the idea of raising her children surrounded by Levi’s tight-knit clan. They embraced her and her children, wrapping the young mother in unconditional love and free babysitting.
When Miranda found out she was pregnant again in February, it felt like a blessing to be back in Texas. She and Levi always planned to have another child, but not quite so soon.
But as Miranda would soon learn, rural Texas is a difficult place to bring new life into the world.
Early on, she felt an unfamiliar, gnawing anxiety about this pregnancy, but she struggled to get an appointment with an obstetrician. When the nurse practitioner said she might be having twins, she didn’t want to wait for a follow-up appointment. She went to the emergency room in Texarkana, half an hour away, where she learned there were two babies, and they might be conjoined or “mono mono,” developing in the same amniotic sac.
“We couldn’t get a straight answer, and it was just a run-around game,” she said.
To be sure, she’d have to go to a specialist three hours away in Allen. By the time she got the appointment, Levi found time off work, they coordinated travel with Angela and figured out child care, it was May and Miranda was four months pregnant.
During the ultrasound, Levi and his mom, Angela, watched the little digital screen, but Miranda kept her eyes on the tech’s face. She alone saw the moment it fell.
“She ran out of the room, and my heart sank,” Miranda said. “I knew. Something was wrong.”
This time, there was no weekslong wait for a follow-up appointment. Within a few hours, Miranda was sitting across from a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Dallas as he pulled out a whiteboard and illustrated all the ways this pregnancy was headed for disaster.
The babies’ spines were twisted, curling in so sharply it looked, at some angles, as if they disappeared entirely. Organs were hanging out of their bodies, or hadn’t developed yet at all. One of the babies had a clubbed foot; the other, a big bubble of fluid at the top of his neck.
It was, in many ways, a simple diagnosis: As soon as these babies were born, they would die.
Levi burst into tears, “big, ugly crying,” he said. Miranda was paralyzed, her mind frantically scrabbling for something to hold onto. These babies she’d hoped, dreamed and planned for were suddenly being ripped away from her. How did this happen? How could they fix it? What were they going to do to save her babies?
She looked desperately to the doctor for answers, but he’d left the room. A few minutes later, the nurse came back and handed them a Post-It note.
Written on it was the name of an abortion clinic in New Mexico.
After the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Texas became the largest state in the nation to ban abortion, to “protect the life of every child with a heartbeat,” as Gov. Greg Abbott put it. Doctors who perform an abortion can face up to life in prison, unless it’s to save the life of the pregnant patient.
But when it is the fetus that will die, there is nothing they can do but wait.
Miranda’s twins were developing without proper lungs, or stomachs, and with only one kidney for the two of them. They would not survive outside her body. But they still had heartbeats. And so the state would protect them.
Miranda arrived home in New Boston sick with grief, and facing an agonizing decision, which she would have to make with no guidance from her health care professionals.
A few years ago, Miranda would have been able to terminate this pregnancy at a doctor’s office or hospital, at whatever point she felt ready to do so. Even in Texas, doctors could perform abortions beyond 20 weeks if the fetus had a “severe and irreversible abnormality.”
But now, Miranda was boxed in by abortion bans in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas; her doctors were terrified to even talk about the options, and she was alone.
Miranda had never considered abortion for herself, and didn’t have much of an opinion on the issue. Levi’s family, though, was more religious, and conservative, with a big “Trump 2024” flag looming over their one-story house on six acres backing up to a quiet river.
But Angela, Levi’s mom, had been in the room with the doctor. She knew the odds. And she knew the sacrifice it would take to carry a futile pregnancy to term. The family would support Miranda’s decision, whatever it was.
“I’m not for it,” Angela recalls telling her. “But —”
“But I wouldn’t be shamed if I did it,” Miranda filled in.
Which put the decision right back into Miranda’s hands.
She couldn’t go to New Mexico. It was a 12-hour drive from Northeast Texas. How would Levi get the time off work? Who would watch her newborn? How would they pay for gas, hotels and the procedure? And when she thought of the fear radiating off of her doctor, the idea of circumventing the law and fleeing the state for medical care terrified her.
“I don’t know the precautions, the risks or the aftercare,” Miranda said. “Just all the ‘what ifs.’ What if they continued with heartbeats? What are we going to do then?”
But she also couldn’t wait another five months, taking on all the risks of a complicated multiple pregnancy, with no hope of healthy babies at the end.
If this had happened when she was a single mom, solely responsible for her two young children, she is certain she would have found a way to get an abortion, even if it meant breaking the law.
“Would I have regretted it? Most likely, but at the same time, there [were] two children counting on me that I have to stay alive for,” she said. “It’s just different, where I stood then, and on top of the mountain where I am now.”
Miranda, who dropped out of high school but later finished her diploma online, was left to make sense of a horrifying medical diagnosis entirely on her own. What if she’d misunderstood? What if the doctors were wrong? What if some miracle occurred? What if the babies developed more and the glaring deformities turned into mild disabilities? What if — what if?
In the beginning, “there was a chance, and all of these things can be fixed,” she said. “Now, they’re unsaveable. I wasn’t sure I believed him. I didn’t want to believe him.”
There was no good option, and so, in the absence of information, or guidance, she ultimately decided not to decide.
Time passed, the window closed, and the pregnancy proceeded in accordance with Texas law. But Miranda’s fear and frustration didn’t disappear, especially as the burden of carrying this pregnancy began to take a toll on not just her, but her entire support system.
As spring slid into summer, Miranda’s body began to transform. Her organs shifted, her hips widened, her back ached. She had heartburn and constant, creeping exhaustion. When she laid down, it felt like the whole world was pressing down on her. She couldn’t lift her 9-month-old, or sit on the floor to help her 4-year-old tie her shoes.
It was uncomfortable and inconvenient, and deliciously familiar. So much of this pregnancy was unfolding as usual — the doctor’s appointments, the little kicks, the strangers cooing at her on the street. It was all so normal, it was hard to believe there might be a tragedy unfolding inside her.
But she knew things were different this time. Miranda wasn’t buying tiny baby clothes or decorating a nursery. Instead of planning a baby shower, she was preparing for a funeral. She spent more and more time online, desperately searching for some nugget of hope to get her through to the next day.
“You’re Googling this, and that, and what if I put these two words together?” she said. “All to understand what it will look like, what I’m facing, what I’m supposed to expect.”
Miranda looked into surgeries, experimental treatments, miracle stories of children who beat the odds. She posted her diagnosis in mom groups on Facebook and chased down leads from commenters. It was love packaged as defiance, believing that, with enough research, she could find some way for even one of these babies to survive, even for a little while.
“I know they wouldn’t have a normal life,” she said. “Even if they couldn’t talk [or] walk, I feel like I could handle it. I would try my best to give them the best.”
Each week, Miranda would storm into her doctor’s office in Dallas, brimming with optimism and research and loopholes and workarounds, demanding more tests, more interventions, more answers. She got an MRI, met with specialists, had her doctors look at the pregnancy from every angle, and still, the answer was the same: These babies would not survive.
The brief high of believing she’d found a solution was nothing next to the devastating crash that followed, plunging her back into the worst of her despair. As her pregnancy progressed, she forced herself to be militant about hope.
When Angela said with a guilty smile that she’d dreamed about Miranda delivering “two smiley, shiny babies, perfectly healthy,” Miranda nodded politely.
“I am pretty sure I am going to walk into my C-section with these twins and walk out with just me,” she countered.
By Miranda’s 29-week appointment, more than seven months in, she had white-knuckled her emotions into submission.
“When I go and do the ultrasound, I’m still going to get bad news,” she said, almost as a mantra. “There might be some more sprinkles and whipped cream to add on top, but I don’t think there’s anything they can say right now where it’s a surprise.
“Unless they [say] they don’t have heartbeats,” she added as an afterthought. “That would be the cherry on top.”
To get to her appointments in Dallas, Miranda had to wake up at 2 a.m., heaving her pregnant body out of bed. Her 9-month-old sits up in his crib, a cheeky smile rounding his cherubic cheeks like it isn’t the middle of the night.
Miranda woke up her sister, who moved in to help with child care.
“Instead of fighting with a newborn, I’m fighting with a 24-year-old, who is not registering what I’m saying,” Miranda said. “She thinks she’s dreaming.”
Miranda and Levi typically left for these appointments by 3 a.m., a suitcase of her clothes in the backseat, just in case. They drive an hour to Angela’s house in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, so she and Miranda can go on to Dallas together.
Levi usually can’t join them. He works a 4:30 a.m. shift at Tyson doing “live hang,” sending chickens off to slaughter for hours at a time.
“She’s fighting hard for them, so the only thing I can really do is just keep the house clean, keep her happy and work,” he said.
Even with Miranda on Medicaid and Angela covering the gas and meals for these Dallas trips, this pregnancy was crushingly expensive for the young family. Levi’s sister organized a fundraiser, which helped.
“But there’s always more bills,” Levi said.
In late July, Miranda, 29 weeks pregnant, met with her maternal-fetal medicine specialist, the obstetrician who will deliver her, and, for the first time, doctors and nurses with the neonatal intensive care unit. Briefly, a pinprick of hope — why would they need a plan for medical care for the babies if there’s no chance they’ll survive?
But it’s more bad news. The NICU would be on standby when she delivered, prepared to do anything they could. But that was merely a precaution. She was still likely to get only a few minutes with the babies after they are born, if anything.
Disappointment flooded Miranda’s body. She was angry with her doctors for not finding an answer. She was angry at the state for not giving her choices. She was angry with herself for allowing hope to creep in.
“I had hope. I fought for them,” Miranda said later. “I tried not believing what [my doctors] were saying. And now, I have no other options.”
In the face of her anguish, unable to offer her the medical solutions she so desperately wanted, Miranda’s doctors offered all they had left.
“Have hope,” they said at the end of each appointment. “Have hope, Miranda.”
“What is hope?” she wanted to shout. “You told me there was a zero percent chance. What can I do to get it to 3%, 5%? Nothing. What can hope get me?”
When Miranda returned to Broken Bow that night, 18 hours after she left her house, she started crying and couldn’t stop. She thought about what continuing this pregnancy had cost everyone — her, her family, even her babies.
Instead of going back to her children, she allowed Angela to tuck her into bed. She turned off her phone.
“I fucked up,” she said, grief lacing every word. “I dragged them through this. At least I can be there to say hello and say goodbye.”
The day after the grief pulled her under, Miranda slowly bobbed back to the surface. She couldn’t afford to dwell too much on the babies inside her body; there were three children out in the world who still needed their mother.
All of Miranda’s children are named after Greek gods — Ares, 5, Artemis, 4, and Eros, 9 months. She had to get Ares enrolled in kindergarten, track down medical records from Utah and deal with Artemis’ persistent ear infections. She also had to find a way to parent her children through a tragedy she herself has not yet come to terms with.
Ares, with his first-day-of-school hair cut, is too smart for his own good. He had gotten used to the rhythm of pregnancy, and couldn’t wait to play with the siblings he was sure his mother would bring home. Artemis, who goes by Missy, quickly got over wanting a sister and now wanted to buy her new brothers clothes.
Miranda and Levi tried to explain death, God and heaven. They say the babies got sick inside Mommy’s belly and wouldn’t be coming home. But it was not clear how much was sinking in.
At the end of one of these heavy conversations, Miranda made an off-hand comment to Levi: “Maybe some gods are just needed back on Olympus.” That was the part that stuck. Ares told the neighborhood kids that his baby brothers were Greek gods who had to return to Mount Olympus, setting off a minor religious panic among the other parents.
The closer Miranda got to her due date, the more the pregnancy was tearing everyone apart. Jay, her father-in-law, couldn’t talk about it without bursting into tears. Angela got on anxiety medication, and fretted about whether she was strong enough to be in the delivery room. Levi took on side jobs, trying to stay on top of the bills.
Miranda felt guilty about the sacrifices everyone was making.
“I don’t want people to put themselves into a hole because they’re trying to help us, or they don’t have enough time to emotionally process what they’re going through because they’re worried about our mental well-being,” she said.
“It’s not just affecting me… it’s affecting everyone,” Miranda said. “We’re crashing and burning and everyone is trying to help and I’m worried about lighting everyone else on fire.”
In July, she and her doctors agreed she’d relocate to Dallas for the last month of her pregnancy. It was too risky for her to be in New Boston, hours from the hospital, when she went into labor.
Angela would come with her, and they’d stay at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.
“If there is even a chance,” Miranda said in late July, she wanted the babies “to have the best care from the get-go and not risk an airplane or a helicopter ride here. What if in that 30 minutes it takes to get here, they passed, because it took too long?”
But it comes at a cost, especially for the young children she’ll leave behind.
“I’ve never been away from my kids, and I’m just going to be worried about them the whole time, I know,” she said. “What are they doing? Are they bored? Are they gonna miss me or they’re gonna forget about me? I’m going to be at the hospital and they’re gonna think I ran away, even though I told them where I’m at.”
Miranda never made it to the Ronald McDonald House. In early August, at 31 weeks along, her body decided it was time to bring this pregnancy to an end.
It was everything Miranda wanted to avoid: She was in labor with a high-risk pregnancy that the state required her to carry, 30 minutes from the nearest hospital and three hours from one that could best care for her and her twins. She had to be airlifted to Dallas.
Levi and his parents took off in their truck, leaving Miranda to be loaded onto a plane all alone, her body wracked with contractions.
Levi couldn’t stand being separated from Miranda and the babies at this crucial juncture. He and his parents made the 200-mile drive in record time, praying they hadn’t missed the birth — or death — of his children.
He needn’t have worried. Their car was almost halfway to Dallas before her plane even took off; when she landed in McKinney, north of the hospital, she had to wait on the tarmac for an ambulance to transport her the last 20 miles. In the end, they arrived almost three hours before she did.
At the hospital, there were more delays, as her doctors debated whether she was ready to deliver. Miranda was sick of the waiting. But when they finally gave her the go-ahead, panic clawed up her throat.
“I wanted to change my mind,” she said later. “I wanted to go home. I wasn’t ready. I don’t think I was ever going to be ready. I wanted to keep them in my stomach and keep them safe a little longer.”
The momentum was against her. They were in the surgical suite. Levi and Angela scrubbed in. The epidural took over Miranda’s senses, stronger than in her past pregnancies, pulling her in and out of consciousness. In her dream state, all the hope Miranda had kept locked away flooded back in. As the doctors removed the babies from their safe harbor, the whole room seemed to hold its breath.
And then, as one, they exhaled. There was no miracle. The diagnosis was right. These babies would not survive.
From the shoulders up, the twins looked normal, although premature. They are tucked into each other, almost kissing, their hands tangled in a tender embrace that belies the horrors below.
Each had two arms and two legs, but they were conjoined in the middle, like they’d waffled back and forth on whether to become separate people. They gasped, slowly, inconsistently, their tiny, underdeveloped lungs too far from their misplaced stomachs.
Quickly the doctors swaddled the babies in a blanket decorated with cartoon ducks, covering up the worst of the deformities, put tiny pink hats on their heads, and handed Levi the six-pound bundle.
“A couple of minutes, that was all we were expecting,” Levi said. “And then I noticed that they weren’t moving at all, and I thought they had died in my arms. I was crying, holding onto them for dear life.”
He started to hyperventilate. Wordlessly, Levi handed the babies to his mother and sat down in the corner of the operating room, sure he was going to pass out. Angela held the babies as close to Miranda’s head as possible, hoping to give her time with her children before they die.
The babies stopped breathing, but their hearts were still intermittently beating, so the doctors didn’t declare them dead. In the recovery room, while Miranda slowly returns to consciousness, the family passed the bundle around, marveling at their sweet faces and discussing their deformities.
After a few hours, the rest of the family left to get dinner, giving Miranda a quiet moment with the babies.
She’d ushered these boys into existence, gave them a safe home, helped them develop and brought them into a world in which they couldn’t survive. It was hard, now that she had them in her arms, to imagine a different path, with different choices. It was also hard to imagine she’d ever recover from the experience of holding her babies in her arms as they died.
She held them close. She stroked their cheeks and booped their noses and tried to project a lifetime of love onto their frail little bodies. She apologized to them, again and again, for any pain, any suffering, they experienced. Finally, at 8:14 p.m., four hours after they were born, their hearts stopped.
Helios and Perseus Langley died in the arms of the mother who loved them as best she could, as long as she could. A tidal wave of grief washed over Miranda, and this time, she let it take her under.
A week after giving birth, Miranda stood at the front of a funeral home in Oklahoma, wearing a black dress. The doll-sized casket sits open, giving her one last look at the babies she carried inside her for eight months.
“I feel like I’ve had my heart ripped out of my chest a couple of times,” Miranda said before the funeral. “I know I want to be there, but I don’t know that I am ready to say goodbye.”
The past seven days had been a blur. One minute, she was at the hospital, preparing to let the funeral home pick up the babies. The next, she was back at Angela’s house in Broken Bow, picking out a prayer and a hymn for the funeral.
Her C-section scar still seared. She felt heavy, weighed down, like she could sleep forever. But at night, her mind raced. Several times that week, she woke in a panic, convinced that Eros had stopped breathing, that his sleepy snuffles were him gasping for air.
As much as they prepared for this, living through it was like “having open-heart surgery without anesthetics,” Levi said. “Every heartbeat feels like your heart is going to explode.”
When Levi daydreamed aloud about meeting his sons on the other side, Miranda worried his grief would make him do something stupid.
“But that’s not what I meant,” he said. “I know I’ve got kids here who need me too. But those boys — all they gotta do is wait for me. I’ll teach them hunting, fishing. We’ll get in a buggy and drive around. We’re going to have some fun when it’s my time.”
At the funeral home, a photo slideshow played in the background, documenting the entirety of the twins’ time on earth. Artemis, Miranda’s 4-year-old daughter, watched the proceedings curiously.
“These are my baby brothers,” she said, more confused than sad. “They got sick inside my mommy’s belly and can’t come home with us.”
As the pastor tried to make sense of the family’s “double helping of grief,” the kids grew restless. Eros climbed from lap to lap. Artemis waved at her cousins. Ares poked his head into the casket and recoiled, running back into his mother’s arms.
But once they got to the cemetery, even the children grew quiet. A pitifully small pile of dirt sat next to a square hole in the family plot, in the corner of a remote cemetery, right over the state line in Oklahoma. There were cows in the field next door, and a big live oak tree shaded the graves of Levi’s ancestors.
It was peaceful. It was devastating.
Levi’s father and brother lifted the tiny casket, its weightlessness a burden all its own, and lowered it into the ground. This experience, this loss, this life-changing grief settled onto Miranda’s shoulders, and she nearly buckled.
But Levi and Angela were on either side, holding her up. Her children leaned against her legs, relying on her steadiness. Everyone placed a white flower on top of the casket before, one by one, they drifted back to their cars.
Miranda didn’t want to leave. She wasn’t ready to return to normal life, where she’d go to work and make lunches and run errands like she hadn’t just birthed and buried two babies in the span of a week. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Eventually, she got into the minivan with Levi and the kids. With one last look, they drove away.
Text by Eleanor Klibanoff. Photos by Shelby Tauber.
This story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice in the Americas Initiative.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/11/texas-abortion-law-texas-abortion-ban-nonviable-pregnancies/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.