I never thought I would actually write about this. For all these years, it’s been something I’ve only shared with my closest friends – partly because it can still choke me up, and I don’t like crying in front of people I don’t know very well. But I read this last night, then re-read it this morning, and it occurred to me that medically necessary abortions may be more common than the Pro-Liars would have you believe – and maybe, just maybe, if a few more of these stories were talked about, someone might finally get a clue.
Given that group’s “I’ll only listen to points of view that support my own” mindset, I doubt it, but what the hell, it’s worth a shot.
I would like to say straight off that in this case it was not necessary – but it was discussed as something that may have become necessary, and the way it was presented is pretty much the whole point of this public up-chucking of my personal business.
In the latter half of 1995, I became pregnant for the fourth time in my (now) 25-year marriage. This was emphatically not a planned pregnancy, nor a particularly welcome one, to begin with. It was, in fact, a toothache pregnancy – i.e., my chronically bad teeth had abscessed yet again, and while on antibiotics prescribed for that abscess, I became pregnant. (Tangent alert – at what point will medical professionals routinely start telling their female patients that antibiotics can make birth-control pills ineffective?)
When I missed my first period, I was somewhat horrified. Hoping that I was wrong (I was on the Pill, after all, remember?), I said nothing, waited the preferred two weeks, and when they passed with no sign of a reprieve, walked my seven-year-old son to school, loaded up my five-year-old son and his three-year-old sister and walked down to the local Planned Parenthood office for the test. Which was, gods help me, positive.
I informed the daddy-to-be on his lunch hour that afternoon, and he was as, err, thrilled as I was – in fact, the only thing he said for the first fifteen minutes after my announcement was No, repeatedly. Nothing else – just no.
We sat down that night after the kids were in bed and decided, after a long discussion, that we simply couldn’t afford another baby at this point. We were just barely scraping by as it was, and one more child with the attending expense was simply more than our income could bear. We couldn’t really afford an abortion, either, but it was our only option at that point.
The next morning, I made the call. The nearest abortion provider was a three-hour drive away, but I made the appointment for the following week, cringed when the woman on the phone told me that I would be walking through a gauntlet of protesters carrying signs, and went home to wait it out.
Thing is, over the next week, we sort of… got used to the idea of another child. The night before the appointment, we sat down for another talk, and discovered that neither of us truly wanted to go through with the termination of something that would add to our family – a brother or sister to our other children, and yes, as corny as it sounds, another proof of how much we truly loved each other. So we simply never showed up for the appointment. I imagine this happens quite often – I mean, I never received a call from the clinic asking me if I wanted to reschedule.
Fast-forward a few months. By this time, I was around 22 weeks, and showing – my first indication something wasn’t quite right. My doctor, my friends and acquaintances all pretty much blew me off when I expressed concern over this – the overwhelming response was that I was very thin to begin with, and of course I would show fairly quickly. Thing was, I’d been pregnant before, and I knew at what point I started to bulge, and this wasn’t it. The only one who listened to me at that point was my husband, who also knew how my pregnancies usually went, and agreed that this was a bit much. Still, the doctor seemed okay with it, so I let it go. At that point, ultrasounds were not routinely requested, and our insurance wasn’t very good, either, so I simply assumed I had a case of pregnant woman paranoia, and let it go.
Another couple of months passed. At 32 weeks, I started to really worry – I was huge, far bigger than I’d ever been at that point, and incredibly uncomfortable. Although we’d had no indication of anything but one heartbeat, I was fairly convinced I was carrying twins, and I started to harass my doctor to the point that he finally scheduled me for an ultrasound.
It went well, at first – there was indeed one baby in residence, and apparently quite healthy. The nurse scrolled across my stomach, and on the screen appeared one of the best face shots I had ever seen on an ultrasound – my beautiful second daughter. I was thrilled. The nurse, however, was not. She got very quiet, printed out the picture (I still have that printout, actually) and left the room to get the doctor. Clueless, I continued to stare raptly at her face on the screen.
The doctor came into the room, sat down – and explained to me that there was, indeed, something very wrong. Our daughter had anencephaly – in other words, her brain had not developed. She was, in fact, missing everything from the eyebrows up and back. The best-case scenario, he told me, was that she would have enough of a brain stem to be able to breathe on her own – but that would be all. She would never walk, speak, play, learn… or live, at least as we define the word. “Devastated” does not even come close to describing how I felt at that point.
I walked out of the clinic and directly to my husband’s work. He had told me which building he would be working in that day – he was renovating dorm rooms at our local college, and he told me every morning where he’d be, in case I needed to find him quickly. His co-worker came outside when I whistled – I asked him to please get my husband, and a moment later, he came out to the landing. I still, to this day, don’t know what I looked like at that moment, but I know it must have been bad – because he didn’t even ask what was going on, simply told me to go wait in the car while he let his boss know he’d be going home for the day. I told him what I’d been told on the ride home – and his response brought it home in a way the doctor hadn’t been able to. What he said was, “So what you’re telling me, is that instead of planning for a baby – we have to plan for a funeral.”
(Brief pause to get a glass of water… and a vodka chaser.)
I told my husband after we arrived home that the doctor had set another appointment for the next morning – for the both of us, this time. When we met with him, he again went over the situation, asked if we had any questions, patiently answered the few we had… and then hit us with the kicker.
See, it seems that my initial alarm at my steadily increasing size was right on the money. One of the side effects of this type of pregnancy was the production of excessive amounts of amniotic fluid. I had been too large all along – but it wasn’t baby, or babies, it was extra fluid. Unfortunately, this posed a serious risk. Because of the extra fluid, I was at a much higher risk of the placenta detaching under its own weight, which would then cause me to hemorrhage and could quite possibly kill me. And the baby, of course, but at this point, that was more than a little moot – she wouldn’t likely survive more than a few hours anyway. The doctor told us that the best solution, were this to happen, would essentially be a very late-term abortion. He asked if we would consent to this procedure, should it become necessary. We agreed immediately…
…And then he told us that before he could consider performing this, he would have to go in front of the hospital board, present my particular case – and have them approve it.
Of all the issues we’d had to face in the previous 24 hours, this one just floored us. My life was now in the hands of an undetermined amount of people who had never met me… met my husband… met our children… who knew nothing about our lives, our family, anything to do with us. They would decide if I would live or die, if my husband would be widowed, if my children would grow up without a mother. And this in a small, insular community made up primarily of Catholics and Mormons. I was already devastated, depressed, and quite naturally blaming myself for every decision I had made over the course of this pregnancy. Now, I was also terrified. So was my husband.
This story, fortunately, has a happy ending – sort of, anyway. The decision came through a week later. I wouldn’t be able to have an elective abortion, but they would allow it if the situation deteriorated to the point that my life was at immediate risk. A week after that, I went into natural labor, and after six hours of contractions, delivered our five-pound daughter, Baylee Evelyn. Her dad was the first person to hold her – they let us stay in the delivery room with her for nearly an hour before we finally let her go. We had already requested a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order, but it wasn’t needed – she never took a single breath on her own. We had her cremated, and her ashes remain in a beautiful box, decorated with a bear holding a balloon and a glitter-glue letter “B” her oldest brother put in the balloon. We still talk about her occasionally – what she would be like now, at 15 years old, what our family would have been like if she had lived.
But I have never, ever forgotten what it was like to realize that we could have lost both her and me – or how it felt to have that decision taken completely out of our hands. No one has the right to decide what is best for a woman facing a situation like that – no amount of schooling, study, medical practice; nothing gives another human being the right to decide that a non-viable fetus’s life is worth more than that of the mother carrying that fetus. Ever.
And yet, it goes on every day. In April of 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law banning exactly the procedure that I would have been given – with no exception for any risk to the health of the mother.
I guess I can just thank my lucky stars that it wasn’t necessary.
I read this morning that Wyoming is now considering a bill to ban abortions at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat – somewhere around six weeks into the pregnancy. The justification for this is that a heartbeat somehow is an indication of life. Problem is, that’s not entirely accurate. And even if it was, it can be a horribly unfair way to decide what will and what will not be allowed – which is why I’m writing this. Sometimes, the appearance of life is nothing more than an illusion, and the consequences of continuing what I’m going to refer to as a terminal pregnancy – physical, mental and emotional – are far worse than most people can imagine.
In April of 1996, I gave birth to a daughter with anencephaly. I’m not going to go into the full description – if you’re interested, the story can be found here. The part I’m concerned with here is the last few weeks of that pregnancy. Specifically, the period of time after we were told what was wrong, and what was going to happen next.
That something was wrong didn’t come as a big surprise. Baylee was my fifth pregnancy – once you’ve done it that many times, you get a pretty good feel for what constitutes “normal”, at least within your own personal experiences. And very little about this pregnancy fit my definition of “normal”. I got too big, too fast, and by the time the diagnosis came through, my body was in full revolt.
One of the side effects of an anencephalic pregnancy – and the reason I was so much bigger than I had ever been with any of my previous pregnancies – is the over-production of amniotic fluid. In my case, over three times as much as I should have had. This puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on a woman’s internal organs. Standing was bad. Sitting was nearly impossible. And lying down was a distant memory. The only position in which I was even remotely “comfortable” (and believe me, I’m stretching the definition to the breaking point here) was on my knees with my arms braced in front of me, so that my stomach was being pulled forward enough by gravity to allow me to take a breath. Anything else put so much pressure on my lungs that I could get no more than a sip of air at a time.
Eating and drinking were also incredibly difficult. As with breathing, I could only take in a very small amount at a time – there was simply no room for my stomach to expand. The pressure also induced heartburn beyond anything I could have even imagined. A simple glass of water meant a thirty-minute ordeal that would leave me gasping in pain.There was not a single food I could swallow that wouldn’t cause a burning sensation in my chest and throat, and that was if I was careful. If I wasn’t, the acid would rise to the back of my mouth (I’ve often wondered how much that contributed to the total loss of every molar in my head over the next few years).
Those were just the physical issues, though. As bad as they were, women are accustomed to dealing with a fair amount of discomfort during pregnancy, and though this was well beyond that fair amount, it was still something that could be handled. Far worse than that were the mental and emotional effects.
There is almost nothing our society loves more than a pregnant woman (assuming she has a ring on her finger, at least). We hold doors for them, give them our seats… and we so often want to share in their joy. We ask them when are you due, if it’s a boy or a girl, have you picked out names…
Now try to imagine what those questions can be like for a woman who has been told that her child will not survive their birth.
There were so many times that I just wanted to lash out at those questions. “What am I having? Why, neither, I’m giving birth to a dead baby” was one that came to mind often. I’ve never been built that way, though – that level of rudeness simply isn’t in me. So my most common response was a very short answer to the question, accompanied by a quick retreat from the questioner. I mumbled a lot. Eventually, I simply tried to avoid leaving the house altogether. Standing in line at the supermarket when every word out of a stranger’s mouth makes you want to cry… or scream… becomes more of a hassle than it’s worth. I’m very grateful to my husband, who took over the shopping and bill-paying chores when it finally became too much for me.
And then there was the worst moment of all – one that my older daughter doesn’t remember, but that I will never be able to forget.
One week before the stillbirth of my child, I was at the store when a woman approached my older daughter, holding the hand of her own son, who looked to be about five. She smiled and asked her if she wanted a brother or a sister, and told her that she was having a baby, too, and her son wanted a little brother. My daughter replied, “Mommy says I’m going to have a sister… but she’s not going to live with us, because she doesn’t have any brain and she’s going to die.”
That, at least, was one stranger I didn’t have to escape… she looked at me in horror, and quickly walked off, dragging her son behind her. That was also the last time I left the house until after it was all over. Part of me – a very uncharitable part, to be sure – still wishes I could have heard the conversation between her and her son after they left. But most of me wishes that it hadn’t happened at all.
It all comes down to this: none of the above was necessary. Yes, Baylee had a heartbeat – right up until they cut the umbilical cord. What she didn’t have, what she never had, was a chance. Without a brain, she was incapable of breathing on her own. A heartbeat is nothing more than muscle movement. Hearts have been made to beat without even being inside a person’s chest. There is more to life than a functioning muscle, and until there is a legitimate way to determine what does constitute a viable life, it can not be the sole method of determining such. As heartless as this may sound to those who believe that abortion is wrong in all cases… in mine, it would have been a blessing. I would have been able to spend those last few weeks in physical comfort, if not mental and emotional. I would have been able to start the grieving process without having to fight through the pain and discomfort. I would have been spared the well-meaning but incredibly painful questions from strangers. And in a world with some sanity, with some compassion – with fewer people who think that their view is the only possible correct view, and that abortion is somehow always unnecessary and evil, no matter the circumstances that lead a woman to that decision – it wouldn’t have happened at all.