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August 5, 2009

The Abortion Debate: What Would You Do?

abortion debate

Photo Credit: Melissa Ann Pinney

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Over the next six weeks, I subjected myself to three tests: the CVS, which draws a sample from the placenta; a blood test; and an amnio—each one followed by an agonizing two-week period when my husband and I would have to wait for results; this being right after Katrina, the samples had to be sent out of state. I spent that time in a fog. I barely slept. I had to force myself to eat, even though I should have been famished from the pregnancy.

I was in my last semester of school, but I lost focus. I sat in class practically comatose. I didn't take notes; I just waited for class to end. I'm usually the kind of person who holds my feelings in, but I was crying all the time—in the car, in between classes, in the bathroom. I prayed to God and asked him, Why me? I closed the door to the nursery, where I'd filled the shelves with my old children's books such as Where the Wild Things Are and The Giving Tree that my parents had given me. To make things worse, I was starting to show. I began to wear baggier clothes—I didn't want friends congratulating me when I knew in my heart that I was going to lose the baby.

I was 16 weeks pregnant when the last set of test results came in. My husband and I were at home, and I made him take the 6 p.m. call while I just hid, sobbing in bed under the covers. The doctor told my husband that the baby had trisomy 2, a fatal chromosomal abnormality that occurs in 0.016 of pregnancies.

When we went for our follow-up appointment, the doctor gave us a list of the problems our baby could face: It could be born with congenital heart defects; structural brain abnormalities; lung deformation; or suffer from seizures. The doctor couldn't even say if the baby would survive the pregnancy, but the best-case scenario was that it would live for two weeks.

Our doctor didn't talk to us about our options outright. But we knew what they were. The doctor slipped us a piece of paper with the names of two clinics—one was Dr. George Tiller's in Kansas, the other was in Dallas—and left the room.

That night, I curled up in a ball in the bathtub for two hours, my husband sitting next to me on the cold tile floor. I didn't let him touch me. I didn't want to be touched. As we discussed our options, our religious upbringings pressed down on us. Having grown up in the Catholic city of New Orleans and having gone to a Catholic high school, college, and graduate school, I'd always thought of abortion as a decision made by a woman who didn't want her baby, or by someone who had been raped. I'd always known I would become pregnant purposefully, when I was married. And that's exactly what I had done. I had no plan for this. In all of the discussions we had in Catholic school about terminating pregnancies, we'd never once addressed reasons such as my own. There was nobody to ask what to do.

Our first option was to have the baby. And yet, that seemed implausible. There was already the possibility that I wouldn't be able to carry a healthy baby to term, let alone one that may not even survive in the womb. But even if I could, I didn't know how I would tell people who wanted to celebrate with showers and baby gifts that the baby was fatally ill. Most of all, I couldn't bear the idea of watching my baby suffer once born. I would have to watch it die.

Our second option was to terminate the pregnancy. I've never used the word abortion.

When I called my parents, I was mostly scared of what my father would say, since he was the most religious person in my family. My father has never been a man of many words, and while he was upset, he didn't object. I'll never know whether his sadness was out of sympathy, or because I'd already made the decision. We never told my mother-in-law, a devout Catholic who has expressed very passionate views on this issue. I knew our decision would hurt her. And I knew she would judge us.

Of the two clinics, my husband and I chose the one in Dallas because it was closer. So one day at 5:30 a.m., we got in the car, drove 10 hours, and checked ourselves into a Hampton Inn.

The next morning, we drove to the clinic. There was a long driveway that led to the building, almost as if they were trying to hide it from view. As we walked from the parking lot to the front door, I remember a protestor holding up a sign, trying to lure us over to discuss adoption. She wanted to help us find someone for our baby, someone who could take care of it, give it a loving home. I was angry. I wanted my baby. I had a loving home for it. I wanted to say something to her, but I didn't. Instead, I just looked at my feet.

The clinic's waiting room had 10 dingy couches lined up in rows, facing each other—you had to sit across from someone experiencing the same trauma as you were. Some people were just lounging around, lying on them; others had brought in food, even though patients aren't supposed to eat before the procedure. There were women who talked about getting their nails done afterward. But there were also mothers with their teenage daughters, and women who were much further along in their pregnancies than I was, sobbing. We sat there for 10 hours, a forced waiting period meant to give us time to change our minds.

We finally met with the doctor at 4 p.m. In cold, clinical terms, he explained there would be two procedures—one to dilate the cervix, a second to remove the fetus—and that I'd have to pay an extra few hundred dollars for a general anesthesia if I wanted more than the local, which would leave me awake. I paid the extra money. I didn't want any memory of what was happening.

When I went into an examination room, they inserted sticks called laminaria that slowly dilate the cervix. When I woke up, they gave me a bottle of Advil and sent me back to the hotel. That night, my mother-in-law called. She wanted us to turn on channel 4 so that I could see my cousin, who is an actor, on television. As far as she knew, there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. She didn't even know we were out of town. That's when the burden of having this secret really hit me. To have to hide our pain and sorrow made it feel like punishment.

The next morning, I went in for the second procedure. When I woke up, I was in a room with about six recliners lined up in a row. When I looked down at myself, at the pad beneath me, I saw that I was sitting in a pool of my own blood. A woman came by to help me clean up. Once I was dressed, she walked me to the back door.

OVER THE NEXT TWO months, my hormones were raging. At school, I would start bawling in the middle of the dining hall. One time, it was so uncontrollable, a counselor who worked for the campus ministry asked me if I wanted to talk in her office. (I declined.) If people asked about the pregnancy, I just told them I'd lost the baby. Luckily, most people just assumed I had miscarried—I saw that as a blessing and left it at that. Eventually, with finals coming up, I went to talk to the dean. I told her that my baby had died, and she arranged it with my professors for me to work at my own pace.

Back in May, I cried when I saw the news of Dr. Tiller's murder and had to listen to all the rhetoric on television vilifying women like me.

Looking back, I know I made the right decision—I wanted to prevent my child from a painful death. But because of my religion, I feel I will never be forgiven for making the choice I made. I no longer feel I can even be called Catholic, another loss altogether.

About a month after I terminated my first pregnancy, my husband and I started trying again. I naively believed that having a healthy child would heal all wounds. But you never forget. Now I have an 18-month-old girl and another baby on the way. And while my daughter didn't erase what happened, she did make it easier to feel hopeful about life.

As told to Yael Kohen.

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