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April 15, 2007

Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

The easiest choice I've ever made is also the hardest to live with.

The Hardest Choice

Photo Credit: C. Renee/Getty Image

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Fireworks lit up the sky; great big booming explosions of color. It was New Year's Eve 2002, and I'd just found out I was pregnant with my first child. Surrounded by a dozen friends on Cape Cod, I thought those fireworks were meant just for me.

We wanted to keep it a secret, my husband, Dave, and I, so I stealthily poured nonalcoholic O'Doul's into my frosty mug, trying to act like I was the same old person I was yesterday. That lasted about an hour. I've never been good with secrets, especially life-changing ones.

Four blissful months later, the lights dimmed and the screen brightened. My rounded belly was covered in slick, warm gel. As I lay back on the cushy examining table at my doctor's office in Lexington, MA, fuzzy gray images of our baby pulsed on the monitor. It was curled up like a question mark in my womb-our baby-and Dave and I oohed and aahed over its perfect little features. "Is it a boy or a girl?" I asked, giddy-thinking, really, that the sole purpose of this routine full-fetal ultrasound was to determine what color to paint the nursery.

The technician was quiet. Evasive. Her furrowed-brow focus finally brought an end to my bubbly chitchat, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Then she left the room, and I started to panic. Trying to distract myself as the seconds stretched into minutes, I stared up at the silly pictures of fuzzy kittens and kissing dolphins taped to the ceiling. When she returned, she said that our doctor wanted to see us upstairs. Dave murmured reassurances, but it did no good. I started crying. I could barely get my maternity clothes back on.

The waiting room upstairs, usually bustling with radiantly serene pregnant women devouring parenting magazines, was empty. My doctor-young and trim, and usually quick with a smile-was tight-lipped as she led us back to her office, the half-eaten contents of her lunch and photos of her own children scattered about the desk. The ultrasound, she said, indicated that the fetus had an "open neural tube defect," a spinal-cord condition with a range of severity from life-threatening to hardly noticeable. We had to go to Boston, she said, immediately, today, where a new, high-tech machine could tell us more. She directed someone to make an appointment and give us directions. Then she abruptly left us to cry.

There were no fuzzy kittens or dolphins in that stark white hospital room at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in downtown Boston. Just ominous-looking machines and monitors that beeped and whirred. Dave grasped my hand tightly as the technician squirted gel over my belly and rolled a cold wand across my roundness, gently punching it down here and there unexpectedly, trying to get the baby to move and provide a better view on the screen. I couldn't bear to see my baby in sharp, black and white relief-What does a life-threatening spinal condition look like?-so I stared at the technician, like a panicked airline passenger caught in a thunderstorm, taking her cues from the expression on a flight attendant's face. But the technician revealed nothing. She did not utter one syllable in 45 minutes.

And then she spoke words no pregnant woman wants to hear. Instead of "healthy" and "strong," our baby was discussed in clinical terms like "hydrocephalus" and "spina bifida." Like a defective zipper, the spine hadn't closed all the way, and a gaping hole was located near the brain-the worst possible spot. What the doctors knew-that the baby would be paralyzed and incontinent, its brain smushed against the base of the skull and the cranium filled with fluid-was awful. What they didn't know-whether it would live, and if so, the degree of mental and developmental defects-was devastating. If the baby did live, countless surgeries would be required, and none of them would repair the damage that was already done.

I was numb with shock. It sounds naive now, but I'd never considered pregnancy a gamble. Nobody warned me that what was rooting around inside my body was a hope, not a promise.

Sitting in the genetic counselor's windowless office, I tried to read between the lines of complicated medical jargon, searching for answers that weren't there. But I already knew what I had to do. Even if our baby had a remote chance of surviving, it was not a life that we would choose for our child.

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