Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

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

Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion
(Image credit: C. Renee)

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.

Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

(Image credit: E. Von Weber)

In Washington DC, on the same day I decided to terminate my pregnancy, lawmakers gathered to discuss a new bill-one that would effectively outlaw so-called partial-birth abortions, the term preferred by pro-lifers to put a decidedly graphic spin on abortions that occur after the first trimester. It wasn't an issue I'd given much thought to, since I'd long been ready to have children of my own. Although I'd always considered myself pro-choice, I just assumed that meant choosing whether or not to keep a baby after an accidental pregnancy-not whether or not to terminate a pregnancy after you'd already fallen in love with your child.

Looking back, I'm not sure which was worse: the three days leading up to the procedure (like most women who have gone through it, I've never called it an abortion) or the rip current of emotions following it.

Walking around with a belly full of broken dreams, I felt like I was drowning. I couldn't shower, because I didn't want to touch my stomach and accept that there was life in there; yet I couldn't bring myself to have a glass of wine to calm my nerves, because, of course, I knew there was.

My decision tortured me. This wasn't some mysterious clump of cells that would simply be sucked away in a vacuum. This was a 19-week-old baby, one that I desperately wanted, that would be pulled out of me bit by bit-that's the way it works through the "dilation and evacuation" procedure.

I asked over and over, Are we doing the right thing? Our family-even my Catholic father and Republican father-in-law, neither of whom were ever pro-choice-assured us that we were. Politics suddenly became personal-their daughter's heartbreak, their son's pain, their grandchild's suffering-and that changed everything.

My regular obstetrician, who only handled healthy pregnancies, refer-red us to someone else. I was glad. Where-as she'd seemed cold and dismissive upon learning of my decision to terminate the pregnancy, I felt nothing but compassion from my new doctor, who re-mind-ed me in looks and manner of Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules. His eyes, the kindest, saddest I'd ever seen, teared up as Dave and I cried in front of him.

In his cramped and unfashionable private office in Brookline, he started the two-day termination process by inserting four laminaria sticks made of dried seaweed into my cervix. The pain was excruciating, like needles piercing my abdomen, and he apologized over and over as I cried out. Afterward, ghostly white and shaking, I could barely walk to the recovery room. The pain increased through the long night as the sticks collected fluids from my body and expanded, dilating my cervix as though I were in the beginning stages of labor. The next morning in the operating room, I was petrified and fought the anesthesia, clinging to my last moments of pregnancy. As I finally started to drift off, my doctor held one of my hands and an older, female nurse held the other, whispering in my ear, "You're going to be OK, I've been here before, lean on your husband." It's my last memory of the experience. When I woke up, it was all over. I was empty.

For the next week, my mother tried to bring me back to life with grilled-cheese sandwiches and chicken-noodle soup. But I felt like a freak in a world of capable women having babies-Why did my body betray me?-and for months I quarantined myself from the world. I just couldn't bear well--meaning friends saying, "I'm so sorry."

I took that nurse's advice and leaned on my husband. He seemed so resolved in our decision, in a way that I just couldn't be. Perhaps it was guilt-it was my body that had failed us all: my husband, myself, our baby. Dave was strong where I was weak. But then I found him one night, all alone, kneeling on the floor of our bathroom with the light off and the door half-closed, doubled over, bawling. It nearly killed me, and I realized then that I did not own this pain alone. In an effort to pull myself together, I wrote my doctor a long note on my good wedding stationery. I thanked him for his compassion and said that it must be hard, what he does, but that I hoped he found consolation in the fact that he was helping women at their most vulnerable. When I went in for my six-week checkup, he told me that he kept my note, along with other letters of appreciation, in a large bundle, to remind him of why he does this difficult work. And he keeps that bundle right next to his stack of hate mail, which is about the same size.

Seven months later, in November 2003, 14 weeks into my second pregnancy, I gently rubbed my rounded belly, tears rolling down my cheeks as I watched George W. Bush sign the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act on CNN. It would be at least two more weeks before I could learn via ultrasound if this baby squirming around inside my womb was healthy or not. Taking in the scene, I understood that if this baby were plagued with the same genetic defects as my last, any choices I had were being taken away from me.

Once the president signed the act-the first federal ban on any abortion procedure in the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, and the first ban on a surgical technique in the history of this country-the 400-strong crowd at the ceremony exploded in whoops and hollers. "For years a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches away from birth, while the law looked the other way," Bush said. It was time to "defend the life of the innocent."I stared at the screen. The president was, in essence, calling me a baby killer. Even members of the Democratic Party-17 in all-voted for the ban. One of my own senators, John Kerry, perhaps looking to dodge the liberal label in anticipation of his bid for the White House, conveniently missed one of the key votes (as did his future running mate, John Edwards).

According to the Bush administration, the new law would put an end to the "gruesome and inhumane" procedure used to kill healthy babies after the first trimester. But the language of the law was less clear. Essentially, legislators invented a previously nonexistent medical term-"partial-birth abortion"-and then banned it. By giving it a purposely vague definition, the term could feasibly apply to all abortions after the first trimester-including my own.

Legislators also made no mention of fetal viability (the point at which a fetus can live independently of its mother for an extended period of time) or gestational age. There were no exceptions for a fetus with severe birth defects incompatible with life (many of which cannot be detected until well into the second trimester). Nor for a mother who would be forced to have, for example, a kidney transplant or hysterectomy if she continued with the pregnancy."When we look to the unborn child," Bush said into the television cameras, "the real issue is not when life begins, but when love begins."

Over the next 36 months, three federal courts-as well as three appellate courts-struck down the ban as unconstitutional. But on November 8, 2006, the eight men and one woman of the Supreme Court heard two new arguments on the ban-both of which, experts predict, could result in expanding its reach. At press time, a ruling was expected this spring.

Maureen Britell used to stand outside a Planned Parenthood in Maryland shouting Hail Marys. A devout Irish Catholic, Britell was raised to believe "abortions were for bad girls who couldn't keep their legs closed," she says. Her husband, a major in the Air Force, flew F-15s for a living. Then, when she was five-months pregnant with her second child, Britell found out their baby girl had anencephaly-no brain or any chance of life.

"Could we have continued the pregnancy? I guess, but we'd have been on a death watch," Britell says today. Because they were Catholics, the Britells decided to have a labor induction instead of a surgical abortion so that they could baptize and bury their daughter whole. But, after 13 hours of labor, the baby came out breech, stuck in the birth canal with a too-short umbilical cord. Halfway delivered, the doctors had no choice but to cut the cord, an "overt act" that killed the baby while partially delivered. In other words: a partial-birth abortion.

As if the heartbreak weren't enough, CHAMPUS, the government-funded health insurance for military families, refused to pay Britell's $8000 hospital bill, as it does not cover abortion unless the woman's life is in jeopardy. In the middle of the financial battle, the Britells went to church on Mother's Day, which was also the occasion of their 6-year-old daughter's First Communion. After the service, Britell was confronted by dozens of chanting protesters from the National Right to Life. Her pastor-who knew about her baby girl-had sold her out.

It's holiday season 2006, and I'm deep inside the concrete bowels of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Down hidden elevators and along desolate corridors littered with abandoned filing cabinets, I see the sign I've been searching for: "H.O.P.E. Memorial Service," written on blue construction paper. It stands for Helping Other Parents Endure, a support group for families who've terminated a pregnancy due to fetal abnormalities. Tonight is its annual memorial service.

It has been three years since I ended my pregnancy. Gathering with strangers feels awkward. The room is too large for such an intimate gathering. The event organizer hands me a 14-page program, filled with beautiful poems and letters submitted by other parents. I didn't submit anything. She asks me to sign the guest book with my baby's name and take an ornament-pink angels for little girls, blue ones for little boys. I tell her I didn't know whether my baby was a boy or a girl, and we never gave it a name. She feels bad that she didn't consider that circumstance. I feel bad that maybe I didn't mourn properly. After a few words by the chaplain, the social worker leads us through a door onto a dark concrete patio. In a tight circle, we light candles off one another with shaking hands. "I light this candle in honor of . . ." each person says, then recites the child's name. Abigail and Travis and Grady. I say, simply, Baby Voss. "Now we'll blow out the candles," the social worker says. "But the light your child brought into your life will never be extinguished." I lower my head to blow out my candle, but the flame is already gone. The freezing wind blew right through my protective hand and took the light away from me.

It's an awkward process. Just a month before, I find myself sitting in the dining room of the Concord Country Club at a baby shower for a pregnant friend. Over plates of salmon, the foursome at my table shares hilarious tales of raising children. Then the woman next to me turns and says brightly, "I want a third child, don't you?"

I don't know what to say.

These women are aware only of the two healthy boys I've had in the past two years, not my first child, whom I will never know. As I sit in the members' dining room, I feel like an outsider. Pregnancy, for me, is an experience I associate with sheer terror. How do I explain to this woman that carrying my two sons to term left me exhausted from worrying? That as I consulted genetic counselors and gobbled down massive doses of folic acid, I floated in an emotional no-man's-land, completely unable to attach to the new life in my belly?

While I scramble to find some suitable answer to her question, I can feel the ears of a friend at the next table prick up. Last year, in her 18th week, she, too, terminated a pregnancy that had gone horribly wrong. She knew my story-her parents and my in-laws are friends-and she called me. I remember her asking through tears, "What am I going to tell everyone? What if people judge me?" "Just tell them you lost the baby," I said. "It's nobody's business, anyway." We talked for a long time that night. But we haven't talked about it since. Turning to my cheerful tablemate, I briefly consider telling her the truth. Then, instead, I mumble something lame, like, "Kids are a handful- I think we're all set with two." As the words leave my mouth, I feel like my silence is letting all of us down.

On one level, it's nobody's business, I realize. But on another, isn't it everybody's?