When “Pro Choice” Gets Real

I began to suspect that something was very wrong the day I could no longer walk across the library at the law school where I was a first year student. Ten weeks pregnant, I had been fighting excessive fatigue, loss of appetite and night sweats for almost a month.

“Relax,” my midwife told me. “You’re just having a rough first trimester.”

I was inclined to believe her. At age 27 and in perfect health, I had no reason to consider that anything more than extreme morning sickness was plaguing me, and that was no big deal. Heck, with my first pregnancy, three years previously, I had felt so good that I had even wished for a little first-trimester yukkiness so that I could feel “really pregnant.”

Still, the nagging feeling that something other than just the pregnancy was going on grew stronger with each wretched day. The afternoon when I found myself collapsed in a chair in the law library brought the situation to a head. A classmate had to practically carry me to her car so that she could drive me home. There, she insisted on taking my temperature: 104'.

Within hours, I was admitted to the maternity floor at a local hospital, where I spent the next eight unhappy days. Each afternoon, just to make sure that all was well, the obstetrician would perform an ultrasound, showing us the tiny “beep, beep” of the fetal heart and the jerky movements of a glowing human jumping bean. We began calling the baby “Peanut.” My doctor was puzzled as test after test failed to determine what the cause of my illness could be. He brought in an infectious disease specialist, who tested me for everything from HIV to Malaria.

On the sixth day of my confinement, as I was lying miserably in my hospital bed, watching a rerun of the Andy Griffith show, both of my doctors suddenly entered my room, closed the door and turned off the TV without asking. Now I knew for certain that I had been right; something was terribly wrong.

They had come to inform me that I had an acute, primary cytomegalovirus infection, popularly known as CMV. The disease is not generally something to worry about, unless you are immunocompromised, which I wasn’t, or pregnant, which I was. CMV, we were told by the obstetrician, is very dangerous to a fetus, particularly in the first trimester. It is a leading cause of congenital neurologic impairment, severe physical anomalies, devastating mental retardation and infant fatality. Really, we were told, we should consider our “options”.

Suddenly, I, a person with all her grandparents still alive, a person who had never even been to a funeral, was faced with death. Not only was I faced with death in the abstract, I was faced with The Decision. In consultation with my with my husband, a man similarly unschooled in the ways of mortality, I was charged with handing down a judgment as to whether Peanut would continue to leap and hop about in my womb and ultimately, be born alive. With a somber face, the doctor uttered the words that were to become so familiar to us over the next days, “Now, no one can make this decision for you. Only you can decide.”

Only, I couldn’t. Not without more information. And maybe not even then. We immediately became experts on CMV and its potential sequelae. I stayed up all night for days after the diagnosis, reading medical literature and searching the Web for answers. None was forthcoming. The best information available told us that if we carried the pregnancy to term, there was approximately a 1 in 4 chance that an infected baby would be affected by the CMV in some way. I was paralyzed with grief and indecision.

As an ostensibly pro-choice woman, I realized that I was not actually “pro”- anyone ever having to make a choice like this. Although no one wanted to offer an opinion as to what we should do, everyone had an angle. My doctor answered my questions honestly and told me that if his wife or daughter were faced with a CMV diagnosis in the first trimester, he would definitely encourage an abortion.

The minister whom a friend sent to see me was gentle and kind. Yet, she assumed that I was crying because I had already made the obvious decision to have an abortion and was grieving. She offered to set a time for a memorial service after the abortion to “celebrate and remember”. She even showed me the feminist liturgy she had photocopied for just such an occasion. I found her point of view strangely repulsive and without intellectual honesty. If the life I would be taking was worthy of religious remembrance and ceremony, how was it possibly mine to take? There are no memorial services for appendectomies or squashed bugs. Only for people.

I was hesitant to share my dilemma with a certain close relative because I feared her unbending anti-abortion stance. Of course, she immediately realized the decision with which I was faced after someone told her of my diagnosis. She telephoned me to instruct me that, although abortion is wrong, sometimes God realizes that the time is not right for a particular soul to come into this world. Considering the circumstances, she opined, no one could blame me for whatever decision I felt was right. Her stunning hypocrisy angered me. Despite her stated views, she was conveniently able to allow for choice in this issue when the woman in question was someone she loved.

As days passed and I wrestled with my conscience, I realized that I was petrified of the physical procedure itself. My doctor assured me that he could perform the abortion at the hospital. I wouldn’t have to go sit in a waiting room at a clinic. I told him that, although I realized that most first and early second trimester abortions are performed under local anesthesia, the only way I could face this would be knocked out cold. He agreed. I knew that I could be admitted to the hospital, drift gently off to sleep and wake up, relieved of this problem forever. I would never have to think about it again if I chose not to. Variously, this sounded tremendously appealing and completely horrifying.

When I envisioned the actual opening of my womb and suctioning of its contents, the same primal instinct kicked in that would allow me to single-handedly rip the lungs out of any man who laid a hand on my little boy. What kind of terrible mother would allow her defenseless offspring to be taken from the very bosom of maternal safety and warmth? I felt sick, and wept yet again.

My father tried to reason with me, pointing out the lifelong ramifications of my decision. He was terribly worried that I would be forever shackled to the responsibilities of caring for a severely ill or disabled child. He fretted that his big plans for his own child would be sucked away forever by a draining responsibility from which I could never escape. I too was seized with these fears. I secretly believed that I simply wasn’t up to the task of mothering a child with serious health and developmental problems. What would that do to our other child, whom I already knew and loved? What would it do to my career goals? Our marriage? And what about the baby? The thought of seeing our tiny baby, suffering, perhaps hooked up to tubes and wires in a neonatal intensive care unit, caused me almost unbearable psychic pain. I imagined a future in which our mentally retarded and physically handicapped 13 year old child would endure the cruel taunts of other teenagers.

I began to wonder if I was being selfish in even considering giving birth to this baby. Would anyone choose for herself the life that this child might face? Were my own fears about a relatively minor surgery and future guilt good enough reasons to bring forth a human being who would have to live with the consequences of my own cowardice? I tentatively decided that motherhood is full of tough calls and hard decisions, both in the name of love and in a child’s best interests. This must be one of them, I thought. I would do what was best for all concerned.

I telephoned the hospital, as instructed by my physician, and weakly scheduled the procedure for the next day. The admitting clerk who took the call easily misunderstood my vague instructions and thought that I was coming in for labor induction of a full-term, healthy pregnancy. “Congratulations,” she said brightly. I corrected her mistake and her tone grew dark, almost menacing. She told me to meet my doctor at the labor and delivery wing at 6:30 a.m. sharp the following morning. She abruptly hung up.

There, I thought to myself. I have done the right thing. No turning back. I felt like someone had drained all the life from me. I sat in a darkened room for the next several hours, absently rubbing my still flat belly and murmuring maternal expressions of comfort to no one in particular. Later that evening, my husband and I discussed the choice that had been made. I attempted stoicism. He reminded me that we had a friend coming over to bring us supper, as many kind people had done throughout my illness and convalescence at home. I roused myself enough to get dressed and out of bed.

Our friend arrived and we all ate supper together. I told her of my decision and the reasons behind it. She listened quietly and then asked if she could tell us a little about her brother, who had died recently at the age of nine. She recounted a tale of extraordinary courage on the part of her parents, her sister, herself, and especially, on the part of a little boy with Down Syndrome named David. This child and this family had lived through all of the things I feared when I considered birthing my own baby, including David’s eventual early death. Still, the joy and love of his brief existence canceled out all of the pain, fear and hurt. No one who knew David had any regrets. Our friend showed us his photograph: a beautiful and smiling tow-headed little boy, obviously mentally retarded.

Neither do I have any regrets about the decisions I made after that discussion. I never arrived at the hospital the next morning. I canceled the abortion and after a pregnancy alternating between exhilaration and despair, gave birth to my daughter on August 15th, 1995. She was born ten days early weighing 6 pounds and eleven ounces. She was born infected with congenital cytomegolovirus and had two seizure episodes in her first year. Since that time, however, she has been physically and developmentally normal in every way. She was a strikingly beautiful child, with shiny dark hair, olive skin and a lithe, elfin figure, and she’s a lovely young woman, living on her own in the big city in which she chose to start her post-collegiate life, and happily busy with her budding career.

Many people want to extract a moral from this story. Pro-life friends tell me that my daughter is my gift from God for making the right choice. They want to hold my child up as their own personal anti-abortion poster child.

Those who are pro-choice attempt to use the tale as a cautionary parable for why choice should be the focus of the debate, rather than abortion itself. After all, I was able to carefully consider each of my options and ultimately, have the final say. This wouldn’t have been possible in another political context.

As for me, my own views have become less reactionary and more cognizant of the complexity of the abortion issue. I continue to fear the slippery slope that we head down when we deny women the right to choose when and how we bear children. On the other hand, I no longer attempt to repudiate the fact that the graphic posters displayed by anti-abortion activists are real photographs of what really comes out of the uterus during an abortion. Many abortions do indeed “stop a beating heart,” as the bumper sticker says.

However, I will not allow my child to be used as a crucible for the views of any person or group. I know that I would love my daughter just as much if she had been born severely disabled. I do not, however, deny the relief I feel that she came to us so radiantly well. I am deeply aware that I was graced with this experience, which has allowed me to see that the blessing is sometimes as much in the struggle, from which I have learned so much, as in the outcome.

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