Life is not always black or white. In fact, over my 52 years of living, I’ve learned that life most often settles within that frequently annoying, vast grey zone where matters are unclear and as such it’s left up to each individual to decipher meaning, worth, choices and direction in our own life. That, in fact, is a pivotal part of the journey called life. As such, this is a long blog piece, but I hope those reading will give it the time it warrants.
Here in Ireland, the country is deep into the debate of whether to repeal the 8th amendment and allow abortion to be legal, or to change the amendment somewhat, or, there is always the possibility the referendum will turn out a majority vote where the 8th amendment remains. The social media storm on the subject has been distressing for me for a number of reasons which I will address here. But first, let me make my position known, as I have yet to do that publicly, nor will I do so again because it is just too emotional a topic to delve into daily when I already face death – and life – every day.
I am pro-choice.
I am also pro-life.
That is the grey area of the subject which I will try to explain.
I have lost 5 pregnancies to miscarriage. I have seen what should have been a baby in my arms fall out of me onto a bathroom floor at over 2 months gestation. (Sorry for the visual, but this is my reality, my experience, and this is not a pretty subject.) This is why I want to vomit each time I see the disgustingly graphic and shameful posters of the “Pro-Life” campaign. To them I say, how dare you.
The fourth loss was the most traumatic for me. The baby was a little girl. Her heart stopped beating around 12 weeks gestation due to Down Syndrome. I shall never forget laying on the hospital bed as the technician slowly rolled the ultrasound wand across my lower abdomen. There she was, looking so perfect. It was the first pregnancy the baby formed fully. (I discovered after the 3rd miscarriage that I had a condition requiring medication to keep the fetus growing and forming throughout the first trimester.) So, there was this baby…arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes…perfect…except there was no heartbeat. The technician called in a doctor. I lay there crying. The doctor confirmed what the technician feared. I was sent home to await a call from my Obstetrician. The call came shortly after I got home. I had an option – a choice – to wait for the baby to miscarry naturally (which at that stage would be hard on my body) or to have a D & C. At my Obstetrician’s advice, I chose the latter option, and it was scheduled for the next day.
I remember having a conversation with him that next day where I asked how could we be certain the heart stopped. I was a mother-to-be who had never seen via ultrasound a perfectly formed baby inside of her womb. “I don’t do abortions, Tracy” he told me straight up as he reassured me they would do another ultrasound to be sure before the procedure. We did the scan. There was no heartbeat. And I let them put me under for the D&C. I awoke it agonizing pain like I had never experienced before. The nurse gave me more pain medication as I lay there in a recovery room listening to the other women, some talking, some crying, others quietly looking at the ceiling. I remember knowing that some of them were there for elective abortions, unlike me, and honestly it angered me. The woman who was next to me before the procedure was crying to her husband on the other side of the curtain…“I can’t do this, mi amor, I can’t” she pleaded in despair. As I listened, I learned they had “too many” children already and were struggling to make ends meet as it was, so, there they were, next to me who was waiting to have my dead baby removed, furious they were about to get rid of a baby because they had too many already.
If I had a vote at that point, it would be to keep the 8th amendment. Full stop. I was so angry at them…at him, primarily. Yet, as I look back now, it was because abortion is legal (this was in America), that I had the option of the D&C the next day after learning the baby had died inside of me.
THIS IS THE GREY AREA OF LIFE.
It was a few weeks later when the lab sent the results that I learned the baby was a girl and that she had Down Syndrome. This is why her heart stopped…I had my answers, but the emotional pain was no less.
My next pregnancy – my 5th – was the inspiration for this very blog: My beautiful, angel boy Brendan Bjorn. As I was 38 at the time, they ran numerous tests and performed as many scans to assure that there were no abnormalities. The standard, early tests in America for DS and neural-tube defects were fine. The ultrasounds from the first through the second trimesters were equally fine. Finally! Finally! After 4 losses I was about to have that long dreamt of baby in my arms! In the third trimester they began to pick up what they thought was a smaller than average head size, but it was written off to either genetics or to Brendan being so low and head down that it was hard to get a proper reading. I worried, but was assured it was nothing as all else was perfectly fine. Fast forward to 1 October 2004, at 39 weeks, Brendan Bjorn was born – perfectly healthy scoring 9 on both the 1 and 5 minute apgar tests.
Tests can be wrong. Very wrong.
I learned this heartbreaking fact over the next 4 weeks.
After Brendan Bjorn, I lost another pregnancy: my 5th and last loss.
I tried one more time, this time using IVF, to have another baby, and at age 41, I became pregnant. Again, with my “advanced maternal age” they ran numerous blood tests and scans from early on. The blood work came back with bad news – very likely the baby forming had Down Syndrome. Then the next round of blood work – very likely the baby had a neural-tube defect (such as Spina Bifida). The perinatal specialist ran detailed, highly advanced scans. There were 2 physical markers for Down Syndrome present. I also learned the baby was a boy. I wanted to know this time around, whereas with Brendan I didn’t want to know. You see, I felt detached from this baby because of all of the probable health issues. I hoped that if I knew the gender and named the baby, it would help me bond with him.
I sat on the edge of the examination table looking at my Obstetrician. I will never, ever forget her words: “Tracy, considering your situation with Brendan, no one would fault you if you terminated this pregnancy.” No, I can’t do that. Or, could I? Would I? My world was spinning out of control. I went home, sobbing, and rang a close friend back here in Ireland. She sat on her couch sobbing while I sat on mine doing the same. A fiercely devout Catholic, she said she thought God would understand if I did choose to terminate. She said she would understand, too. I had no answer. All I knew is that I needed to make up my mind, and soon. I rang the perinatal obstetrician the next day and said I wanted an amniocentesis done. It was arranged immediately and despite the risk of miscarriage, I was somewhat relieved I would have more definitive answers to base any decision upon.
The day after the amniocentesis, Brendan Bjorn was in hospital for surgery. As I stood by his bedside in the pre-op room, my phone rang. It was the nurse with the 24 hour preliminary results from the amniocentesis. She said first of all they know the sex and did I want to know. I already knew. Please, what of the Down Syndrome? The neural-tube defects? What of anything and everything?! She reminded me these are just preliminary results and the full results would be within a week or so. And then she proceeded to tell me, “Everything is normal. There are zero signs of any problems whatsoever. He is perfectly healthy.”
Tests can be wrong. Very wrong.
I learned this fact as the amniocentesis showed how skewed blood work can be and how wrong scans can be.
My baby boy – who I had decided to name Declan – was perfectly healthy! I burst out in tears and the nurse asked if I was ok. Yes, yes, I’ve never been better, and I told her the story. She was overcome with joy as well and gave me a hug. Back to business, and Brendan was being wheeled back for a long, risky operation. My amazingly special boy, Brendan Bjorn, you are going to be a big brother, I whispered to him.
Yes, I am pro-choice. Yes.
But…with that choice…I worry that decisions will be made on faulty tests or out of the fear that the parent(s) can’t “handle” whatever the baby may bring to their life – be it another mouth to feed or having to care for a disabled child. I worry because I know there will be regrets, heartbreak, and life that deserves to be born but won’t be.
Yet, I am pro-choice because I have no right to tell any woman what to do or not to do with life growing inside of her. I simply do not have that right, and this is why I support women having the right to choose.
I’ll end this tremendously long blog by saying this:
If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now about Brendan Bjorn’s condition and the often back-breaking, soul destroying journey it has taken me on, I would NOT change a thing. For what he has given me, taught me, and will continue to do so even after his soul moves on, far outways the struggles that have been placed before me these past 13 years and counting.
*This is not religion, by the way, so please don’t mix my views up with any church’s dogma. This is my spiritual belief that all life is worthy, precious and to be cherished, no matter any disability.*
And, lastly, I am so deeply thankful that I didn’t make a decision to terminate my baby boy – Declan, I am speaking about now – based on emotions of fear at the moment, or on the blood work and the detailed ultrasound anomaly scans, all which were proved wrong by the amniocentesis. For what he has given to me, taught me, and will continue to do so as he grows into the fine young man he is becoming, far outways the struggles of being a single mother.
If it wasn’t for Brendan, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to have another child…which means that today I wouldn’t have Declan. I cherish both of them equally with every fibre of my being. It was all about the choices I made that I have them today, and all that they enrich my life with every single moment.
I am pro-choice. Choose wisely, sisters, with the deepest of soul-searching you have ever done. Whatever you choose, it is your journey. Remember: life is most often lived in that grey area of not knowing what to do.