I read this morning that Wyoming is now considering a bill to ban abortions at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat - somewhere around six weeks into the pregnancy. The justification for this is that a heartbeat somehow is an indication of "life". Problem is, that's not entirely accurate. And even if it was, it can be a horribly unfair way to decide what will and what will not be allowed - which is why I'm writing this. Sometimes, the appearance of "life" is nothing more than an illusion, and the consequences of continuing what I'm going to refer to as a "terminal pregnancy" - physical, mental and emotional - are far worse than most people can imagine.
In April of 1996, I gave birth to a daughter with anencephaly. I'm not going to go into the full description - if you're interested, the story can be found here. The part I'm concerned with here is the last few weeks of that pregnancy. Specifically, the period of time after we were told what was wrong, and what was going to happen next.
That something was wrong didn't come as a big surprise. Baylee was my fifth pregnancy - once you've done it that many times, you get a pretty good feel for what constitutes "normal", at least within your own personal experiences. And very little about this pregnancy fit my definition of "normal". I got too big, too fast, and by the time the diagnosis came through, my body was in full revolt.
One of the side effects of an anencephalic pregnancy - and the reason I was so much bigger than I had ever been with any of my previous pregnancies - is the over-production of amniotic fluid. In my case, over three times as much as I should have had. This puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on a woman's internal organs. Standing was bad. Sitting was nearly impossible. And lying down was a distant memory. The only position in which I was even remotely "comfortable" (and believe me, I'm stretching the definition to the breaking point here) was on my knees with my arms braced in front of me, so that my stomach was being pulled forward enough by gravity to allow me to take a breath. Anything else put so much pressure on my lungs that I could get no more than a sip of air at a time.
Eating and drinking were also incredibly difficult. As with breathing, I could only take in a very small amount at a time - there was simply no room for my stomach to expand. The pressure also induced heartburn beyond anything I could have even imagined. A simple glass of water meant a thirty-minute ordeal that would leave me gasping in pain.There was not a single food I could swallow that wouldn't cause a burning sensation in my chest and throat, and that was if I was careful. If I wasn't, the acid would rise to the back of my mouth (I've often wondered how much that contributed to the total loss of every molar in my head over the next few years).
Those were just the physical issues, though. As bad as they were, women are accustomed to dealing with a fair amount of discomfort during pregnancy, and though this was well beyond that "fair amount", it was still something that could be handled. Far worse than that were the mental and emotional effects.
There is almost nothing our society loves more than a pregnant woman (assuming she has a ring on her finger, at least). We hold doors for them, give them our seats... and we so often want to share in their joy. We ask them when are you due, if it's a boy or a girl, have you picked out names...
Now try to imagine what those questions can be like for a woman who has been told that her child will not survive their birth.
There were so many times that I just wanted to lash out at those questions. "What am I having? Why, neither, I'm giving birth to a dead baby" was one that came to mind often. I've never been built that way, though - that level of rudeness simply isn't in me. So my most common response was a very short answer to the question, accompanied by a quick retreat from the questioner. I mumbled a lot. Eventually, I simply tried to avoid leaving the house altogether. Standing in line at the supermarket when every word out of a stranger's mouth makes you want to cry... or scream... becomes more of a hassle than it's worth. I'm very grateful to my husband, who took over the shopping and bill-paying chores when it finally became too much for me.
And then there was the worst moment of all - one that my older daughter doesn't remember, but that I will never be able to forget.
One week before the stillbirth of my child, I was at the store when a woman approached my older daughter, holding the hand of her own son, who looked to be about five. She smiled and asked her if she wanted a brother or a sister, and told her that she was having a baby, too, and her son wanted a little brother. My daughter replied, "Mommy says I'm going to have a sister... but she's not going to live with us, because she doesn't have any brain and she's going to die."
That, at least, was one stranger I didn't have to escape... she looked at me in horror, and quickly walked off, dragging her son behind her. That was also the last time I left the house until after it was all over. Part of me - a very uncharitable part, to be sure - still wishes I could have heard the conversation between her and her son after they left. But most of me wishes that it hadn't happened at all.
It all comes down to this: none of the above was necessary. Yes, Baylee had a heartbeat - right up until they cut the umbilical cord. What she didn't have, what she never had, was a chance. Without a brain, she was incapable of breathing on her own. A heartbeat is nothing more than muscle movement. Hearts have been made to beat without even being inside a person's chest. There is more to "life" than a functioning muscle, and until there is a legitimate way to determine what does constitute a viable life, it can not be the sole method of determining such. As heartless as this may sound to those who believe that abortion is wrong in all cases... in mine, it would have been a blessing. I would have been able to spend those last few weeks in physical comfort, if not mental and emotional. I would have been able to start the grieving process without having to fight through the pain and discomfort. I would have been spared the well-meaning but incredibly painful questions from strangers. And in a world with some sanity, with some compassion - with fewer people who think that their view is the only possible "correct" view, and that abortion is somehow always unnecessary and evil, no matter the circumstances that lead a woman to that decision - it wouldn't have happened at all.
R.I.P George Carlin
5 years ago