Years ago I traveled to Kansas to obtain an abortion. Even now, after all this time, I try to think of a euphemism for it. I interrupted the pregnancy. I made a heart-wrenching decision. Could it really be that I’d actually had a late-term abortion?
Yes, that is exactly what I had to do. It took me a long time to be OK with that word, but I finally am now. It was what it was, and it is what it is, and there should be no shame or guilt in that.
At the time, I already had a daughter who nearly three years old, and was thrilled to be expecting another baby. Two beautiful kids. I couldn’t wait.
When I was 27 weeks pregnant, my obstetrician saw something on an ultrasound and sent me immediately for a series of diagnostic tests. After two very long, stressful weeks waiting for results, we were given heartbreaking news: Our dear little daughter had Trisomy 18 and would probably not live for long, if she was even able to survive until birth. If she did live, she would suffer physically and need numerous surgeries to correct the multitude problems that came with this chromosomal package. She would also suffer profound mental disabilities.
I was devastated, numb and in shock.The perinatologist explained our options. Unfortunately, this diagnosis wasn’t something that could be addressed by bringing specialists into the delivery room, or be fixed or even adequately ameliorated with surgeries, therapies and medications. At one point I think I even asked about adoption, then realized, feeling rather stupid, that giving her away wasn’t going to spare her anything. It would only spare me having to witness her pain.
Even understanding all this, I just I wasn’t ready to give up. Something about being into my third trimester made the very idea of ending the pregnancy shove me hard into a sort of grasping denial. Desperate for a better answer, I consulted a genetic specialist. She shared with me that she knew of only one patient on record with my child’s chromosomal make-up who had actually survived to adulthood—and weighed only 50 pounds. She said while she couldn’t predict any specific outcome, there was no question that my daughter’s life would be filled with pain.
I was 29 weeks pregnant. The clock was ticking. A decision had to be made. The only truly merciful option I could see for my daughter was to fly to Kansas to end our wanted pregnancy. Things were a blur from there. While I was travelling to Kansas her name simply occurred to me: Courtney.
In some ways, I feel like there really was no “choice.” Or in a sense, I was given two impossible options: bring my child into a living hell or end this pregnancy and experience my own hell. There was not one even remotely positive thing in our daughter’s prognosis. Her entire life, no matter how short or long it may have been, would have been bleak, morbid, and going from one frightening and painful medical crisis to the next. She wouldn’t have even had the mental capacity to understand why those things were happening to her.
There is no question that I could have loved my daughter, that I would have loved my daughter, that I do love my daughter regardless of what her extreme physical and mental limitations would have been. The thing is, this wasn’t actually about whether I could love her. I did love her. I do love her still!
Would she have been capable of loving me? I’d like to think so. But maybe she would have been capable of resenting me for all the medical pain I would be making her go through. There is a little boy in my extended family who had to have plastic surgery on his face when he was about six, because of a birth defect. He was furious with his mother for “making” him go through that and he would not even look at her or talk to her for two whole days after the surgery. I could imagine this between me and Courtney, but to the tenth power. And then I catch myself and wonder if she’d have even had the cognitive ability to lay blame on me.
I had to carefully consider my living daughter as well. She might feel abandoned with me gone all the time attending to this baby’s overwhelming issues. She might resent her little sister. And if my baby was like that one person who’d survived to young adulthood, who would care for her when I was gone? Was I going to be stuck halfway neglecting my living child throughout the rest of her childhood, only to turn around and drop the burden of a low-functioning invalid sibling on her shortly after she became her own independent adult? How would that affect her relationships, her family, her career? How could I possibly risk that? And then I caught myself again—there was next to no chance this baby would ever live that long.
While I was in Kansas I came in contact with true mercy during my darkest hours. They let me hold my daughter, they took photographs of her, and really just did their best to make this whole terrible experience at least feel as close as possible to a “natural” delivery and stillbirth. The best word I can summon to describe it is I felt safe there. They understood. They were there to help me through my crisis, and they did, and I am grateful. There was no judgment or condemnation, just help.
It has been several years now. I no longer feel the deep despair I once felt. Sure, I still cry and grieve for Courtney at times even now, but I know she is at peace and I am far along on my healing path.
I am so grateful that I had access to safe, legal abortion as far along as I was, and that my Courtney was delivered from a life of agony to fly free where everything is beautiful.