By Grace O.
There is, unfortunately no shortcut through the grief that follows the decision to end a wanted pregnancy following a catastrophic prenatal diagnosis. This unusual form of pregnancy loss is often misunderstood by those who haven’t faced it.
It can seem harder than other losses both because there is a decision involved, and because it involves us physically so much. The loss is from our very bodies; the baby we lost was still physically a part of our being. So in addition to all of the emotional pain of the loss of our hoped-for child, we have the physical loss of our pregnant state. Everything suddenly changes for us physically—from our hormone balance to what we can eat and wear, reminding us constantly of our terrible loss. Many women face the additional heartache of their milk coming in for a baby they can’t have. We also have a due date looming large to remind us that in this period we still should still be pregnant, yet we aren’t.
Unlike miscarriages, the majority of which take place in the first trimester, many of us don’t get a prenatal diagnosis earlier than 17 weeks, when we are well into our second trimester. The “average” gestational age at which our abortions are carried out is 20 weeks. By this point, we are well into planning and preparing for a new baby. Everyone we know may be aware of the pregnancy by then. This opens us up to their curiosity, prying, inappropriate comments. Even well-intended sympathy may bring us to tears when we’ve been struggling to hold ourselves together.
The only type of loss that comes close to this is late miscarriage. The difference is, our loss involves a decision no parent should ever have to make. A decision that, no matter how logical or compassionate or utterly justifiable, is still excruciating to make, to carry out, and to live with. Sadly, many women who join miscarriage or stillbirth support groups after they’ve ended a wanted pregnancy feel that they can’t openly share the “choice” aspects of their loss without fear of judgment or shaming because of the way abortion is stigmatized. Some do share their whole story and are pleasantly surprised by the compassion they receive, while others share and instantly regret doing so. In either case, sharing in a setting geared toward more typical pregnancy losses is usually a gamble.
Another thing making it tough is that other people in our lives most often haven’t been through it and cannot imagine what it is like. They can’t relate to our loss, so they may change the subject, tell us to get over it, or say things like we were “lucky” we found out beforehand. (Believe me, no one who has ever watched their ultrasound technician go stone silent, then rush out to fetch the doctor, feels “lucky.”) The inability to relate makes others feel uncomfortable around us. They may say or do inappropriate things that add to our pain. Or they may just avoid us all together, resulting in loneliness and the feeling that no one understands.
To make matters worse, a catastrophic prenatal diagnosis is every expectant mother’s worst nightmare. Seeing it actually happen to us threatens their comfort zone of “it can’t happen to me.” Many will even delude themselves that they “wouldn’t end the pregnancy no matter what” when the truth is no one knows what they would truly do until faced with this kind of crisis.
Those of us in the U.S. live in a culture with a nasty bias against abortion that is unmatched in other developed countries. “Pro-lifers” who refuse to accept abortion as anything other than selfish and entirely unnecessary are painfully confronted by our situation, and they may resent us for that. They may throw around ugly terms like “genocide” and “eugenics,” which are ridiculous, but serve them by keeping reality at bay. They want to continue believing that a catastrophic prenatal diagnosis “hardly ever” happens. Or they fantasize that if it happened to them, it would either be a medical mix-up, or cured by fervent prayers and a miraculous intervention from God, or end up as an extremely mild case, or a heartwarming People Magazine triumph-of-the-human-spirit cover story, casting themselves as heroes accepting grandiose congratulations from the likes of Dr. Laura or Rick Santorum.
The stark reality of our loss spoils their self-aggrandizing fantasies.
The so-called “culture of life” in the United States emboldens people to harshly judge anyone who ends a pregnancy, and second-guess her reasons. This can make many of us justifiably afraid to share the details of our loss, resulting in feelings of isolation, paranoia and a sense of fraudulence. This is amplified by the ugly rhetoric surrounding late-term abortion and the continual erosion of abortion rights.
Rarely, we’ll even run into conflict from a few of our fellow pro-choice advocates, who fear we’ll undermine the cause by talking about our babies, naming them, grieving them and memorializing them. Some of them fear our reasons for aborting undermine might their reasons. But we are all on the same page in understanding that being able to obtain an abortion procedure when you need one is what really matters. The vast majority of us are extremely grateful to the pro-choice cause that allowed us safe passage through a maternity nightmare, and many go on to become vocal pro-choice activists. Nobody wants to get involved in a game of whose pregnancy crisis was worse, or whose abortion was most justified. The way we see it at Ending a Wanted Pregnancy, if you feel you need an abortion, that is justification enough.
Most pregnancy books and magazine articles simply gloss over the possibility of bad prenatal test results with chirpy reassurances that it’s very unlikely to happen. This denies comfort and guidance to women in our position, and reinforces the “freak” “bad luck” nature of this loss which only adds to our feelings of isolation. It also provides others with no clue as to what we might be going through, or how they can help.
Having to make a heartwrenching choice to end a wanted pregnancy to prevent our infant from suffering, or to save our own lives, is incredibly hard. Unlike few other losses, there is a choice involved for which only we can take responsibility.
This is why the Ending a Wanted Pregnancy website exists. This community was created in 1996 by Maribeth Doerr, a compassionate counselor who did not face this choice herself, but understood the incredible pain and isolation felt by a client who had terminated a pregnancy after a poor prenatal diagnosis. It has always been maintained by volunteers who have ended very wanted pregnancies of their own, and want to help others. It is meant to be a safe place for you to find information, support, friendship and encouragement as you grieve and heal from your tragedy.
We maintain a list of support sites, counselors, and groups, both local and online, where you may find others who are facing a similar grief. We highly recommend you join our private support group where parents grieving the end of a wanted pregnancy gather to offer and obtain comfort, support, sympathy, encouragement, and friendship. And we encourage you to share your story here to help others walking this difficult path to feel less alone.