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The Politics of Women's Health

My Late-Term Abortion

By Gretchen Voss. This article was originally published in the 1/25/04 edition of the Boston Globe Magazine and is posted with permission.

President Bush's attempt to ban partial-birth abortions threatens all late-term procedures. But in my case, everyone said it was the right thing to do even my Catholic father and Republican father-in-law.

Way too excited to sleep on that frigid April morning, I snuggled my bloated belly up to my husband, Dave. Eighteen weeks pregnant, today we would finally have our full-fetal ultrasound and find out whether our baby was a boy or a girl. I had no reason to be nervous, I thought. I was young (if 31 is the new 21), healthy, and had not had so much as a twinge of nausea. Well into my second trimester, I was past the point of worrying about a miscarriage.

The past 3 1/2 months had been a time of pure bliss -- dreaming about our future family, squirreling away any extra money that we could, and cleaning out a room for a nursery in our cozy, suburban home, then borrowing unholy amounts of stuff to fill it back up. From the day that we found out we were expecting a baby -- on New Year's Eve 2002 -- we thought of ourselves as parents, and finding out whether the "it" was a he or she would cap the months of scattershot emotions and frenetic information-gathering. I just couldn't sleep. I invited our 105-pound yellow Labrador "puppy" into bed with us and snuggled even closer to Dave.

Later that morning, at quarter past 9, Dave held my hand as I lay on the cushy examining table at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center office in Lexington. As images of our baby filled the black screen, we oohed and aahed like the goofy expectant parents that we were. "Can you tell if it's a boy or a girl?" I must have asked a million stupid times. The technician was noncommittal, stoic, and I started feeling uncomfortable. Where I was all bubbly chitchat, she was all furrow-browed concentration. She told us that she had a child with Down syndrome, and that none of her prenatal tests had picked it up. I thought that was odd.

Then, using an excuse about finishing something on her previous ultrasound, she left the room. Seconds passed into minutes while we waited for her to return. Staring at the pictures of fuzzy kittens and kissing dolphins on the ceiling, I knew something was wrong. Dave tried to reassure me, but when the ultrasound technician told us that our doctor wanted to see us, I started to shake. "But she doesn't even know we're here," I said to her, and then to Dave, over and over. That's when I started crying. I could barely get my clothes back on.

The waiting room upstairs, usually full of happy pregnant women devouring parenting magazines, was empty. Our doctor, who usually wears a smile below her chestnut hair, met us at the front desk. She was not smiling that day as she led us back to her cramped office, full of framed photos of her own children.

As we sat there, she said that the ultrasound indicated that the fetus had an open neural tube defect, meaning that the spinal column had not closed properly. It was a term I remembered skipping right over in my pregnancy book, along with all the other fetal anomalies and birth defects that I thought referred to other people's babies, not mine. She couldn't tell us much more. We would have to go to the main hospital in Boston, which had a more high-tech machine and a more highly trained technician. She tried to be hopeful -- there was a wide range of severity with these defects, she said. And then she left us to cry.

We drove into Boston in near silence, tears rolling down my cheeks. There was no joking or chatting at the hospital in Boston. No fuzzy kittens and kissing dolphins on the ceiling of that chilly, clinical room. Dave held my hand more tightly than before. I couldn't bear to look at this screen. Instead, I studied the technician's face, like a nervous flier taking her cues from the expression a stewardess wears. Her face revealed nothing.

She squirted cold jelly on my belly and then slid an even colder probe back and forth around my belly button, punching it down every so often to make the baby move for a better view. She didn't say one word in 45 minutes. When she finished, she looked at us and confirmed our worst fears.

Instead of cinnamon and spice, our child came with technical terms like hydrocephalus and spina bifida. The spine, she said, had not closed properly, and because of the location of the opening, it was as bad as it got. What they knew -- that the baby would certainly be paralyzed and incontinent, that the baby's brain was being tugged against the opening in the base of the skull and the cranium was full of fluid -- was awful. What they didn't know -- whether the baby would live at all, and if so, with what sort of mental and developmental defects -- was devastating. Countless surgeries would be required if the baby did live. None of them would repair the damage that was already done.

I collapsed into Dave. It sounds so utterly naive now, but nobody told me that pregnancy was a gamble, not a guarantee. Nobody told me that what was rooting around inside me was a hope, not a promise. I remember thinking what a cruel joke those last months had been.

We met with a genetic counselor, but given the known as well as the unknown, we both knew what we needed to do. Though the baby might live, it was not a life that we would choose for our child, a child that we already loved. We decided to terminate the pregnancy. It was our last parental decision.

So this is our story -- mine, my husband's, and our baby's. It's not a story I ever thought I'd share with a mass audience, because, frankly, it's nobody's business. But now it is.

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