When I first learned I was pregnant, I was ecstatic. My husband and I had been married for almost a year and it felt so right. We had been dreaming of this since we married. We began talking of the baby room and what names we liked. We shared our joy with our friends and family. As I was 34 at the time and although I knew there was some risk with being older and pregnant, my doctor assured me I was in good health and that I should not be too concerned. In Quebec, the standard is to have an ultrasound at 20 weeks, but my husband and I were so excited to learn the sex of our baby, we decided to go to a private clinic when I was 17 weeks pregnant and get the ultrasound early. The news we received shattered our world.
The technician was young and inexperienced. The moment she noticed something was not right, she left the room with an excuse that the baby seemed small, the doctor needed to double check something. Perhaps this was how she was trained, I am not sure. She was certainly fumbling. My husband and I were left alone, wondering what was wrong, for about ten minutes. And then the doctor came and did the ultrasound again. He explained that the baby’s spine had not closed, that its skull was not formed. My baby had both spina bifida and an anencephaly and would not survive a second outside my womb. She had no skull. I began to cry and could not stop crying.
There was nowhere to sit to get control over my weeping. We had to leave the office to allow the next couple to come in. I remember walking to the car and thinking my legs were going to give.
I went to my doctor’s office right away and told the secretary about my diagnosis. My doctor saw me right away. He looked at the paper the clinic had provided and explained what was going to happen and made several phone calls to arrange appointments for me. His instructions were clear and his care compassionate and understanding. What I needed to do was going to be very difficult. I needed to find my courage.
When one has to terminate a pregnancy because of abnormalities like this at this stage of a pregnancy, you are urged to get an amniocentesis. This involves lying very still while a doctor inserts a giant needle into your uterus to remove a tiny amount of amniotic fluid for testing. Amniotic fluid is the fluid that surrounds and protects a baby during pregnancy; it contains fetal cells and various proteins. I remember sitting in the waiting room among all these beautiful pregnant women and feeling like I wanted to bury myself. Would I carry some rare genetic mutation that would mean I could never have children? I needed to know. My husband needed to know.
The next week I went to the hospital to have small dilating sticks, called laminaria, placed in my cervix. Laminaria are thin sticks made from a special seaweed material that widen as they absorb moisture from your body. It was not comfortable, but it was not painful either. The next day, I went in for the surgical abortion itself. I know I received intravenous medication and was sedated for the entire procedure. I went home the same day. I was devastated by the loss of our baby, but I knew I had made the right decision. I have never regretted this.
The loss of our baby has had a tremendous impact on both my husband and myself. We waited for the results of the amniocentesis. The nurse from my doctor’s office called me, cheerfully telling me she had great news, “the baby is fine!” she said. “You have nothing to worry about!” She had clearly not read the file and was not aware my baby was dead. When I told her this, there was a long silence, followed by a stuttered apology. My doctor was horrified and apologized to me in person during my next appointment. It did make me angry, but it also made me realize how fragile I was, that a small mistake like this could hurt so much. It also made me feel grateful that the baby did not carry any genetic abnormalities. I learned I had carried a baby girl. Her spina bifida and anencephaly developed for no reason anyone could explain.
We were given the green light to try for another baby and we did. I took extra vitamins on top of the ones usually prescribed, in the case the reason for my daughter’s malformation was due to the fact my body might not absorb folic acid as well as others. Our son was born in July of 2004, a happy and healthy baby. Our second son was born in 2007. I am always so extremely grateful for my boys, but the sadness of losing our daughter has never left fully me. To be clear, I was never sad about the abortion, I was sad my baby had spina bifida and an anencephaly. I was sad at the fact that for the two pregnancies following her loss, my husband and I were too terrified to relax. We did not enjoy these periods in our lives, we were frightened, sad, tense. We were wary of celebrating, wary even of the good results from ultrasounds and other tests.
I eventually found my way to a closed support group on Facebook for women like me who chose to end a wanted pregnancy. It was after joining this group that I understood how lucky I really was. This group has a majority of American women. Even before the election of Donald Trump, the discussion would veer toward the lack of access to abortion for some women, how many had had to travel thousands of miles, spending thousands of dollars, sometimes going into debt, some facing angry crowds chanting “murderer!” in front of the clinics where they received care. The horror of the election of Donald Trump made me realize I could no longer afford to stay silent on this subject.
I began attending other women’s marches, signing petitions, talking to others about what happened to me. I understood, for the first time, that our society is involved in a war against women. Yes, I am lucky to live in Canada, but access is not easy for every woman in Canada and attacks on our rights continue to escalate. It took me a long time to fully absorb my experience and push myself to tell my story. I will never keep quiet about it, although I know many wish I would. It is a fundamental right for every woman to have control over her body, and without it, my sons would never have been born.
I have read extensively about new laws in the US and other nations, these so-called “heartbeat bills” that make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion once a heartbeat is detected. I wonder what would happen if stories like mine were distributed more widely in the media. The image of abortion is rarely of mothers. Why is that? Who decided that? Abortion was the right decision for our family. Abortion is healthcare!