“So though the fight over Planned Parenthood might be about abortion, Planned Parenthood itself isn’t about abortion. It’s primarily about contraception and reproductive health. And if Planned Parenthood loses funding, what will mainly happen is that cancer screenings and contraception and STD testing will become less available to poorer people. Folks with more money, of course, have many other ways to receive all these services, and tend to get them elsewhere already.” —Ezra Klein on What Planned Parenthood Actually Does
When I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second son, I went in for my ultrasound and checkup hoping to find out the gender of my baby. I already had one three-year-old son, and I was hoping for another boy. The ultrasound tech saw the male gentalia and told us. I was ecstatic! I asked a lot of questions about the heart and brain and bones. The technician asked if I was a nurse, surprised by my inquisition. I said no, I was just interested in physiology. After studying many sciences, and then modern dance in college, I had an awareness of and interest in the human body that was automatic. The idea of growing a skeleton, muscles, life in my womb was mesmerizing in the dark of that ultrasound room.
A few minutes later, my husband and I spoke to my obstetrician about the baby. She said that their equipment was old, but that she was fairly certain that our baby boy had a cleft lip. I had read about cleft lips in biology a few years before, but I did not really know what was done for cleft babies. I was not worried. We were to go to fetal and women’s center with a “million dollar ultrasound machine”. Honestly, the only thing I thought was to hope for a 4D ultrasound picture for the fridge. My husband and I had no idea what we were in for when we made that appointment.
We went to the perinatal center a few days later and realized we were there with other high risk pregnancies. I started to get nervous, wondering about whether or not I would be able to breastfeed a cleft baby. Questions were forming. In fact, during the exam I asked so many questions that the tech finally had to tell me she was not allowed to answer some of them. The doctor finally came in and told us about the cleft. But then she said that he also had a problem with his kidney. They thought it might not be forming properly. I was numb as they started to talk about how the two problems were unrelated, making the likelihood of a syndrome greater. In other words, it was more likely that he had an underlying syndrome rather than just happening to have a cleft and a kidney issue.
They started looking to see if our baby’s hands and fingers could clasp and unclasp. Something in my mind snapped. I shook off the numbness and shock at that point, and began to sob. I demanded their best guesses as to what was going on with our baby. They said they didn’t know, but that we would need to meet with a genetic counselor. We were also recommended for an amniocentesis to get more information. It was likely that his underlying condition was bad, like Trisomy 13 or another short-lived, painful syndrome. I was gently asked about the possibility of needing an abortion. For the first time in my life, I considered it.
The next day we went back for the amniocentesis. I am terrified of needles, but in the past few years I have faced my fear and been able to have blood tests done without fainting. The doctor was bright and loving, and I trusted her when she said how good she was at very quick amniocenteses. I wasn’t in the mood to smile, but I appreciated that. I had not slept much that night, speculating with my husband about what our baby might have. As the needle went into my belly, and I squeezed my husband’s hand and my eyes tight shut. It was over, and I wasn’t even faint. But when the doctor announced how many CCs had been taken and I went white and had to lay down. I asked questions about the genetic tests they would perform, and how long it would take for them to come back.
I hated our genetic counselor. She was perfectly nice, but did not have any answers. I knew my hatred was a mask for my fear and anxiety. I wanted to make the next 10 days go by as quickly as possible. I sobbed half the day, and did yoga in the middle of the night to calm my nerves. I still remember doing sun salutations in the dark, trying to stop weeping. We had to wait for one general set of tests, and then for another set of more specific tests. I called the genetic counselor morning, noon, and night the days the tests were supposed to be done. I was nearing 22 weeks, when the dividing line for an abortion in the state of Arizona had been drawn.
I wanted to know what my baby was facing, to know if I needed to spare him a painful, short life if he ended up having Trisomy 13, or something else equally horrific. Even if he did have a fatal syndrome, I was fairly certain that I could not go through with an abortion. The days were painfully long. I compared the mercy of an abortion for my malformed child with the difficult birth and mere months of life that he might have to endure with many painful health problems. I had no idea what I would do.
We finally heard back about our baby boy’s chromosomes: they were normal. There were other, more rare syndromes and diseases we might want to check for. But the ultrasounds showed a strong heart, and one fully working kidney. The cleft was bilateral, incomplete on one side, and in the lip and palate. This was a rarer form of cleft lip and palate, and one of his kidneys had simply not formed at all. But he was thriving. Everything else looked strong and fully formed.
I was relieved. I didn’t have to choose between an abortion or my baby’s death at the age of 1 due to some awful syndrome. A cleft lip and single kidney was welcome indeed. I no longer had to wonder if he had something life-threatening or that would cause a terrible death at an early age, a situation that I might have considered having an abortion for.
I still do not know what I would have done if my baby had been missing a chromosome, or was found to carry a fatal sickness. But I had a choice. I had a legal, supported, dignified choice that I could make myself, alone. I had a choice that I wrestled with day and night for weeks while we had testing done. If I had chosen to have an abortion in a situation like that, it would have been out of love and out of necessity to spare our baby pain and suffering.
I am so thankful for the women at the perinatal center for giving me that option without any judgment in their voices on those first uncertain, rocky days. They did not presume to know what was best for me. They simply offered options, and support. And trust. They trusted me to know what was best for me and my baby.
I decided to keep him, of course. He beat the odds with his genetic testing, and I was spared my own Sophie’s choice. He has beat the odds on many fronts. I am lucky.
I am also lucky to have the right to choose what I want to do. I have that right because I live in a country where abortion is legal. I have that right because I am a white middle-class woman with means and health insurance. I have that right because I am informed of my options. I have that privilege. Many do not. There are millions of women who, when faced with a situation similar to mine or worse, do not have the options I enjoyed.
This past week has been dramatic as we have watched a government shutdown nearly averted, all turning on the fulcrum of Planned Parenthood and it’s funding. I do not wish on anyone what I went through with my youngest baby, but it will happen anyway. Sometimes it happens to women who don’t have money or health insurance. Do they deserve less than I do? Do they not have the right to a legal procedure, if they need it, if they weigh their options and make a heart-breaking decision about what to do?
97% of Planned Parenthood’s services are preventative: cancer screenings, yearly exams, rape services, and birth control. Planned Parenthood’s services do include abortion care. But those procedures are not touched by federal money, despite all the recent headlines and spin that the budget crisis was over federal funding for abortion or just abortions themselves. The truth is that the budget war was, and is, over access to basic women’s health care.
I stand with my choice to keep my baby when I found out he would not be severely ill and in pain during his life. I would have stood by my choice either way, because I would have known that I had made it while considering all sides. I stand by women who make these decisions in secret because of the stigma of abortion. I stand with Planned Parenthood. I stand with life and choices both staying in tact whenever possible. I stand with my sisters, mothers, aunts, daughters, grandmothers, and all the other women I am connected to on this planet as a war rages around their bodies. I stand with women.