First Person: Abortion and the Blissfully Ignorant

‘I came face-to-face with protesters at the Kansas clinic where I had to terminate my pregnancy’

I was warned there would be protesters. Don’t make eye contact and don’t engage or confront, I was instructed. I had every intention of obeying, but my eyes betrayed me and found the face of a woman standing on the kerb.

She was roughly my age and as we moved closer I could see her dark fringe, which almost fell into her blue-green eyes. Her mouth and the mouths of all the people within the small crowd were moving, obviously saying something, but I heard nothing more than a dull roar.

The whole scene was surreal, as if I was watching it on a screen. We began to move faster, along the edges of the early morning assembly. But before we could step away, the woman with the dark fringe brushed my arm and I met her bright eyes.

“Don’t do this,” she said. “You don’t have to do this. Your child can live.”

I stared and, for the briefest of moments, wished to be her. I wanted to be that blissfully ignorant again and live in a world where there were clear answers with no horrific outcomes. I wanted to take her hand and let her lead me away to a place where reality could never touch my family.

There was a tug on my hand, a protective arm around my shoulder and I was moving again. Behind me, under a chorus of yells, I heard soft praying. I began to pray too, but I already knew my pleas would go unanswered.

I had spent the past few weeks searching for medical answers that didn’t exist. The son I had carried for more than five months would never have a chance at a “normal” life; in fact he would not have an opportunity for life at all. As had been explained to me by several distraught obstetricians, he had severe defects that were incompatible with life, the worst being anencephaly, an absence of a portion of the brain and skull. My body was also producing an excess of amniotic fluid.

While I had the option of carrying to term, it was unlikely my child would survive to that point. If “foetal demise” occurred and my body did not begin labour, I could face significant health risks. Every physician I consulted advised that ending the pregnancy was the best of our family’s grim options. Whatever I did my child would die, and, as a grisly bonus, either action could result in long-term damage to my future ability to conceive and carry a child.

The entire situation was so unfathomable that I spent weeks in search of someone, anyone, to tell me that it had all been a huge mistake. Before this, when a routine ultrasound indicated something was wrong, Down’s syndrome had been my primary fear. Now I longed for my child to have a life challenged with that chromosomal disorder. A challenged life would have still been a life.

That was why, 14 years ago last month, my husband and I left our then three-year-old daughter with friends, and walked through a small crowd of protesters to terminate a deeply wanted pregnancy through late abortion.

When I entered the clinic, I was embraced by a thin, middle-aged nurse who swept my husband and me into a small office. There were unforeseen complications with the procedure, so it was completed over two emotionally agonising days. When I woke up afterwards I made the decision to view my son’s body. Even as I made the request I hesitated, because I knew that the picture of the perfect baby I carried in my mind would be shattered for ever. On the other hand, I knew I couldn’t leave without seeing him for myself. The nurse I’d met that first day stayed by my side, while another brought him to me, wrapped in a blanket. The anomalies were just as they had been described. I held him close, whispered his name and did my best to try to let go of the hopes and dreams I’d had for him.

The death of a child is like a shotgun blast to your chest. In the beginning, you just numbly stare at the raw hole, wondering what happened. Then the pain takes hold and every other aspect of life is obliterated. With time, the raw edges scab over, but it never fully heals. Unfortunately for American women living in such a politically charged climate, such wounds are often reopened.

According to the popular wisdom spouted by anti-abortionists, women like me who have late-term abortions are promiscuous, neglect birth control and are then either too lazy or too ignorant to schedule an earlier abortion. This rhetoric, elevated to obscene levels, has become even louder since the killing of Dr George Tiller, the US abortion doctor who was shot last month in Kansas, where I had my termination.

Although I don’t recall ever meeting him, and I don’t believe he provided my abortion, I have volunteered to share my story because Tiller ultimately paid for his service to families like mine with his life. I have done so because I know there are still misinformed or blissfully ignorant people on the kerb.

This column by Lynda Waddington was originally published by The Guardian and You Magazine in June 2009.