This is probably the most important and painful story I have to tell.
It's important that this is today. Today is my son River's birthday- October 21, 2010. The story starts a few years earlier.
In 2006, K got pregnant. We had been married for about 4 years, and it was just about the perfect time to start a family. We were every bit as excited as you might imagine. We told our families. We told our friends. We had a shower. A friend knitted us a beautiful little blanket. We started a scrapbook.
We made with all the usual preparations: Prenatal vitamins, healthier eating, the standard doctor's visits. During the ultrasound, the technician looked worried. She took careful measurements and told us it was probably fine, but they should do some more tests.
A couple weeks later, we got the results of the amniocentesis. Something was wrong. It could still be relatively minor, they said, but it might be much more serious as well. They scheduled us for another test- similar to the amnio, but more invasive. They used a long needle to take a fetal tissue sample for genetic testing.
At around 20 weeks, we got the results. Our baby had an unbalanced translocation of the fifth and ninth chromosome. We spoke to another doctor, and to a geneticist. This was a bad diagnosis. It was beyond bad. I learned a new term, one mentioned in the linked article below: The defect was called "incompatible with life".
When people talk about abortion being a choice, I need you to understand with crystal clarity exactly what our choice was: It was not whether our child would live or die- it was the choice of how much they would suffer, of how long we would drag their death out. Our daughter's "best" possible case scenario would be to linger for several days on full life support. The broken chromosomes were ones associated with autonomic functions- Breathing. Heartbeat. Digestion. She would be unable to do these on her own once separated from the umbilical cord. That was the short, terrible, artificially sustained life she had to look forward to.
I felt sick admitting that this was also a concern, but in our non-socialized, retail medicine economy, the cost to maintain those few days of life would be astronomical. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps over a million. It sounds insane, and it is. Not only would it not save our baby, but it would generate a literally insurmountable debt- Enough that no matter how hard we worked, it would never be paid. Enough to ruin us for life.
We were told that it was incredibly rare that the pregnancy had lasted this long to begin with. A defect this severe would normally result in a miscarriage- Usually within the first few days. In fact, a miscarriage was still the most likely scenario. We were now approaching the third trimester.
Many of you already understand just how horrific the prospect of a late term miscarriage is. To those who don’t, I will just say this: It’s bad. Life threatening. It’s SEVERELY life threatening while also being gruesome and agonizingly painful.
We decided to terminate. While I try to respect a woman’s right to choose, while I try to be tolerant of other peoples’ beliefs and morality, I cannot for the life of me understand how a compassionate, rational, moral person could have chosen differently. The idea of bringing a human life into the world to slowly suffer and die just so I could feel better about spending a little time with it- And at the risk of the mother’s life- Honestly struck me as monstrous.
In that moment, I became both completely empathetic to the pro-life movement, and vehemently opposed to it. This was not a subhuman thing or a cluster of cells, this was my own living human child. My flesh and blood. Yes, the pro-lifers were absolutely right- And those same people would force my child into a brief, hopeless life knowing nothing but pain. They would have the state, not us- her parents- decide what was best for her. They would HURT MY CHILD. They would risk my wife’s life to do it. How dare they. HOW. FUCKING. DARE. THEY. My rage at this is beyond my ability to express in written language.
The abortion was not at all what those people said it would be. They are lying to you. Again with the rage.
Our doctor helped us set up the appointment- It was at a local hospital. We checked into the maternity ward and were made as comfortable as possible. They hung a picture on our door of a leaf with a drop of water in the center. I learned that it was a code, so the staff going into the room would know this was not a happy delivery- It was a stillbirth, or a high risk delivery, or severe complications, or the baby was sick or premature. Or it was a case like ours.
There were other doors in the maternity ward with that same leaf. On a trip to the cafeteria, a man a few years younger than me came out of one and followed me to the elevator.
“We have one of those on our door too”, I said. He nodded once and didn’t respond.
When we were settled into the hospital room, K was injected with a drug which induced labor. It’s the same one that’s given to healthy mothers past their due date, or to people who want to schedule their delivery for a specific day- Both common and routine.
Tragedy aside, it was a normal birth. K went into labor. She had contractions and was given an epidural. It took several hours and we were there overnight. Our parents came and waited in the lobby of the maternity ward. I went to the cafeteria for coffee several times because I needed to have something to do for five minutes. We ordered room service for dinner, and we texted updates to a couple close friends. It was almost the same experience most new parents have.
Eventually she delivered our daughter, Iris Kendra- Named for the flowers blooming in front of our house, which K said struck her as a tiny spark of beauty in an otherwise dismal week. We held her until she grew cold, and then she was taken away. June 6, 2006.
We allowed them to perform an autopsy, in the hopes that it would lead to knowledge that could help other parents like us understand what had happened. She was then cremated, and we held a service at a local funeral home. The hospital gave us a package with pictures, the blanket she had been wrapped in, and a small gold ring.
We joined a support group and met with a handful of other couples whose experiences mirrored our own, although the specifics varied- Tay-Sachs, encephalitis, a stillbirth which had been a complete surprise due to his mother’s undiagnosed liver condition. We grieved, we healed, we moved on. A couple months later, on what was supposed to be our due date, we drove up North and found a beautiful lake in the shadow of a mountain. We scattered Iris’ ashes and left a few of her namesake flowers.
The thing is, this is a wound that never heals. The pain recedes, is replaced with the joys and stresses and banalities of everyday life, but it never completely goes away. When your child dies, they take a piece of your soul with them, and it never grows back. We heal. We move past it. We get on with our lives, we can even be happy again- But it’s always there below the surface. Every now and again it bubbles up to remind you that those scars will always be a part of who you are.
We tried again to get pregnant. First naturally, then with help: Fertility treatments, hormone shots, a rigorous schedule of attempts, whatever was within our means. After a year or two, we gave up- With our history and our current age, it was unlikely we would be able to get pregnant again.
Four years later, we did.
It was a complete surprise. We were overjoyed, but nervous. We knew the odds, and while we were optimistic, we were still cautious. We waited to tell our families and friends. On the doctors’ advice, we ran early tests and went straight to the genetic testing just as soon as possible.
I was in a parking lot outside the craft store when I got the call from the geneticist. Our second child also had the chromosomal defect. I went home, ordered chinese food, and waited for K to get home from work so I could be the one to tell her that we would have to repeat the whole heartbreaking ordeal over again.
On our next visit, the geneticist explained that the prognosis was not as cut and dried as we had been led to believe the last time. There was a small but reasonable chance that with proper prenatal care, our child could survive with “only” some health problems and severe mental retardation.
It was the extent of what she meant by “severe”. Our child would, in all likelihood, never be able to speak, or feed themselves, or walk, or dress themselves. They would require diapers and a hospital bed and 24-hour care for life.
That’s not a life I could live. I don’t know that it’s something I can call “life” with a clear conscience. It’s not one I could inflict on someone.
And so we went through the entire process again. This time, we had to tell our families about what was coming in the same breath we told them we were pregnant. We told our friends after the fact. There was no funeral.
Our son River was born and died on October 21, 2010- Six years ago today.
I bring this up because once again, the political landscape in our country is focused on the issue of abortion. That discussion is littered with distortions and misinformation, with ignorance and generalizations that have little in common with reality, spread by people who want to restrict or outlaw abortion.
I’ve told you my story. Hopefully I’ve made you understand why we made the choices we did and just how serious the stakes were. What the risks and alternatives and consequences really amounted to. The sheer weight of those decisions and the responsibility to do what was best for our children- And the horrific realization of exactly WHAT WAS best for them.
Now imagine that those choices were taken from us. That we were forced to make our children suffer, to go millions of dollars into debt, to watch our babies die slowly in a web of tubes and wires. Imagine us needing to add layer upon layer of proof and justification before the courts, being forced to draw the experience out, having to travel across the country or over international borders, before being allowed by the state to decide on our childrens’ end of life care. Imagine those decisions being made by someone else against our will- Their decree causing my child to suffer.
This is what the anti choice crowd is fighting for. It’s not that they’re wrong- It’s that they’re ignorant. Yes, it is a human life at stake. What they refuse to accept is that there are things worse than death, that there are terrible, inhumane consequences to preserving life at all costs, that there are a billion special circumstances which do not factor into their thinking. There are a million things that can go wrong which their rigid, narrow, detached morality ignores. They would cause needless suffering simply to save themselves from the terrible truth that sometimes, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, these things happen. Babies die, and sometimes parents are burdened with the responsibility of seeing that it happens in the least bad way possible.
There are millions of people with stories just like K and mine.
Remember us. Understand the choices we’ve made.
Don’t take those choices from us.