One cold and very windy morning late in December of 2007, I was at the doctor’s office, 20 weeks pregnant and about to find out if my baby was going to be a pink baby or a blue baby. The nurse ran the scanner over my belly and – definitely a boy, just take a look at that ultrasound, oh he is not the shy type!. I remember it like it happened last week. The nurse left the room taking the ultrasound images with her. I pulled my shirt down over my pregnancy bump, my BOY bump. Saurabh did a hoppy little dance around the room, I’m gonna have a boy, I’m gonna have a boy. I forgot to be feministily annoyed at him for this, because I was just too full of glee myself – ultrasounds are awesome, you get to see your kid waving and kicking and generally living it up, and it’s all in your uterus. We phoned both sets of grandparents-to-be. And we went back to work, all big smiles and springy steps, because how often does it happen in a person’s life that they’re 20 weeks pregnant and they just found out they’re having a boy? It was a special day.
Then I got the doctor’s call in the afternoon.
An ultrasound isn’t done for frivolous things like helping colour-coding parents decide what colour to paint the nursery. It’s a serious diagnostic tool, one that helps OBGYNs determine if the fetus is growing well, whether it’s healthy, whether there are any signs of impending birth defects. In the excitement of is-it-a-boy-or-a-girl, it’s easy for parents to forget that there’s going to be a phone call later once the doctor has looked at the images, and that phone call will contain maybe good news, maybe bad news, or maybe ‘maybe’ news.
That afternoon, I got some ‘maybe’ news. An earlier blood test had shown that I was a carrier of the cystic fibrosis gene. This in itself doesn’t mean much. It’s a recessively inherited trait, and since Saurabh’s bloodwork had come back clean of known types of CF, there was no chance of our kids getting the disease – except for the tiny possibility of unknown types of CF the blood tests don’t know to look for. Now, the doctor had seen something in the ultrasound – possible cysts or masses of fibre, which had shown up as opaque white spots near the fetus’s intestine. Maybe the white spot was some floating amniotic matter it had accidentally swallowed… or it could be that the baby was going to be born with cystic fibrosis.
It’s a scary, scary disease.
CF is caused by a mutation in the gene for the protein cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). This gene is required to regulate the components of sweat, digestive juices, and mucus. …
The name cystic fibrosis refers to the characteristic scarring (fibrosis) and cyst formation within the pancreas. Difficulty breathing is the most serious symptom and results from frequent lung infections that are treated, though not cured, by antibiotics and other medications. A multitude of other symptoms, including sinus infections, poor growth, diarrhea, and infertility result from the effects of CF on other parts of the body. …
There is no cure, and most individuals with cystic fibrosis die at a young age — many in their 20s and 30s from lung failure. Ultimately, lung transplantation is often necessary as CF worsens.
All day I had been hardly-working in the office, my mind in a happy flutter of it’s a boy, heee heeeee, it’s a boy. After the phone call my mind was just blank…. for about a minute. Within the next minute, I had a plan. I’m good at dealing with crises, you know. It’s a dubious distinction, because it tends to make me the sort of person who waits for a crisis in order to begin dealing with anything. But when a crisis actually happens, a clear head is a precious and welcome blessing.
I knew what I had to do. Step 1: call Saurabh. Step 2: call the doctor to ask for more details (all the information I had now was a voice message on my cell phone left by the nurse). Step 3: get more tests done. Step 4: possibly get an amniocentesis, a painful and slightly dangerous procedure where they take a sample of amniotic fluid by means of a long needle inserted into the abdomen, in order to directly analyse the fetal cells for genetic abnormalities. The whole thing would probably take – quick Googling gave me the answer – two weeks. In the meantime, do we tell grandparents-to-be? Not until we knew for certain one way or another. OK. Deep breath. Don’t be tense. It’s bad for the baby. Time to work the plan.
Step 1 went smoothly. Talking to Saurabh was good, because he was all, No way, our kid doesn’t have CF. Come on. That’s so unlikely. I knew he was being totally irrational but it was nice to hear it nevertheless. (If he’s reading this, he’s going to be rolling his eyes going I was right. Shut up, Saurabh. )
Step 2. I called the doctor. Now, up until that point I had liked this doctor. She was impressive and seemed very competent even if she was a little brusque. But in that one phone call she showed herself to be such a MORON that I am still angry about what she said to this day. I mean, here I am, scared to death that my kid might have a horrible deadly disease. I say: hello, please tell me what’s going on, can you explain to me why you think my kid might have CF.
Her response: There’s definitely an abnormality that I can see in the ultrasound. But that’s not what we need to think about now. The real question is this: what are YOU going to do if your fetus has CF? You have to make a decision. Think about it.
And then she HUNG UP.
Can you imagine the effect of her words on me? Is she saying what I think she’s saying? Does she really mean I have to decide NOW whether I want an abortion? Is it going to be a legal problem if I want one? I vaguely remember there are only two or three people in this country who even do abortions after 23 weeks, is that why I need to hurry up and decide? Decide… Decide… Decide between killing the almost-baby I’ve spent five months carrying inside me… Or dooming a real, live child to a terrible disease and a painful, early death…
This time it was quite a while before my clear head kicked in. When it did, I had the sense enough to get angry with the doctor’s callousness and appalling lack of bedside manner, not to mention her dismissiveness and reluctance to take the time to answer my questions. I called her back and made her answer. We had more tests. The tests went well, everything was fine and the specialist couldn’t even figure out why my stupid doctor had thought it was CF. I eventually gave birth to my healthy little boy, who’s going to turn two in a couple of weeks’ time.
But when I saw this amazing article about Dr. George Tiller today, I was reminded of those few awful moments during which I contemplated my options, tried to choose between fatal disease and late-term abortion. And I don’t know 1/1000th of the real deal, do I? My alarm turned out to be a false alarm; there are millions of others who grapple with actual crisis pregnancies every year. Can we begin to imagine what their thoughts must be like?
I’m even more terrified when I think of the possibility of there being no options. Maybe CF is, bad as it is, an OK disease… at least the child lives to be about 20 years old. What if it was something else, something that may kill my baby much quicker – or worse, slowly and painfully? What if I had been forced by law to carry such a baby to term, give birth to it, make it suffer, watch it die?
Now you know why this is personal for me.
People talk about how having kids has made them pro-life… Any person with half a brain would go the opposite direction, I think. Being pregnant made me start thinking about my pro-choice-ness a little more seriously than I used to. Giving birth made me a steadfast, ardent, vocal supporter of abortion rights.
Thank FSM for George Tiller, and the two other doctors in the US who do late-term abortions. Out of all the big deaths of last year, his was the one that affected me the most and brings me grief and anger to this day. Trust women, he said. Trust women not to be monsters. Trust that they will not get pregnant for the heck of it, puke out their meals for three months straight, suffer swollen feet and swollen ankles and swollen bellies, endure the hemhorroids and endless heartburn, and then near the very end on a whim decide that HEY, I LOOK FAT SO I’M GONNA GET ME AN ABORTION. Trust women.