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Open Letter to Obama: A Personal Perspective on Late-Term Abortion
Dear Sen. Barack Obama,
You recently spoke with Cameron Strang, publisher of Relevant magazine. During that interview, Strang asked if you could clarify your position on “third-trimester and partial-birth abortion,” and you replied:
“…I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.”
Your response leads me to believe that you’ve either never had a one-on-one discussion with a woman who has had a late-term abortion, or that you’ve been too uncomfortable to ask such a woman difficult questions concerning not only the procedure but what led her to make that choice. Because a president needs to be given as much first-hand knowledge as possible as he develops policy, I’d like to help remedy this deficiency.
Thirteen years ago I had a late term abortion.
That’s the concise sentence I use when I don’t want to talk about what really happened. It takes all the emotion, all the family turmoil, all the medical terminology and all the grief, and packages it nice and neat. The listener is momentarily left speechless — long enough for me to walk away. Few follow as I retreat because only a select few really want to get beyond the politically charged debate that’s fueled by marketing consultant jargon such as “partial-birth abortion.”
Since by sheer virtue of space I cannot possibly offer you everything you need to know in this letter, I am making a promise that if you call or if we meet I will not give you any pat responses. I will do my best to open old wounds and allow my personal experience to become your own. In case you elect not to make good on this offer, I will provide what I can here.
Thirteen years ago I was married, living in a midsize southern town and caring for my then-3-year-old daughter. We attended church each Sunday, and I taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. I was thrilled when I learned that I was expecting a second child, and we announced the news to family and friends.
Around 20 weeks into the pregnancy my obstetrician scheduled a routine ultrasound at a nearby rural hospital. The technician was chatty as we walked from the waiting room. After we arrived and cool gel had been placed on my abdomen, she continued to talk as she moved the wand back and forth. A few moments later her movements slowed, she stopped talking and her skin paled. The ultrasound machine, which had originally been placed where I could see the image on the screen, was moved out of my line of sight. Her fingers began quick movements on the keyboard.
At the end of the exam, I was given a warm cloth to clean the gel and was asked to wait in a nearby chair. Soon a different worker came into the room and told me that I’d need to return the following day for a more intensive scan. I agreed and left.
The scene drastically changed the following day when I arrived for the second scan. First, my obstetrician was the one who met me in the waiting room. When we walked into the room with the equipment, I was quickly introduced to two other doctors and a woman who would be performing the scan. I immediately felt like a bug under a microscope. No one paid much attention to me. They all gathered around the ultrasound screen — something I was never allowed to view — and spoke in soft voices while pointing at the pictures.
When they had finished their work, I was told that they needed to review the scan. I was instructed to go get something to eat and then meet my doctor back at his office a short time later. I was nervous and confused, but didn’t see the point in arguing. I left and lit a candle in the chapel. Then I walked around the downtown area until time to meet with the doctor.
Nothing seemed uniquely odd when I arrived at the doctor’s office. The nurses and receptionist greeted me as they had throughout the pregnancy. I was asked to sit in the waiting room for a short time before I was called back. Instead of being placed in an exam room, however, I was ushered into the doctor’s office. He sat behind a large desk and motioned me into a brown leather chair opposite him. He didn’t start the conversation by telling me how sorry he was. Instead, he began by telling me the findings of the ultrasound scan from that morning.
He looked me in the eye and said, “Anencephaly.” I looked back at him, hearing the word but not understanding its meaning. “That’s the worst of the neural tube defects,” he said and paused again. I just stared at him and nodded. “Severe spina bifida would be bad enough, but the anencephaly…” He looked at me and then toward a box of tissues.
“Lynda,” he said, “do you hear what I’m saying?” I nodded again. “Anencephaly,” he repeated as if that one word should give me all the information I needed.
He looked as if he wanted to shake me, to force me to understand the word so that he wouldn’t be forced beyond the shield of medical terminology.
“You know, I thought about this yesterday after the first scan,” I told him. “I realize that there is probably something wrong with our baby, but whatever it is, I plan to deal with it.”
He looked down at his desk blotter and then said in a very soft voice, “There will be no baby, Lynda. This baby is going to die.”
I’m not exactly sure what I did immediately after that. The next thing I remember is driving the 30-some miles toward home. I had a packet of information from the doctor’s office on the seat beside me. At the top of the packet was the phone number of another doctor who was expecting my call later that day.
I did call that doctor, and, when he gave me the same information as my original doctor, I phoned another doctor. Then I contacted a fourth and finally a fifth. I was ready to drive or fly, beg or steal whatever it took to make this child “OK” again.
On the day that demolition teams leveled the tattered remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I gazed out from the windows of the University of Oklahoma Hospital. I knew the doctors at that facility had a great deal of knowledge when it came to neonatal conditions. I also knew that they were probably my last hope.
The differences in what happened that day and what had taken place in the weeks before were striking. The screen showing the ultrasound images was not only turned to face me, but it was moved very close and provided me the very best view of anyone in the room. After the initial diagnostic scan was complete, all staff left the room except for the one doctor. He sat on a stool and wheeled around so that he could be right at my bedside. He showed me images from the scan we had just taken and held up pictures from “normal” scans. One by one, he went through each of the differences, explaining each in graphic detail. When we had finished with the scans, he sat them on a nearby table and grabbed a stack of books that contained medical pictures — photographs of infants who had similar defects as the child I was carrying. He went through those slowly as well, allowing me time to ask a question or to turn away and cry.
By the time we had gone through it all, I finally understood. The child I carried remained alive only because of his connection to me. For all practical purposes, I was serving as a life support system and, as soon as that system was removed, he would die.
Several days passed while my family debated the decision on whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. In the interim the doctor from the university hospital took my case before a state medical board for permission. Because the term of my pregnancy was well outside the state’s legal limits for abortion, a special ruling had to be made. The doctor explained that receiving such approval would not require me to go through with terminating if I decided not to do so, but would save time if I decided that was the route I wished to take.
We did eventually make the decision to terminate the pregnancy instead of carrying to term. It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. It wasn’t a decision that brought us relief or joy. We just knew that for us — for our family — it was the best of several horrific options.
When I phoned the doctor the next day to let him know our decision, he had news of his own to share. The state had denied our waiver, mandating that we would have to carry until either the child died or my body began labor on its own. The doctor provided our family with the name of a doctor in a nearby state that did not have the same legal requirements. Had the state board permitted the waiver, our insurance would have been obligated to pay for the procedure. Instead, it took us several more days to raise enough money to pay the out-of-pocket medical expenses and the travel expenses.
The procedure took two very long and agonizing days. This was not because I was in a state of physical pain, but because of the emotional toll. Whether a loved one’s departure is expected or not, it is never easy to say goodbye.
I’ve learned a great deal in the 13 years that have followed. I’ve met other women who were also forced to say goodbye to children because of anencephaly, a neural tube defect that results in the absence of brain and skull. Some of those women, like me, chose to terminate their pregnancies. Others opted to carry to term. We all grieve our losses.
For a long time I felt guilty, that maybe I took the “easy way” out of a difficult situation. After all, I did not have to stand in line at the grocery store while strangers made small talk about my pregnancy. I didn’t have to answer difficult questions from my three-year-old daughter. I didn’t have to lie awake for nights on end dreading the time when my body would ultimately betray me and begin labor.
When I finally broke down to a friend who had carried her anencephalic child to term about my personal guilt, she cried and told me that she had always thought she had taken the “easy way” out. Because of her strong desire for her older children to have a solid support system, she felt as if she could not terminate the pregnancy — that family and friends would not accept the decision and that, therefore, they would not make themselves available to shoulder the family’s grief afterward.
The two of us have come to understand that there is no “easy way” out of the situation we were handed. We both did what we thought was best for our families at that moment in time.
I’ve been asked on several occasions to share my experience with late term abortion. To date I’ve spoken with people who run the gamut of views in the reproductive health debate.
When I end my story, it is always with the question that I would like for you to answer now:
“If your loved one was placed on life support and attending physicians said there was no chance of life continuing without the machines, who do you want to make the decision as to when and if life support is removed?”