The diagnosis that makes pregnant women choose late-term abortion
"Sharing this story, in public, even though I'm anonymous, is absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done," Julia* says. "But it's important, because I know I'm not the only person this has ever happened to."
As a devout Christian, the first thing Julia looked for when she met Steve* in college was what type of dad he would be. It didn't take long for her to see he'd make an excellent husband, and after watching him play with her nieces, she was sure he'd be an equally great father. The two married less than a year later, and they were so eager to start a family that Julia didn't even bother with birth control.
But things didn't go as planned. Even though they were both young — in their early 20s — they had fertility problems from the start, suffering several heartbreaking miscarriages over the next few years. Despite endless tests, doctors had no answers, and it seemed to Julia that the harder they tried, the worse things got. Finally they decided to just take things easy for a few months, to relax and try to forget about the baby-making process and just live life.
And four months later she was pregnant.
After hearing the baby's heartbeat, Julia wandered the mall in a happy daze, buying tiny clothes, bedding, a crib and a car seat, even though she wasn't even out of the first trimester. Their joy only grew with her belly, and it seemed this little one would be here to stay. That is, until the 20-week ultrasound. They went in just hoping to find out the gender and instead left with a devastating diagnosis of Turner's syndrome, a genetic anomaly.
Their little girl, whom they decided to name Callie*, had problems with nearly every major organ in her tiny body. She was already dying, the doctors told them, even as Callie kicked under Julia's hand.
"They told us her condition was 'incompatible with life,' and I thought that was the worst moment of my life," Julia says, "but it wasn't. That was still to come."
The couple was given the option of an abortion at that point, but they were still hoping for a miracle. "And honestly, because of my faith, I didn't even want to consider abortion. This baby was a gift from God, and we wanted her, no matter how torn up the wrapping paper was," she explains. "I never, ever thought I'd be that woman."
But over the coming months, Callie's condition deteriorated rapidly. She couldn't produce amniotic fluid because her kidneys were so damaged, and her spinal cord was riddled with tumors. Still, Julia took hope from the gentle kicks and flutters in her stomach. Until the day she didn't feel them anymore.
Steve and Julia rushed to the hospital, certain their baby was gone. The doctor found a heartbeat but, she told the heartbroken parents, it wouldn't be long. Even worse, Julia's blood pressure was extremely high, and her doctor was worried she was beginning to get preeclampsia, a dangerous condition that can be fatal to both mother and baby.
Yet it was still Callie that Julia thought about first. "I remember I asked the doctor, 'Is she in pain?' and she started to cry too," she says. "She cried with me and held my hand and said she didn't know if [a] fetus could feel pain but that they could feel other things, so she guessed that it was a possibility.
"And I couldn't bear that. I can bear a lot of things, but not the thought of my sweet baby suffering needlessly."
So when the doctor again suggested an abortion, the couple agreed it was best for both Callie and Julia. "It was absolutely the worst decision I've ever had to make," she says, crying even now, years later. "I didn't want an abortion, but I needed one."
Unfortunately since Julia was a month shy of full term, it would have to be a dilation and evacuation procedure, otherwise known as a late-term abortion. Yes, that kind of abortion, the most controversial type there is. And that presented a whole round of legal hurdles they hadn't anticipated. They had to travel miles to a special hospital, get approval from a board of doctors they'd never met before, and the procedure was even scheduled under a different name.
"If anyone needed this done, it was me, and I was so surprised at how hard it was to arrange," she says. "It added a whole other layer of pain to an already painful situation."
When the day came, the doctor dilated Julia's cervix to start labor, a process she says was excruciatingly painful. And between the agonizing contractions, she said goodbye to Callie with every breath. At last, her baby was out.
"It was the quietest delivery anyone ever heard," she whispers. Callie didn't make a sound, and no one was sure if she'd even drawn a breath. "My baby was dead before she ever lived. And the worst part for me was feeling like I'd failed. It was my job to keep her alive, but ultimately I couldn't."
Steve and Julia spent hours with Callie's body, tenderly dressing her and taking pictures with her before finally surrendering her to the nurse. The next day she left the maternity ward with empty arms, an experience she says she wouldn't wish on any woman.
But it wasn't until several months later, when she got the medical paperwork from the insurance company, that it really hit her what had happened. "It read 'medical abortion, third trimester,' and I was destroyed," she says. But then, after thinking about it, she was grateful. The procedure had likely saved her life and saved her baby further suffering.
"I just... I have no words. I'm so lucky that it was an option for us. It made me realize that not everything is as cut and dried as we'd like to believe," she says of the abortion debate. While she still doesn't condone abortion in every circumstance, she says she's definitely less judgmental now, and she recognizes the importance of having safe access to it.
"We think it's just, like, teen moms or careless girls using it for birth control or whatever, but I think there are a lot more people in my situation than we know," she says.
She's right; according to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, when it comes to the reasons women choose abortion, 13 percent cite possible problems affecting the health of the fetus, while another 12 percent cite concerns for their own health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 33 babies in the U.S. has a genetic abnormality (although these numbers are likely higher, as many genetic defects result in early miscarriage, where the cause is not identified). Turner's syndrome, the type of disorder Callie had, is one of the most common genetic disorders, affecting 1 in every 2,500 female fetuses, although it is not always fatal.
Many women who make this choice go on to get pregnant again.
Just over a year after Callie's death, Julia was pregnant again, and this time the baby was just fine. Just like with her previous pregnancy, she got preeclampsia, but this time they were able to catch it early and control it.
"Because we knew what to look for, both the baby and I were able to make it to full term healthy and strong," she says. "I think that was a gift from Callie. She's watching over us still, I know it."
To hear more stories about the complicated reasons some women choose abortions, check out the Draw The Line project.
If you are a woman in the same impossible situation Julia found herself in, there is comfort and understanding at A Heartbreaking Choice, a support group for women who choose to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy.
*All names have been changed.