The doctor told us that it was in fact a fetus, that she had miscarried, and would need procedures to remove whatever remains she was still carrying. “Do you want to take it home?” the doctor asked, and my friend looked at him in anger and said, “Of course not…please dispose of it in any way that you normally do.”
I was surprised at how tender her husband was when we got home; I hadn’t credited him as someone with much tenderness. But although they were Catholic, they had no impulse to bury, to baptize, to name what had been lost, which was, whatever else it was, obviously not a child. I wondered why the Catholic Church, so insistent on the personhood of all fetuses, didn’t require burial or baptism.
In July of 1982, I became pregnant again, and once again my husband and I were thrilled at the prospect. In mid-November, I was pushing my daughter in a stroller on my way to the health-food store when my water broke. I was eighteen weeks pregnant. I was rushed to the hospital and put on complete bed rest, hoping that the amniotic sac would reseal itself and I could hold on to the pregnancy. For ten days, I lay on my back in the hospital, unmoving with a stillness of which I wouldn’t have believed myself capable, terrified that if I turned or lifted my arm the wrong way, I would cause a miscarriage. Despite my best efforts, I went into early labor at nineteen-and-a-half weeks. My husband was beside me for it all; I asked him to look at the fetus and tell me what it was like. He said, “It was very tiny…it was like a baby but not like a baby. All I could think of was how pathetic it looked, how unable for life.”
I felt a greater despair than I had ever experienced. I felt a failure as a woman, that I had failed this creature whom only I had known, and that, even though I had not felt it move, I had known it as the most intimate possible inhabitant of my body. It was the last time I prayed with any faith that my prayers would be answered. It was the last time I felt safe or protected in or by the universe.
Part of the great difficulty was that I did not know what I was mourning. I was angry when someone sent me a condolence card on the loss of a baby because this creature inside me who had not yet moved was not the same order of being as the child to whom I had given birth, whom I held in my arms, and nursed at my breast.
As soon as I was able, three months after the late miscarriage, I tried to get pregnant again, and in the first month of trying, I did. I could not possibly experience the same easy pleasure as I had when I was pregnant with my daughter, and when, in the fourth month, I began spotting, I was seized with terror. We were on vacation in Cape Cod, and I went to Boston to see an obstetrician who was a colleague of the wonderful man who had delivered my daughter and been present at the loss of the second pregnancy. The Boston doctor determined that I had what was called “an incompetent cervix,” and suggested a procedure where a stitch would be put in to tighten the cervix. My New York doctor disagreed, and I waited in great anxiety while they debated the proper course, finally opting for bed rest and no invasive procedure. Once again, I lay dreading the dire consequences of any false move, but in fact I carried to term and gave birth to my son—although the cord was around his neck, and he required a forceps delivery in the course of which my vaginal walls were nicked, and I had to be wheeled to another room to be stitched up. So it was only after that recovery that my little boy was brought to me and the same sense of miracle, of unspeakable love, was mine.
In 2010, my daughter called to tell us she was pregnant, and I literally danced around the house for joy. But the pregnancy was troubled, and I stayed with her as, like me, she had to lie still to forestall miscarriage. But miscarriage occurred, and it was a grievous time for her and her husband, but also my husband and me.
Luckily she inherited the genes for fertility that all the women in my family seem blessed with, and soon she was pregnant again. No one who has miscarried can ever be entirely free of worry during a pregnancy, and I kept reassuring her that everything would be fine. But I wished that I had had the ability to pray for something specific, an ability I lost when I had the miscarriage at nineteen weeks.
At twelve weeks, she emailed us a sonogram of a healthy boy. We put it up on our refrigerator, and as I obsessively looked at it, I tried to understand what it was that I was looking at. It had the shape of a baby, but it was faceless, featureless—like a space creature swimming in its capsule. It occurred to me that, as it was featureless, I would not be able to tell it from any other fetus of the same age, and yet I kissed it every time I passed the refrigerator. I knew I was kissing an image only…but of what? An image of potential, whose actuality seemed alien and strange. My daughter is a doctor, and I asked her what she thought this being was, and she said: “Give it up, Mom. It’s unknowable and anyone who thinks they know is indulging their own fantasy.”
I am the grandmother of two splendid grandsons, brimming joy in a new key. I would, in a second, give my life for either of them.
I can imagine someone reading this who is firmly committed to the idea that a child is a child from the moment sperm meets egg, saying: “Very nice, very moving, but it’s only her experience…too little to resolve anything.”
So, I have tried over the years to address the problem not only from my own experience but using the kind of rational thought I would apply to any ethical question.
This is particularly vexed with abortion because there is no analogy for it; the attempts at analogy are seriously flawed, the most common being the analogy of murder. There are two important reasons for this. One is the problem of procreation: in no other human act is the gap between cause and effect so radical. The act of sex, performed for pleasure, lasts minutes; the commitment to a child is lifelong. And there is no other act whose moral valence changes over time.
I was lucky to be able to discuss this in great depth with someone whose scientific knowledge I could trust. Among the greatest of good fortunes in my life was my meeting the woman who would become my best friend on the first day of high school. We spoke to each other every day for fifty-six years, until her untimely death at sixty-nine of breast cancer. She was beside me at the birth of both my children. She was a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, board-certified in pediatrics, cardiology, and anesthesiology. One of her fields of expertise was pain in children. She was enraged at what she called the “junk science” of doctors who claimed that a first-trimester fetus could feel pain. She explained to me over many conversations, including sharing many images with me, that these doctors with anti-abortion agendas were confusing a fetus’s ability to respond to stimulus with the ability to process pain. All multicellular animals, most of them invertebrates, can respond to stimuli. The fetus is unable to do more than respond to stimuli until the end of the second trimester, at which time it begins to be capable of initiating movement. This was the consensus of the scientists she considered trustworthy. She reminded me that it is impossible to replicate the situation of a first-trimester fetus in the womb.
I will admit to having reservations about late-term abortion, but none at all about those occurring in the first trimester, and I understand that this renders me vulnerable to the anti-abortionist question: How do you draw the line, medical advances making it possible for younger and younger fetuses to survive outside the womb? Late abortions, however, even second-trimester abortions, are the rarity, and many second-trimester abortions occur because of the difficulty of obtaining a first-trimester abortion or for serious medical reasons. Why put a law in place when the reasons for it do not apply to most cases, when it would in fact harm the majority of people whom it would affect?
Anti-abortion people are correct when they say that abortion is a serious issue. It raises large questions: What is it to be human? Do we always believe that life, by the simple virtue of being alive, is desirable? But really, we know that the answer is no. Who among us has never said, in relation to a death that ended a painful life: “It’s a blessing”?
They believe they are holding up the idea of life as an absolute good, and that pro-abortion people are taking away the idea of an absolute good. If we can’t say that life is an absolute good, where are we to look for absolute good? I would suggest that we consider that it is an absolute good to act to avoid or to prevent suffering. With this in mind, shouldn’t we examine what we know causes suffering, rather than focusing on what is unknowable?
We know that it is not a good thing for a woman to bear a child when she doesn’t want it. That bringing a child into an environment that cannot well support it has grave consequences for the child and its family. That throughout history, women have often died or experienced irreparable bodily harm from illegal abortion. That states that have banned abortion—Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa—have not been morally admirable, and that states with the greatest concern for the well-being of their citizens have made abortion available and safe.
And we know that women with strict ethical principles have had abortions. I remember inviting four women, all in their eighties, for lunch. One was a survivor of Communist tyranny, the career of another was finding placement for refugees, the third had devoted her life to a mentally-challenged son, and the fourth was a mother of five. All of them had had abortions, but being upper-middle-class, their abortions were safely performed by doctors they trusted. They assured me that many of their friends had done the same.
The chances are good that women who have had abortions are reluctant to reveal that they have, so pervasive is the stigma attached to it, so frightening are some of the responses from radical anti-abortionists.
I know this reluctance very well. It took me fifty-three years to get over it.
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