When my mother admonished me to “Get back to those situps” as she surveyed my bathing-suit-clad form, I stopped visiting her. I was nervous and pregnant, at 40, with our fourth child. I couldn’t wait for another amnio at 25 weeks to find out if this fetus was viable. At that stage, this baby would be kicking me, deformed or not.
The genetics lab at Mount Sinai insisted I wait until I was eight weeks pregnant to do the invasive genetic testing I needed. My stomach muscles had completely relaxed at three weeks as they joyfully anticipated a nine-month reprieve from those blasted crunches. As a result, I had to avoid my mother, only a mile down the beach, for a full five weeks.
The test was fascinating. I was able to watch a huge monitor as the doctor guided an enormous needle into my uterus to retrieve the cells that had formed around the eight-week ovum. Once they were extracted, I was handed a test tube with pinkish crystals in the bottom and instructed to walk it around the block to the genetics lab. No way I could carry that tiny vial. I handed it to Gary to protect.
A week later we had our results. I was carrying a female fetus that appeared to be viable and normal. Although I would not have to go through an amnio as I had with our other daughters, I was counseled to schedule a late-term blood test to check for the few abnormalities that could not be detected at this early stage. We were relieved, and I could finally visit my parents down the beach with an explanation for my expanding girth.
I had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with courses at Brown. Ultimately, I had made the choice to pursue the art path rather than medicine. Although I could estimate how long it would take to read and absorb a biology text, I needed inestimable time to complete art assignments.
The culture of an art school was completely different from a more academic college. Although free-spirited, we were constantly using current events to fill our art with meaning. The fight for Roe v. Wade had given us fodder for creative posters and hours of screaming at the Statehouse in Providence to make our voices heard.
All the effort we expended was rewarded in January of 1973 when abortion was finally legal. Without professional medical help, we had all lived in fear of the shady characters we would need should there be an “accident.” I had several college friends who had flown away for abortions. We were the first generation for whom the pill was available, but the doses prescribed initially were not tolerable for most of us. As a result, we were always fearful of the consequences of the “free love” lifestyle that had begun.
Now married with a loving husband, three children, and a flourishing career, I felt I had dodged a bullet. This final pregnancy was planned. After all, we had an extra bedroom to fill in our barn renovation in Chappaqua, N.Y. All our decades of planning were working to create the family we’d always wanted. Until one phone call.
I had done a routine blood test well into my third trimester. When I hung up the phone, I was unable to speak for a full 24 hours. With such a busy household, it took that long for Gary to notice my silence. A nurse had called, not even the doctor, to tell me there was a problem with the baby. Most likely it was spina bifida, and they were recommending I come in for a “termination” as soon as possible.
I knew I should be grateful that all that protest marching I’d done years before would allow me to just walk into a sterile environment with this problem and come out free of disease and a damaged baby.
It was when I realized this creature I was carrying, this tiny person kicking me for attention, would be eliminated, that it dawned on me how permanent a solution this was going to be. We were silent for days as we individually contemplated what we were about to do.
When it came time to actually make the appointment, we both realized we just couldn’t fathom not giving this little person a chance. Yes, it would completely overwhelm us physically and monetarily, but we just couldn’t dial that number. We would have to wait and see just how bad this deformity was and make our plans accordingly. Those last few weeks were the longest and darkest we ever went through.
Knowing what we were facing, I had made the decision to avoid natural childbirth this time around. When the epidural was administered too late, the birth was all natural. Minutes after she was born, I was convinced I would be paralyzed for life as I couldn’t feel my legs. That feeling, which the epidural caused as it finally kicked in, combined with not knowing how damaged our baby girl was, was absolutely terrifying.
Margot Grace arrived as a perfectly normal baby girl. She has gone on to become a nurse practitioner thriving in an intensive care unit with geriatric cardiology patients. We were lucky to have been given the choice to terminate with medical help, but what a mistake it would have been.
As we traveled through Wisconsin recently, awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling, we passed multiple billboards. It took me several of them to finally get the message they were conveying. All of them had cherubic faces with stunning words: Eyes develop at 14 days. Heart beats at 18 days. Fingerprints at nine weeks. Smiles at 12 weeks.
These powerful examples have me rethinking my lifelong stand on abortion. I feel pushed toward a pro-life mind-set rather than pro-choice. If only we could focus intensely on supplying birth control for all rather than using legalized termination as an alternative.
If parents aren’t willing to educate their children, it is left to the schools to teach sex education. According to our teaching daughter and her teaching husband, school systems emphasize abstinence. With raging adolescent hormones, this is definitely not a viable solution. Perhaps, without the ease of securing abortion, we will all make the choice to be more mindful and teach proper birth control for pregnancy prevention going forward.
Christine Corso Stluka lives in Noyac.