The Consequences of Banning Abortions After 20 Weeks

For the past year, I’ve tried not to get political in this space, as I grieve Lorenzo and do my best to honor his short physical existence and eternal significance.

I can no longer do so.

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed an unconsitutional bill banning abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization (22 weeks including pre-fertilization). The New York Times said “the bill is a violation of Supreme Court precedent. The court has ruled that women have a right to an abortion until the fetus could live outside the womb, generally starting around 24 weeks of pregnancy.” But states have been violating this precedent for the past two years, evidence that our constitutional reproductive rights are under real threat. Why aren’t we standing up and defending these rights as passionately as members of the NRA are defending our Second Amendment rights? As Judy Nicastro wrote in her New York Times op-ed yesterday about her termination at 23 weeks due to her child’s unlikely survival outside the womb, this is “part of a trend toward restricting second- and even first-trimester abortions. Ten states have banned most abortions after 20 or 22 weeks; Arkansas, after 12, and North Dakota, after 6.”

While these laws may be challenged, and while President Obama has said he won’t sign this bill into law, as it “shows contempt for women’s health and rights,” (New York Times) the scary reality is that they reflect a mass effort to whittle away hard-earned reproductive rights that women have had for over 40 years. That is the big picture. When we take a more personal view (and trust me, every choice is personal), we see the painful consequences of a bill like this passing. If it were to become law under different leadership, the general public likely wouldn’t realize the difference two weeks can make. Allow me to tell you just what a difference it would make.

My son’s fatal heart defect, Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), was not detected until my 23rd week of pregnancy. When Ryan and I were told that Lorenzo had only two chambers instead of four, our own hearts were cut in half. We acted fast. Within 48 hours, we were on a plane home to California to seek second opinions. Neither our minds nor our hearts were in any way made up about what we would do for our son, whom we wanted more than anything in the world.

Five days elapsed from the time we heard the words “the heart does not look normal” to when I held my lifeless son in my arms, after choosing to prevent his suffering while he was still safe and warm inside me. I made a subsequent choice, choosing to deliver his body into our world, giving him a dignity in death I would not have been able to give him life. This experience came down to a matter of days as well as a matter of measurement because while I was nearly 24 weeks pregnant, by son was measuring closer to 22 weeks. We’ll never know for sure, but I can surmise that his heart was already slowing his growth.

I can likely never fully explain to you why we made the choice we did. The politicians who debated in Congress talked about the sanctity of life, as if women in my position do not believe in that sanctity. Let me tell you that I believe in it so strongly that I did not want the being Ryan and I created out of love to be subjected to near constant pain, discomfort, confusion, and fear in an effort to prolong his life. How do you explain to a baby why he is being poked and prodded all day long? How does he understand multiple open-heart surgeries over his first two years of life, if he’s “lucky” enough to survive that long?  How do you prepare him to die? Did you know that the NICU prescribes anti-anxiety medication to these infants as they are being treated for the host of complications that arise when half a heart begins to ravage a tiny body? Imagine your newborn child also confronting anxiety as he battles infection, bleeds, blood clots, strokes, as he requires oxygen and vomits formula because his body can’t process it, as he eventually eats only breast milk at one year old, weighing only 12 pounds.

I wonder who in Washington imagined this on Tuesday. I wonder who in Washington actually thinks anyone wants an abortion, much less a second-trimester abortion. If you are a mother having to terminate in the second trimester, it is because your child is going to face such unimaginable suffering you cannot imagine putting him through it. It’s because your own life is in jeopardy. It’s because you are brave enough to let go of all of your dreams in order to spare another life. Yes, I call it bravery, just as I call it brave for any mother to carry a fatally ill child to term and care for that child through all of his days, no matter how little they are. All of it is as brave as it is heartbreaking, something that is not being acknowledged by this bill.

The bill’s premise is one of pain, “based on the medically disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain” (HuffPo) after 22 weeks. Why are politicians acting like doctors? Especially over disputed theories? Why are they allowed to? What prompted this when the country is facing so many other problems? House Republicans (women account for only 19 out of 234) “argued that the bill was necessary in light of the case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philidelphia abortion provider who was recently convicted of murder for providing late-term abortions,” (HuffPo). I am just as horrified by that man’s actions as Congress is, and justice should be served for the lives he took. It’s despicable, but it’s my understanding that he was performing those atrocities on healthy babies after 24 weeks, the current legal limit for a termination. A two-week change in the law would not have saved those babies, but for a parent carrying a terminally-ill child, it can make a world of difference.

I would like to tell those politicians that pain was at the basis of our decision as well. It was the first question I asked about Lorenzo fighting his disease, and it was the first question I asked when we made our decision to spare him that fight: Would it hurt him? The head of gynecology at one of the top medical institutions in the world assured me that it wouldn’t. There would be a shot of medicine into my amniotic fluid. He would be untouched. He would go to sleep. All the pain would be mine and Ryan’s.

Were this bill law last June, Ryan and I wouldn’t have been able to do what we did—out of love—to prevent Lorenzo’s pain. We would have been legally bound to bring him into our world even though his heart was not designed to survive in it. We would then have been ethically and legally obligated to perform countless surgeries to prolong physical life, but I am sorry, not the quality or sanctity of that life. And we would have done so with all the love in our hearts and all the pain in seeing him suffer.

When I held my son, his face was at peace. There was no grimace, no evidence of struggle. Again, all of that was happening on my face as I sobbed in awe at my child and on Ryan’s as he sat stunned next to us. Lorenzo’s was as beautiful and serene a face as I could ever imagine laying eyes upon. I am grateful for that hour with Lorenzo, and I am grateful that we could act on our son’s behalf within the confines of the law.

Thank you for listening. I don’t expect all of you to agree with me, but I do expect all of us to consider the consequences of these bills as they pass. Still, I worry all of our minds are made up on these issues—abortion, gun control. What does it take to change a mind? To sway a heart? Usually, a massacre, a tragedy, a Sandy Hook. In my world, the tragedy happened the day I learned my son wouldn’t survive long in our world. The added tragedy would have been having no choice but to make him live a shortened, painful life and knowing there had been a time, recently in our country, when his father and I could have prevented it.

 

9 comments

  1. You have been on mind so often because of all the bills limiting women's reproductive rights in the news lately. Thank you for writing this Jenn.

  2. I just read your Open Forum in the SF Chronicle. I was not previously aware of your blog. I wept for you and your husband and the sorrow you have endured. Please accept my condolences. I agree: no one wants a second trimester abortion, but the choice should remain available and should be a choice made by a woman and her doctor. I admire your bravery in writing about your son and your decision. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, one and all, for your support. It helps so much in the aftermath of something I truly thought I would never recover from. Your kindess and understanding continue to bolster my strength as I honor my son. Love to you all.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I have terminated the life of my so handsome and so perfect boy due to hlhs 5 days ago. 23 weeks + 6 days. I’d never thought I would consider such an option. I see myself in all what you wrote and I thank you for sharing all this.

    • Dear Val,
      My heart breaks for you and your family. Your loss is so raw. I would be honored to help you further. Please consider me a friend in loss. I will hold your and your son in my thoughts.
      Love,
      Jenn

  5. We found out our daughter has HLHS at 20 weeks. We have two beautiful daughters already 2 and almost 10. We had to come to terms that we would not be able to care for a sick child while raising our other girls. We are terminating the pregnancy tomorrow 21 weeks to the day . My heart aches of pain. But we will spare her pain. This was an amazing read and really helped me realize we are making the right choice.

    • Oh, my heart goes out to you, Nicole. I am holding your baby in my thoughts. I can imagine how impossible these days have been. Please know I am here. I am so very sorry for your loss.

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