Wednesday, August 29, 2012

To Protect the Life and Health of the Mother

We found out Christine was pregnant in the emergency room.

We wanted to have a baby. But our enthusiasm was dampened by the circumstances that brought us there. Christine had been experiencing severe, crippling abdominal pain for days. We were saddened but not surprised by the doctor's news. They thought it was an ectopic pregnancy. The fertilized egg was growing in one of Christine's fallopian tube instead of her uterus. If allowed to continue, the condition was guaranteed to be fatal to both Christine and the embryo.

The doctors recommended an operation to terminate the pregnancy. Immediately. We agreed.

After the operation we learned that the original diagnosis had been incorrect. It was not an ectopic pregnancy. The pain was caused by a substantial ovarian cyst. Christine was still pregnant.

Six months later we were back in the ER. Once again Christine had been experiencing severe pain. At this point she was 27 weeks pregnant - visibly bulging, but a very long way from the ingested-watermelon-look of a full term pregnancy. Once again we got the news that the pregnancy was killing her. She had HELLP syndrome and was hours away from a coma and death. The cure was to end the pregnancy. Immediately. Again.

Our local hospital was not equipped to handle the situation. We both grew up in Lebanon, New Hampshire and our parents were still living there. We asked that Christine be taken Dartmouth Hospital. The doctors were very concerned about her health deteriorating during the two hour ambulance ride. Ultimately, that's where they took her. Shortly after she arrived, our daughter Mattea was born, and Christine recovered.

Mattea weighted 1 lbs. 12 oz. at birth. Initially, she did very well and had no major health issues other than her low birth-weight. At six weeks, in yet another emergency setting, a new set of doctors informed us that Mattea had necrotizing enterocolitis. Her intestines died. Once again we were thrust into decisions involving the life and death of our child. And once again we really had no choice at all. Five days later Mattea died. She was our first-born child and the only daughter we will ever have. We were able to spend only a short amount of time with her. But we fell in love with her with an intensity that I had not anticipated and that the years without her have not diminished.

Following the murder of late-term abortion provider George Tiller, the blogger, Andrew Sullivan published a series of posts telling the stories of Tillers patients and of other women and families that have faced similar situations. I read through the stories of loving families thrust into impossible situations, of pregnancies gone horribly wrong, of children who could never be. What happened to us was tragic but not unique. The ectopic pregnancy was a false alarm. When Christine's HELLP appeared, the way to save Christine was to deliver Mattea. I have no illusions that another outcome was impossible. If the conversation had taken place a few weeks earlier, the baby could not have survived. A few hours later and Christine might not have.

Bringing life into this world is complicated and often dangerous. We don't often discuss it with anyone but our closest confidantes. But for so many families, pregnancy does not go smoothly. Many couples, many women experience infertility, miscarriages, complicated pregnancies, ectopic pregnancies, premature births, pregnancies where the life of the mother is threatened, pregnancies that will not result in a child that can thrive, pregnancies that are the result of rape, incest, coercion, or abuse. It's complicated.

When we talk about pregnancies being terminated, we usually only talk about the unwanted pregnancies. We act as if the inconvenient pregnancies are the whole story. They are not. Biology does not care if you are married or unmarried. It does not care if your baby is wanted or unwanted. Especially in the case of late-term abortions, if you are wondering how anyone could make such a terrible choice, you must remember that sometimes people have no choice.

When these issues are debated in our public spheres and in our august legislatures we need to recognize our limitations. Congress does not have to power to abolish tragedy. It can not legislate right or wrong. It can not save us from biology. They can create laws that compound tragedy with criminal trials and incarceration. It seems inconceivable that legislators would be willing to take tragic circumstances, like we experienced, and call them crimes. But the laws they propose would do precisely that. We have to see life as it really is and not just how we wish it to be.


  1. Powerful piece Ben. Well done.

  2. This is quite good. Your perspective is completely missing from the public debate. I hope you continue to write about your experience and consider testifying at legislative public hearings.

    thank you!