I discovered I was pregnant on Mother’s Day, at the beginning of a roaring global pandemic. Alone at home in rural British Columbia, I was overjoyed, terrified and instantly in love with this tiny, very-wanted embryo.
Five months later, I would be sobbing in a hospital bed at BC Women’s Hospital, staring at my silent baby daughter. She lay motionless in a clear, plastic bassinet on a mound of ice, snugly bundled in the gingham blanket we had chosen for her 10 hours earlier. A white knit toque sat atop her soft head. The lights in our quiet hospital room were dimmed, but to me, she shone like an angel.
The day before, my husband and I ended our little Robin’s life. One quick, painless injection to her heart and she was gone. I carried her, dead, inside me for a day, then delivered her.
“Baby’s small,” the sonographer muttered, squinting at the screen during our routine 20-week ultrasound. I imagined a frown hidden underneath his face mask, but I couldn’t see it. Robin was found to be measuring below the second percentile. The cause of her severe growth restriction was unknown. After weeks of bloodwork, more ultrasounds, an amniocentesis, and many it’s-probably-nothings, we finally received the results.
Robin was diagnosed with a rare, one-in-180,000 chromosomal anomaly affecting numerous parts of her body. From limited data, the condition was known to cause abnormalities of the head and face, neuromuscular problems, spine and kidney malformations, and moderate-to-severe mental retardation, amongst other potentially devastating symptoms.
My face mask was soaked in tears as I listened to the medical geneticist rattle off potential complications and scant statistics. I asked: Would she walk? How many surgeries? Could the seizures be treated? How much pain will she be in? Would she know who we are?
Maybe. We can’t say for sure. No cure.
She’ll need a feeding tube. Full-time care. She may not recognize you.
Take your time to decide.
It felt like I was in free fall, flung off a cliff and floating towards a big, black hole. Deep down, I knew what we were going to do.
A compassionate decision
Every day, women end wanted pregnancies after receiving poor prenatal or maternal diagnoses. Many of us, as I did, end our cherished pregnancies in the second and third trimesters, known as a late-term abortion.
In Canada, there is no law that restricts abortion at any stage of pregnancy. As the politicalization of abortion rages on and remains a central point of contention in the U.S., Canadians are widely regarded in pro-choice circles as more accepting. In our Canadian way, it seems we are more likely to see no evil and hear no evil about the matter, holding our opinions close and out of the political spotlight.
“The level of care and compassion I came to know and expect is not the reality for many women across Canada.”
Despite being dealt a horrendous hand, my experience ending a wanted, late-term pregnancy was compassionate. I expected it to be, as a Canadian. Referrals, consults and investigations were swift. Medical providers were gracious, non-judgmental and competent. We paid nothing out of pocket for our care.
Our hands were held every step of the way. This was our choice — we had a choice — and it was clear we would be comforted and supported.
An hour after giving birth to Robin that dark night, a hospital cleaner arrived at our room and proceeded to gently mop the floor. As my husband and I held our dead baby in our arms in shock, her knowing gaze met mine.
“You are good parents,” she said.
Our health-care system helped us navigate the nightmare. We were given options and the freedom to choose the appropriate one for us. Not once did stigma, judgment or the word “abortion” enter the conversation during our decision-making process.
I did not realize just how lucky we had been.
We joined a support group the day after Robin died, and immediately I was immersed in the deplorable, political realities of my American sisters. On some level, I expected this, and my heart broke for them.
But I was shocked to learn of horrifying experiences from my Canadian sisters seeking late-term abortions:
I waited six weeks for a diagnostic ultrasound, and afterwards had to fight for my procedure.
My doctor was furious when we told him we couldn’t make a decision in 36 hours.
Since the diagnosis came after the cut-off, my case had to be approved by a board.
Our hospital could not perform the procedure. I had to travel out-of-province to access it.
I was sent to labour in a general waiting room after induction, in the worst time of my life.
I was not eligible to join any bereavement groups offered. My aftercare was non-existent.
I quickly realized how the level of care and compassion I came to know and expect is not the reality for many women across Canada.
Despite having no specific legal regulations, our medical system’s accommodation of late-term abortions is rife with misconceptions and restrictions. Abortions for non-lethal diagnoses are prohibited past certain dates; quality of life is an afterthought. Lack of accessibility, insensitive health-care providers, and poor post-treatment care exist and infiltrate.
This has created an insidious, dismissive environment in which shame, fear and stigma thrive, leaving women like myself feeling outcast, isolated and punished for choosing to give our babies mercy.
“As much as we want our babies acknowledged, there is still that hesitation — that festering, underlying dread — that stops us from sharing the devastating details.”
I was so far removed from the horror described by my Canadian sisters, it was not until later, when it dawned on me what we had actually done.
“This was abortion,” I solemnly said to my husband. The realization made me feel sick inside. As good as our care experience had been, it was the minority. How could we explain our daughter’s death without being stigmatized and judged, if these systemic shortcomings persisted?
Stigma and judgment
Many Canadian women still must fight so hard to compassionately end their baby’s life, given few options in late pregnancy. Some may be forced to seek help out-of-country. If not for COVID, I might have had to, as well. Medical law is not enough, and the stigma that flourishes from these systemic shortcomings affects every single one of us.
Even women like myself, who have had positive experiences in the nightmare, feel we cannot fully honour our babies and speak freely of our traumatic loss. My husband and I received many messages of sympathy in the month after Robin died, including one that read:
Sorry for your loss. We had a miscarriage, too, so we know how you feel.
I’ve wanted to scream and shake people, telling them that actually, no, this wasn’t a miscarriage or natural stillbirth, and no, unless they truly have been in our shoes, they don’t know how we feel.
And yet, as much as we want our babies acknowledged, there is still that hesitation — that festering, underlying dread — that stops us from sharing the devastating details. We come to expect stigma and shame from society, fearing judgment of our compassionate decisions.
We did not ask for this. We did not wake up one morning and decide we no longer wanted to be pregnant. We are not heartless, terrible mothers. Our babies are real and loved.
There are fates that exist that are worse than death. Just like anything else in life, medical tragedies happen and diagnostic technology is available to help us navigate these tragedies. Medicine is not a magic wand, and “life at all costs” does not necessarily suit all.
I do not hold resentment towards families who choose to carry a pregnancy to term after receiving poor prenatal or maternal diagnoses. Mercy comes in many layers; I respect their decisions as I would expect they would respect mine.
No parent should ever be faced with the unimaginable choice between life and peace for their child. Robin is loved with all of my heart and being. I chose to give her mercy, setting her free from pain whilst taking a lifetime of it on for myself.
To be able to have done this compassionately gives me the gift of peace. I wish this peace for all.
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