February 18, 2011

Products of Conception

This essay was published on February 12, 2011 on the cover of doesthismakessense.com.

I was sixteen when Roe v. Wade became federal law in 1973. As a naive teenager with modest life experience, I understood little about sex and relationships. As a teenager, I supported a woman’s right to choose. I still do. But now I understand that nothing is ever that simple.

After Roe v. Wade in 1973, private hospitals sprung up in major cities, often near Catholic hospitals. I served as director of public relations for a private women’s hospital in Florida in the 1980s. Unlike the hospital across the street founded by a religious order, the hospital offered late-term abortions as well as infertility services.

In spring 1987, I learned that I was pregnant. Our baby was due in early December, weeks before my husband would complete graduate school. Although this was unplanned, we were thrilled.

One morning at work, I started bleeding vaginally. As a hospital manager, I had access to services right away. My physician sent me to Ultrasound for a check. With new vaginal ultrasound technology, I didn’t need a full bladder and fortunately didn’t have to wait for the test.

The black and white ultrasound screen showed a perfectly shaped peanut-size fetus. Yet one critical detail was missing: a heartbeat. This caught me completely off guard. I had not called my husband before the test. When I told him the news, he implored me to leave work and come home. I ignored his advice; the hospital had a special event that afternoon I didn’t feel I could miss. They were—we were hosting a press conference to introduce a couple who had successfully conceived triplet boys through In Vitro Fertilization. I was the hospital spokesperson. How could I not do my job?

The Florida IVF program was the second such program in America and attracted much media attention. A local newspaper printed a graphic of a giant test tube with a baby inside, suggesting an almost Frankenstein view of this new technology. Staff physicians recognized the urgent need to explain the program; but their first priority was to their patients’ privacy. Reluctantly, they dealt with the media through me. Our goal was to educate the public about how in vitro works; since conception takes place in a Petri dish, even the term “test tube babies” is misleading. image: nwamotherlode.com

That afternoon, the proud parents and the physicians talked about their experiences. The 3 six-week-old infants weren’t there; instead, the press was shown several videos. One was an ultrasound test at five week’s post conception. The images revealed three tiny fetuses, twins in one sack, another singleton. Strikingly different from my own ultrasound that morning, the three little heartbeats nearly jumped off the video screen.

These dual moments within hours– viewing my own dead fetus and seeing the three little heartbeats of the triplets – still haunt me.

The margin between life and death is slim.

After work, I went home and bled until I passed my own “products of conception,” the medical term for fetal remains. The following day I had a D and C, which is also called a spontaneous abortion.

Intellectually, I know a zygote or even an early fetus cannot live outside the uterus. In three failed pregnancies, I can’t say for certain what I lost. I believe in the soul, yet I’m not sure when a soul enters a body. Is there any scientific evidence that life begins at conception? I was never comfortable in the early pregnancy loss support group community and my opinion about choice has not changed over the years.

Yet emotionally, having one healthy baby made me grieve for the idea of the lost others. When I saw those three heartbeats on the screen in 1987, my own heart jumped with wonder. What or who is a fetus at five weeks post-conception? I still wonder about the beginnings of life; and I have no answers only questions. My ambiguity does not change my belief in a women’s right to choose in a complicated world. I stay in the middle, not able to offer a cogent argument either way about when life begins. I’m not ready to light a candle for those I lost, although I still have questions about the time of quickening.

For those who object to a woman’s right to choose, I ask them to focus on hungry, impoverished, and homeless children, and adolescents in desperate need of a steady hand.