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Spotlight Stories

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"When Heartbreak is the Only Choice"

The poignant tales of four women who decided to have controversial late-term abortions

(Caution: this store has limited triggering material, and limited graphic descriptions. This story may be mildly upsetting.)

By DEBORAH WILLIAMS
Special to The News
11/12/00

There are few issues that invoke greater passion and ethical, moral and religious dilemmas than that of abortion. In particular, the issue of late-term, so-called "partial-birth abortion" has been the subject of congressional hearings, state laws, federal bills and a U.S. Supreme Court decision this past summer. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that Nebraska's law outlawing dilation and extraction procedures (which some refer to as partial-birth abortion) except to save the life of the woman was unconstitutional. The wording of other state laws is essentially identical to the Nebraska law. (New York has not passed a law on this abortion issue.) Legal experts say that in light of the Nebraska ruling, the other state laws are probably unconstitutional, as well. However, many states are reworking their laws to try to pass constitutional muster. Whatever happens, the issue will not go away.

What has often been lost in all the heated discussions is the women and their families who are confronted with the decision to have a late-term abortion. Here are the stories of four women, all happily married, all pregnant with very wanted children. All heard the heart-rending words that there was something terribly wrong with their child or children. All believe they made the best possible decision in the midst of a tragedy.

. . . Nothing in her life's experience could have prepared Maureen Britell for what she saw when she and her husband Andrew walked into her doctor's office after undergoing a sonogram. She was 24 weeks pregnant with her second child.

"My doctor was sitting behind a big wooden desk, and the sonogram films were spread out all over the desk. He was holding his head in his hands and tears were streaming down his face - I had never seen a doctor cry before." Then her doctor explained his tears - he couldn't find the baby's brain. There was a brain stem but no brain. This already very loved and wanted baby had no chance at life.

If they had followed the standard guidelines, they wouldn't have had this sonogram. It was really an extra sonogram Britell talked her doctor into ordering. It was just going to take five minutes or so. Her husband had been out of town on a military assignment during her previous sonogram, and the couple wanted to see their second child together.

"We were going to send photos to our friends and family, like all crazy parents like to do. I had an uneasy feeling when the sonogram seemed to take so long. Then when we were told to go into the doctor's office, I knew there was something seriously wrong," explained Britell. But she had no inkling that something was fatally wrong. Andrew Britell's reaction was "how can you fix this?" The doctor explained that they didn't understand - this couldn't be fixed.

They wanted to know whether the doctor could be wrong. Their doctor arranged for them to go to Boston from their Cape Cod home for a high level sonogram to confirm the diagnosis.

Maureen's world had just stopped, but one of the first people she called was her parish priest. "As a good Irish Catholic, I looked to him for guidance and solace," she explained. "He was wonderful and told me to listen to the doctors and do what my heart told me to do."

Counselors told them to pick a name for the baby, and Andrew picked Dahlia after the flower, not knowing whether it was a boy or girl. At the Boston hospital, Maureen didn't need the doctors to confirm the terrible diagnosis. Andrew's face went white when the sonogram wand hit the area where the baby's head was. There was nothing there.

They decided to terminate the pregnancy by inducing labor. "I could feel the baby inside me, and I literally couldn't function as a person, a wife or a mother with the situation. I just could not carry that baby to term, knowing that I would give birth to a dead baby," she explained.

Maureen underwent 13 hours of labor, and Dahlia was born dead. As Catholics, the Britells felt it was very important that the baby be baptized. The hospital dressed her, and the couple and their family were able to hold her.

"Afterward, Andrew took off her little cap, and he noticed it had been stuffed with gauze to hold the shape - because there was no brain, there was nothing to hold the skull, and the features of the face just fell in."

They had a Catholic funeral for her after an autopsy was done. They had wanted to donate her body to medical science in hopes they could help to learn why this had happened, but there is a federal ban on studying fetal tissue. "This was another cruel blow to us," explained Maureen. "We were trying to make something good out of a tragic situation."

They also discovered that their military health insurance would not pay for the abortion. The military limits abortion coverage only to cases when the mother could die without it. Maureen is currently suing the federal government over this issue. After recovering from their tragedy, Maureen Britell began to speak out about what she felt was the importance of preserving a woman's right to choose. She testified before Congress, and her outspokenness resulted in hate mail. The couple have since had another child, a healthy boy.

But it was an incident on Mother's Day that led her to make a life-changing decision. "We were coming out of church after my daughter's First Communion, and I was confronted by the right-to-lifers," Maureen explained. "I decided that was it, and I sold my business, and we moved to the Washington, D.C., area. I'm now the executive director of Voters for Choice, working to get pro-choice candidates elected. If they thought I was loud before, they haven't seen anything yet. "I believe very much that this entire issue should be between a woman, her physician and her family - politicians have no business in the world of medicine. Unless you have been where I was, there is no way you can understand the pain of what we went through."

It has been just five months since Gina and her husband experienced the ultimate joy and heartbreak within just a few weeks. They had difficulty getting pregnant, and Gina had suffered three miscarriages before becoming pregnant with twins.

"Not only had our prayers been answered, but we felt we had hit the jackpot with twins," Gina recalls. "We had waited so long and had been through a lot of heartache. We were happier than we had ever been." At the 20 week ultrasound, the couple was so excited that they even brought Gina's mother along. They planned to go shopping for baby clothes after the ultrasound.

"As I lay on the ultrasound table, my mother at my feet and my husband holding my hand, the technician showed us the various parts of the first baby and announced that we were having girls! Girls! No other time in my life had I felt such pure elation. Never. Not only one beautiful girl but two." But Gina's happiness was very short-lived.

Both girls had very serious genetic defects. One baby was taking on excess fluid. The other had severe facial abnormalities and was considerably smaller. Gina was scheduled for further tests, which confirmed the earlier ones and showed that the babies' condition was getting worse. "Our options were to try and save one baby," explained Gina. "No matter what happened, our daughter Savanna (the twin with the fluid problems) was going to die. The fluid wouldn't allow her organs to grow and function.

"There was an experimental procedure done in Detroit by one doctor that could sever the ties between our twins and attempt to save Sierra (our smaller twin and the one with the cleft lip). "The second option was to let them die on their own and do nothing to help or hinder the pregnancy. However, I was already retaining a lot of fluid. There was a risk to my health if the pregnancy progressed. Besides, we knew the girls were suffering.

"The third option was to terminate the pregnancy. I said I wouldn't let this happen. No way. The doctors really felt like termination might be our best option." After they consulted with the Detroit specialist, it became apparent that the experimental surgery was not really an option for them, and Gina and her husband realized what the decision was going to have to be.

"We would have to terminate the loves of our lives, " Gina explained. "All our hopes and dreams came crashing down upon us. Our decision was fully supported by all of our family, our pastor and our church. However, as many confirmations as we received that we were doing the best thing for our children and for my health, it didn't make it any easier." The couple bought blankets to wrap their girls in when they were born. Following their doctor's recommendation, they made arrangements with the surgical center for a partial birth abortion.

The couple stayed in a Los Angeles hotel for the week. Twice a day Gina went to the surgical center to have her cervix dilated. "Each night in the hotel room was like torture," Gina recalled. "My legs, feet and body were so swollen I could barely walk. The sickness that my daughter had was definitely affecting me. It was like another confirmation that what we were doing was the only choice. Still, every fiber of my being wanted to hold onto my girls."

On the third morning, it was time to deliver the girls. Afterward Gina had the hospital staff bring the girls to them for photos. It was clear then that the babies could never have survived. They were more deformed than the couple had expected.

"Never in my life have I ever felt so much love for anyone as I did for these two. I looked down at them and saw all my hopes and dreams. Just as any new mother would. Only to realize that our dreams for them had ended. But holding our babies was the most healing thing that we could have done. We had closure." Gina says her heart still aches for her twins every day. They have their ashes, tiny foot and hand prints and death certificates. She has also become an activist on the choice issue.

"Lawmakers who want to take away the option we chose do not understand the pain and heartache of the mother and father, who are not only losing the love of their lives but so unwillingly have to choose to do so. We will never, ever vote for someone who wants to take away the procedure that we used to release our fatally ill daughters into the arms of God."

Kim Jackson and her husband were thrilled when she found out she was pregnant for the second time. "We were expecting our second child on Dec. 23," she said. "My pregnancy was going very smoothly. I was going out and shopping for double strollers, getting ready to take a couple years off of work to care for two children under 2 - basically preparing for our Christmas baby."

Prenatal tests showed that the baby likely had Trisomy 18, a severe chromosome defect. Further tests revealed that the baby was severely deformed both internally and externally. "Our baby had what appeared to be a lemon-shaped head with many small tumors surrounding the brain restricting blood flow, a fused spine at the base of the neck, a two-chamber heart, paralyzed legs due to the spinal defect as well as many other defects," Jackson explained.

"My doctor said there was virtually no chance of life if he was able to make it to term, and the doctor was very surprised that he lived as long as he did. We named him Adam and made the choice to interrupt the pregnancy. "Later tests confirmed that Adam did have Trisomy 18. He was a much loved and wanted child. There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about him and wish he were growing inside me. My body actually aches for him, and my heart is empty.

"I love him more than words can express. We chose to return him to God instead of living what small time on Earth he may have had in pain and agony." Jackson's decision was influenced in part by an earlier visit to a California State Hospital.

"There was an entire ward of children whose parents had turned them over to the state, and they were virtually vegetables. The impression of that visit has never left me. The children had no quality of life, were immobile in cribs and their lifelines were tubes. I could not sentence my child to a life like that." The couple hope to have a third child and if that child is a boy, they plan to name him Trey - for the third baby. They said they will never forget Adam.

It was 1994, and Tiffiny Benjamin and her husband were very much looking forward to their first child. Then their 20 week sonogram showed the likelihood of Trisomy 13, another very serious chromosome defect. "We had no inkling that anything could be wrong, and we were devastated," she said. "We went on to have further tests, and waiting for the results to come back was like an eternity. It was Memorial Day weekend, and it was the longest weekend of our lives."

The tests confirmed the first dire diagnosis, and the couple made what they called an agonizing decision to end the pregnancy. Her cervix was dilated over three days at a Los Angeles clinic, and then Benjamin delivered a tiny girl. "It was very important to us that we were able to hold her. We needed confirmation of our decision, which we had by looking at her. The vast majority of these babies die before birth or within a very short time after," she explained. "We named her Alexander Robin. She basically had no face - no eyes, nose or mouth - there was just a cavity there. Her autopsy showed significant problems with her heart and brain.

"People get so wrapped up in the how of this procedure that they forget the why. The why was Alexander Robin." Benjamin said she had no regrets about her decision to end the pregnancy but said the entire experience was incredibly painful. "I had a tremendous need to get it right the second time around - to give birth to a healthy child - and I got pregnant three months later," Benjamin said. "The specialists told us that there was less than 1 percent chance of a repeat."

However, early tests revealed that the second child, named Shawn Timothy, suffered from the same condition. "The first time around, you don't see it coming, and your self-esteem is so low, and then we were hit with the same thing again," she recalled. This time she had an abortion at just 14 weeks. Shawn Timothy was delivered intact at just 13/4 ounces, and again she was able to hold the very tiny baby. (Her husband decided not to see the babies.)

After those two tragic pregnancies, the couple waited a year and a half before trying again to get pregnant, and then she was pregnant within a month. "There were days when I wondered if I could just get through the next day. You wonder if you will be strong enough to deal with it all." The couple now have two healthy sons - one is 31/2 and other is 10 months. They had a miscarriage between the birth of their two boys. Their last son was delivered a few days before the New Year, and the electricity had gone out at the hospital as had the emergency transformer. He was delivered by Cesarean section by light of mag lights. "He is definitely a very special baby," she says with a laugh.

The couple's lives are filled with caring for their young sons, but they will never forget their first children. "I have pictures and memory cards with hand and footprints of both of our first babies," she said. "As time passes, these items are a comfort, a validation that our children existed and that we don't want to forget them. You hear the other side say, "It's a child, not a choice.' You can believe that the mothers who have been through this are well aware of that and of what they have lost.

"I prefer to say that we made a loving, merciful choice for our children," she said. "If I made the wrong choice, then I will gladly answer for it." Benjamin said she has friends who call themselves pro-life, and they have told her that they don't mean her. "But they don't understand: They do mean me and all the other mothers who have endured what we have. They don't understand. If I had had to continue my first pregnancy, I would not have been able to go on to try again. "Then we would not have had the wonderful, joyful experience of our two sons. I just don't think that someone has the right to make that decision for someone else."

DEBORAH WILLIAMS, a freelance writer, got the names of two of the women interviewed for this story from the National Abortion Federation. The other two women contacted her after learning about the article from an Internet group.

Copyright 1999 - 2000 The Buffalo News




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