In spring 1987, I was the public relations director for a private women’s hospital in the southeast. One day that year started with a press conference about triplets conceived through a new In Vitro Fertilization program at the hospital. The day ended with me as a patient in the same facility, suffering a miscarriage from my first pregnancy.
Twenty-five-plus years later, these two events, juxtaposed like bookends on this day, gnaw at my pro-choice leanings.
We were surprised to learn that I was expecting that spring. He was finishing graduate school and an uncertain job market left our future wide open. It was my turn to be the trailing spouse and we anticipated leaving the Sunshine State.
Our baby was wanted, even if a little earlier than planned. Both of us neared thirty. We had a strong marriage, and post-graduate education almost behind us. Financially it was not a good time, but as the cliché says, “If you wait to afford a child, you will never have one.”
I worked as the public relations director for a hospital that had an in vitro fertilization program. Louise Brown was the first child conceived through IVF in England in 1979, and that new reproductive technology soon landed in the United States. This hospital was among dozens of private women’s hospitals started by physicians shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision a decade earlier. Women’s hospitals located themselves near larger neighboring hospitals, which did not allow abortions or any kind of reproductive technology. They shared medical staff. Before Operation Rescue’s more extreme tactics, women’s hospitals across the United States became home base for Mother’s Day protests.
The IVF program at my hospital was first in the region and attracted much media attention. Staff doctors recognized the need to promote the program and get accurate information out to the public, yet made privacy of patients a priority. The local daily newspaper printed a graphic of a giant test tube with a baby inside, connoting a terribly wrong impression of this advanced reproductive technology. Conception takes place in a petri dish, so the term “test tube baby” is misleading. Before the first birth from the program, I hosted a workshop to educate local reporters about the science.
That morning before work, I started bleeding. I called my doctor, whose office was adjacent to the hospital and he told me to go to ultrasound. My best friend was the Director of Nursing and took care of “working me in.” The hospital had a brand-new vaginal ultrasound machine, so I did not have to have a full bladder, offering less discomfort than the usual way.
My pain was emotional that morning. The black and white screen showed a perfectly shaped peanut-size fetus. The picture lacked one crucial element, the thumping of a heartbeat. I was devastated.
The wait to schedule an ultrasound, have the test, and learn the news all happened for me in about thirty minutes. My doctor came to see me in my office off the hospital lobby – as a hospital manager I had the pleasure of access to technology and people with no nervous waiting.
My doctor told me that my pregnancy was over. He gently said I would “pass the fetal tissue” in the next few days. He said I would need a D & C and suggested I schedule it for the next day. This was a lot of information in a short time. My husband was in class at the university fifteen miles away. Our dreams of our first child ended after eleven short weeks. At 29, I was filled with the bravado of someone who has not tripped over much of life yet. I called my husband, scheduled surgery, and went back to work.
My husband told me to go home. I ignored him, despite a growing cramp and backache.
We had a press conference that day for the in vitro fertilization program. Six weeks earlier, the first set of IVF triplets in the area delivered. The parents decided to introduce their babies to the community. IVF was by no means routine 28 years ago and local media outlets were hungry for a story.
The OB/Gyns and reproductive endocrinologists presided over the event. As the public relations director, my role was to make sure everything worked – appropriate media were there, projection technology was working, we had enough chairs, and all the behind-the-scenes activities covered.
The proud parents were present in the hospital’s conference room along with the standard broadcast and print health care reporters. After some talking points from the physicians, the parents played several videos of the babies for the group. The first showed three cone-headed baby boys, all with swabs of dark black hair like their father, lined up in three identical bouncy seats on a kitchen table. The second video showed a grainy black and white ultrasound video at five weeks post-conception. I watched this video dozens of times in past few months with hospital staff.
That day it was as if I saw it for the first time.
The difference with my own ultrasound pictures that morning was incredible. The three tiny heartbeats leapt off the screen, pounding, pounding, pounding into my brain. I stood there and watched the video along with the crowd, and reacted with a polite golf tournament clap. That was my job.
When the media event ended, questions answered, physicians, parents, and reporters satisfied, B-roll shot, chairs put away, and lights off, I went home. As I drove 15 miles north to our rented condominium near the university, I started getting cramps. The closer I got to home, the worse my cramps got. What the doctor didn’t tell me was that this process was going to be painful. In retrospect, I think the next few hours were more painful that the healthy vaginal birth I experienced three years later.
Within two hours, I was bleeding so badly that I could not leave our bathroom. I passed pieces of tissue, what physicians note in a chart as “POC” or products of conception. I knew to put whatever this was in a jar for research at the hospital lab. My husband came home from school and found me lying on my side on the tile bathroom floor.
He packed my jar and me into his ’73 red VW Beetle and we made the trip back to the hospital where I worked. My physician admitted me and scheduled a D & C for the next morning.
Much time has passed since that day. I had three more pregnancies, only one of which I carried to term. The loss of innocence from that first short fling with motherhood stayed with me for a long time.
Working in a women’s hospital that delivered thousands of babies each year renewed strong emotions daily. My office was near the front door where eight, nine, ten women a day rolled out in the required wheelchairs, cradling a precious newborn in loving arms. The scene repeated endlessly, the father or other family members pushing a cart full of flowers, balloons, and tokens of good wishes.
That long day also shook my faith in a firmly held belief. When Roe v. Wade became law in 1973, I was sixteen and as an ardent a eminist as one can be with a teen’s panache and invincibility. While I understood little about sex, I celebrated a woman’s right to choose. For that matter, I still do.
Intellectually, I know a zygote or even an early fetus cannot live outside the uterus. In the three pregnancies that I lost, I am not sure what I lost. I believe in the soul, yet I am not sure when that soul enters the body. I am not aware of any scientific evidence that proves it happens at conception. I’ve never felt comfortable in the support group community of early childhood loss, and my mind didn’t change after I had my own healthy eight pound baby.
Emotionally, having my own healthy baby made me mourn for the idea of those three others. Yet I know how incredibly lucky I am to have this child, now a man.
When I saw those three little heartbeats on that spring day in 1987, my own heart jumped with wonder. I knew the video was recorded at five weeks post-conception. I still wonder and I still celebrate life’s miracles. This curiosity does not change my opinion about a woman’s choice in a complicated world. In 1987, almost every woman in a wheelchair leaving the hospital was met by the baby’s father. Today that is not the case.
So I land somewhere in the middle. I am not ready to light a candle for those I lost, and yet I still have questions about the time of quickening. While I do not have the answers, those willing to protect the life of the unborn must not exclude the lives of the disabled, the poor and the elderly.
For individuals who object to women who choose a termination, I ask them to focus on babies in poverty, hungry and homeless children, and adolescents and the aging in desperate need of a steady hand.
Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. Amy specializes in health writing, with a passion for rehabilitation and disability issues. She also enjoys writing about politics, travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth, at her web-site www.amyabbottwrites.com or as Bernadine Spitzsnogel on Open Salon. She likes to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.