Doctors sometimes leap to suggesting abortion when there’s a slight chance of certain birth defects, but some parents consider that malpractice.
The March For Life is scheduled for January 27th, and that is just three days after the 4th anniversary of our youngest child’s open heart surgery. As I reflect on all that we have been through, and the pro-life movement, I want to share some stories and statistics. I would like to connect with anyone with questions, or concerns — especially when it comes to birth defects, and doctor-patient relationships. As if parenting wasn’t stressful enough, some of us are faced with having a seriously sick child, while juggling all the other tasks parents must perform.
Our third daughter is spunky, independent, humorous, and full of energy. She is extremely smart, and loves to call all the shots. The adventurous type, with constant surprises up her sleeve, we have lovingly nicknamed her “The Bringer of Doom.” Most who have met her would never guess that before she was born, doctors did not have much hope that she would survive her first year of life. They even suggested that I have an abortion.
The fear and the anguish a mother feels when she hears that the child in her womb is “probably not compatible with life” is indescribable. These are the words I heard when I was 19 weeks pregnant with my third baby. Two doctors explained to me that she had a rare and debilitating condition, mostly affecting her heart. They were both adamant that she would suffer greatly outside of my womb, if she were even able to survive to full term. At this time, I had no knowledge on the medical issues they claimed she had, and assumed the doctors were likely correct. After all, why would they lie, and seem so confident in their declarations?
Still, I wanted to stay hopeful. That, and as a woman who is pro-life, I wanted to give my child the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to give her any chance I could, even if that chance was minuscule. I could feel her growing inside me, and her strong movements gave me even more courage to seek another opinion. When I did get that third opinion, I received a little relief — the third doctor did not think that my daughter’s problems were as dire, though she admitted she would likely need multiple surgical interventions, on top of regular medications.
About a year after her birth, I wrote about my emotional battle during the pregnancy:
Over the next months we traveled to appointments almost 2 hours away from our home. We sought different opinions, and we did the best we could to scrape together gas money to do so. Sometimes we were able to find a babysitter to watch our other two small children, and sometimes we had to take them. Our credit card debt worsened, and our nerves got the best of us. To make matters worse, neither my family nor my husband’s family live close by. There were many nights I cried myself to sleep, wishing I could take my daughter’s place because the thought of her suffering was excruciating. If I thought too much about it, I became angry at the world. My mood swings were almost unbearable, and slapping on a fake smile for our other two kids became increasingly difficult. It pained me to think that my oldest children would be affected by my despair if I showed it, so I kept it together as best as I could. I remember pretending I had stubbed my toe one time, when my oldest (3 years old at the time) found me crying in my room.
To say that it was a difficult time for our family would be a severe understatement. Though, at no point did we think that the doctors’ suggestion for us to “consider another option” was something we should do. We respected her right to life. I joined support groups in order to lean on other parents, and ask questions.
While sharing and listening to stories in the parent support groups, I found that many of these women had been told the same things I had been told by doctors — to consider another option. That there was little chance of a good outcome. These women seemed to be just as saddened and angry as I had been. How could these doctors so willingly give up on our children? Especially since a great number of these kids turned out to be much better off than they originally warned? Did they unintentionally go too far when they informed women of the worst possible outcomes, or were they worried about the liability involved in these children’s cases?
Today, my daughter is four. She did have to have open heart surgery at six months old, but she absolutely rocked it. The fact that she was not only full-term when she was born, but also that she was able to put off surgery until she was six months old, was supposedly beyond the realm of possibilities to the first doctors who evaluated her. Additionally, when she only had to have the one surgery, it completely blew surgeons and cardiologists away. They were baffled. She was released just six days after her operation. Four years later, she only requires annual appointments, she is not on any medication whatsoever, and has no physical or mental disabilities. In fact, I would not be surprised if she became a marathon runner. Determined, tough, and happy are the three words that best describe her.
Stevie J. West was kind enough to share her similar story. Her daughter, now almost eight, was also deemed a lost cause while in the womb. Three different doctors tried to assure her that her baby had multiple defects that warranted an abortion. She ignored their dire warnings, and finally found a doctor to stand by her decision to honor her daughter’s right to life. Though she was born at thirty-three weeks gestation, weighing only three pounds, she was discharged just four days after birth. This, despite her growth ceasing at twenty-five weeks. The medical conditions the first doctors claimed she had were not present. She may live with an auto-immune disorder and other medical issues, but Stevie’s miracle child is thriving now. It goes to show just how wrong physicians can be, and how resilient our children are.
To this day, I still hate to think about women who are wrongfully convinced by doctors to abort their children, under the assumption that death would be a better option. Knowing for sure how much a child will or will not suffer is not probable. Furthermore, ultrasounds are excruciatingly difficult to read with 100% accuracy, and many of the prenatal screening tactics are just that — screens. They are not diagnostic, and false positives — like when screening for Down Syndrome — occur often. Additionally, medical treatment for severe defects has made leaps and bounds in the last few decades. In fact, the rate at which children born with critical heart defects (those that require surgical intervention) who survived to age 18 was around 70%. For non-critical defects, it was 95%. This information is crucial, since congenital heart defects are the fourth most common birth defect. They occur at a rate of about 1 in every 110 babies born in the U.S. every year, though only 25% of them require surgical intervention for survival. Spina Bifida, the most common birth defect, has a survival rate to adulthood of 90%.
Of course, many parents aren’t only concerned with survival, but also quality of life. From experience, I can tell you that a child who is born with health problems can adapt. Honestly, they do not only adapt, but also experience happiness often. Sometimes, I feel that my daughter is so tough and determined due to her past. She is determined to jump over any hurdles in her way, because she is unaware of a life without them. It gives her great joy to accomplish what other “normal” kids can, and I foresee her continuing to do so for the rest of her long life. Perhaps she is still young, but she has never made excuses for herself, and neither have we. Instead, we give encouragement, and make sure she knows that she can do amazing things with hard work and perseverance. Naturally, it isn’t hard to convince a child, who wanted to rip out her pacer wires and escape her hospital crib just hours following open heart surgery, that she can do anything!
Education, and leaning on fellow parents, are what we can do to combat abortions due to fear mongering doctors. After all, they can’t be right all the time — they are humans too. In example: 2016 researchers found that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Remember how amazing children are, and many have overcome. Many parents do not give themselves enough credit. One has no idea what they are capable of until they face and triumph over such trying conditions. Have faith in our babies, and have faith in yourselves.
I believe I relayed this message best three years ago:
We didn’t see those doctors again who had suggested abortion, though I have contemplated emailing them a photograph of Baby. I wonder what they would say. Mostly, I wonder how many other women they had convinced to have abortions, by persuading them that they are doing the right thing by ending their child’s supposed suffering. Insinuating that the cons of giving their babies a chance somehow outweigh the pros… I wish I could meet them, and tell them that doctors can’t know everything. Our daughter is living proof. I wish I could tell those women that they are strong enough. There are many support groups for parents and children with congenital heart defects, as well as support groups for other birth defects. There are even effective support groups for women who have unplanned pregnancies and feel lost or overwhelmed. No matter your situation, don’t think for one second that there is no one out there who knows or cares how you feel.