My Two Abortions

I read the news of the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar with horror and grief. Part of my reaction comes from a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."
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I read the news of the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar with horror and grief. She died because she had the misfortune of having an incomplete miscarriage in Ireland, where -- as good Catholics -- they prioritized the dying fetus's heartbeat over the living, breathing, walking, working, loving, would-be mother's suffering, and ultimately, over her life.

Part of my reaction comes from a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I." After a couple of years of trying to get pregnant, I finally conceived a much-desired baby at age 33 -- in my fallopian tube. When the doctors discovered my ectopic pregnancy, they rushed me into surgery to remove it. Technically, the mass in my tube was still alive, but their primary goals were to save my life and to save my potential to conceive again. Call it an "involuntary abortion." I grieved over my lost "baby," but I was surprised at how much I wanted it out of my body once I knew it wasn't viable. I also appreciated that I didn't have to wait and see whether it would expel itself, or whether it would rupture my tube and render me permanently infertile, or even kill me with internal bleeding.

For the record, although I was in graduate school for Christian theology and ethics at the time, none of my friends or colleagues -- not even the Catholics among them -- offered to plan a memorial service for my dead baby. (In fact, they didn't so much as send a card.)

That sad story has a happy ending. Four months after my surgery, in which one of my ovaries was also removed, I miraculously got pregnant again, this time in my uterus. I gave birth to my only miraculous child at age 34, and both of us came through pregnancy and birth miraculously healthy. When I first saw him, I thought to myself that this one had to be my child -- this one had to be -- and I was strangely grateful for the first failed pregnancy that enabled everything to work out just the way it had to. Eight years later, I still feel that way, however irrational it might be. My child still seems like a miracle.

A few years later we hoped for another child. Again, after countless months of disappointment, I got pregnant at age 39. But at my 10-week ultrasound, it was discovered that, despite my body still thinking I was pregnant, my fetus had no heartbeat. They call this cruel state of affairs a "missed abortion." (Had I not had that ultrasound, I might have gone another month, two months -- who knows? -- believing I was going to have a baby.) Some doctors will encourage women to have the pregnancy surgically removed at this point; my doctor and I preferred the less intrusive method of contraction-inducing medication. After a couple of weeks of cramps and bleeding, I experienced something that I can only describe as labor; I had horrific abdominal pain, and eventually had to push what felt like a large mass through my birth canal and into the toilet. Then, all by myself, I flushed the whole bloody mess down. Once again, no one came around encouraging me to have a funeral, because anyone who is intellectually and spiritually honest knows, without a doubt, that the human tissue that went down the sewer was not equivalent to "a human life." The friends who were most supportive to me at that time were non-religious, who simply cared about me.

It seems painfully clear that Savita Halappanavar died so that some self-righteous Catholics could feel good about themselves. They opted to secure their own moral purity over reason and compassion. Her pregnancy was ending on its own; her fetus was dying. There was nothing to be gained by prolonging her pain. I have to wonder, will there be a church-funded funeral for her dead baby? Will there be a grave site? Will people grieve for the lost baby with equal pain and fervor as they will grieve for the lost woman? Or will they finally acknowledge the grave offense to human dignity that comes from pretending the two losses are morally equal?

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