I believe that parenthood starts before conception, at the moment you decide you want a child, and are ready and able to create a safe and loving home for her or him. I support abortion rights, but I reject the false distinction between the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Here’s why.
A lawyer by training, I was 38 when I completed a term on the Seattle City Council. Two years later, I married my husband, who is five years younger. We wanted children, and started trying right away, but had trouble conceiving.
Using in vitro fertilization, we had our son, Matthew, now 4. When he was 2, after another round of I.V.F., we conceived again. I was six weeks pregnant when I learned I was carrying twins, a boy and a girl. We were elated.
But in my 20th week, during an ultrasound, the technician looked concerned, and we got the first hint that something might be wrong. The next day, a Friday, my obstetrician called to say that the technician had had a hard time seeing the heart of the male fetus. “It is probably just the position,” she reassured me. I wasn’t reassured.
On Monday, I had a second ultrasound and my husband and I spent two hours — it felt like an eternity — with a different doctor and technician. “It looks as if the boy has a herniated diaphragm,” they told us. “All the organs are in his chest and not developing.”
I began sobbing. What did that mean? Would the organs move? Was my baby “fixable”? The clinic staff members were reluctant to tell us how bad it was. They said I needed an M.R.I., which would provide more details.
My world stopped. I loved being pregnant with twins and trying to figure out which one was where in my uterus. Sometimes it felt like a party in there, with eight limbs moving. The thought of losing one child was unbearable.
The M.R.I., at Seattle Children’s Hospital, confirmed our fears: the organs were pushed up into our boy’s chest and not developing properly. We were in the 22nd week. In Washington State, abortion is legal until the 24th week.
After 10 more days of tests and meetings, we were in the 23rd week and had to make a decision. My husband is more conservative than I am. He also is a Catholic. I am an old-school liberal, and I am not religious. But from the start, and through this ordeal, we were in complete agreement. We desperately wanted this child and would do whatever we could to save him, if his hernia was fixable and he could have a good quality of life.
Once we had all the data, we met with a nurse, a surgeon and a pediatrician at the hospital. The surgeon said our boy had a hole in his diaphragm. Only one lung chamber had formed, and it was only 20 percent complete. If our boy survived birth, he would be on oxygen and other life supports for a long time. The thought of hearing him gasp for air and linger in pain was our nightmare.
The surgeon described interventions that would give our son the best chance of surviving birth. But the pediatrician could tell that we were looking for candid guidance. He cautioned that medical ethics constrained what he could say, then added, “Termination is a reasonable option, and a reasonable option that I can support.” The surgeon and nurse nodded in agreement. I burst out sobbing. My husband cried, too. But in a sense, the pediatrician’s words were a source of comfort and kindness. He said what we already knew. But we needed to hear it from professionals, who knew we were good parents who wanted what was best for our children.
The next day, at a clinic near my home, I felt my son’s budding life end as a doctor inserted a needle through my belly into his tiny heart. She had trouble finding it because of its abnormal position. As horrible as that moment was — it will live with me forever — I am grateful. We made sure our son was not born only to suffer. He died in a warm and loving place, inside me.
In having the abortion, we took a risk that my body would expel both fetuses, and that we would lose our daughter too. In fact, I asked if we could postpone the abortion until the third trimester, by which time my daughter would have been almost fully developed; my doctor pointed out that abortions after 24 weeks were illegal. Thankfully, Kaitlyn was born, healthy and beautiful, on March 2, 2011, and we love her to pieces. My little boy partially dissolved into me, and I like to think his soul is in his sister.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted to ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy, based on the disputed theory that fetuses at that stage are capable of feeling pain. The measure has no chance of passage in the Senate. But it is part of a trend toward restricting second- and even first-trimester abortions. Ten states have banned most abortions after 20 or 22 weeks; Arkansas, after 12; and North Dakota, after 6. Some of these laws are being challenged in court.
While some of these new restrictions allow exceptions for fetal genetic defects, second-trimester abortions must remain legal because, until a child is viable outside the womb, these decisions belong with the mother. I don’t know if Roe v. Wade will be overturned in my lifetime, but the chipping away of abortion rights is occurring at an astounding pace. I share my story in the hope that our leaders will be more responsible and compassionate when they weigh what it means to truly value the lives of women and children.
Judy Nicastro was a member of the Seattle City Council from 2000 through 2003.