In the thick of the 2012 Republican war on women, I found myself happily married and a few months pregnant. It was an awkward place for a liberal woman to be. I arrived at a pro-choice stance from the unlikely (or maybe likely) nadir of a fundamentalist anti-abortion upbringing that was complete with crisis pregnancy centers, appalling protest propaganda and local women's clinics being burned down multiple times in my isolated California hometown.
When my "Christian" marriage failed in my early twenties, I eventually pulled myself into a more balanced spiritual path -- filled with compassion, yoga, meditation and appreciation of the positive tenets of many religions. Still, when I would come across a female student or friend talk about going to an abortion clinic to "take care of it," I felt a twinge of revulsion -- not for the act per se; I knew first-term fetuses did not feel pain. Yet, there was something callous in their lack of concern about using birth control: "I don't like to take the pill; it makes me fat " or "My boyfriend might leave me if I ask him to wear a condom." Were abortion clinics providing too much of a safety net for irresponsibility? I never questioned the legality or that access should be made available, but I guess deep down I knew I could never have one. So, I endured monthly migraines and mood swings -- the sweet gifts of oral contraception -- to ensure I would never end up in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood.
The first political blitzkrieg focused on the lack of insurance coverage of birth control. I was working only part-time with minimal medical insurance, so I indeed had to visit Planned Parenthood for STD testing with my fiancé. I stopped taking the pill around the time I met my fiancé, as my new insurance didn't cover it -- and at $60 a month, it was not affordable. I was surprised at how discreet Planned Parenthood felt. A few months later when I visited for a pregnancy test, no one ever pushed having an abortion; they simply asked me how I felt about being pregnant. "Very Excited." It was a lot less scary than the crisis pregnancy centers that I had been to that were plastered with ghastly pictures of aborted fetuses. And, yes, I paid for my services -- they aren't free, just affordable. I started reading the news more fervently and felt the pang of women impacted by the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics across Texas.
My first blood screening showed a low risk for Downs, Tay-Sachs and Fragile X. This was a huge relief, as I have a 12-year old autistic son at home. My PAPP-A score was low, which could mean a lot of things or nothing. One concern that the genetic assessment mentioned was Trisomy 18, the same fatal disease that candidate Santorum's daughter has. Yet, from reading every online Low-PAPP-A mom's forum (yes, they exist) -- it was likely an anomaly.
Within days, the media attacks grew nastier: inter-vaginal ultrasounds, epithets directed at women and even an Arizona bill that would require a woman to prove to her employer she needed contraception for medical reasons. Despite the cruel clashing over women's bodies, I felt insulated, as I was thrilled to have another child on the way after 12 years.
Amniocentesis had to be created by a man. The idea of sticking a horror movie-size needle through abdominal skin, muscle, and into the amniotic sac -- while using an ultrasound to guestimate where to suck fluid so as not to puncture the moving fetus -- seemed like a solution more attuned to repairing a carburetor. Risks abound with amnio: miscarriage, injury to the fetus and infection. Santorum doesn't like amnio because he thinks they lead to more abortions. Perhaps he felt the other Trisomy 18 parents ending a pregnancy devalued his daughter. Nevertheless, amnio can give women the ability to make the decision before the fetus is developed enough to feel pain. I didn't want amniocentesis simply because I couldn't see myself getting through it without passing out or going into shock.
The second blood test results indicated my PAPP-A scores improved, but were still considered a positive risk. The amnio-pushing counselor was on the phone again. I stayed strong and said we would wait for the week 19 ultrasound that could confirm our little peanut was healthy. I couldn't live with myself if I received the amnio and accidentally killed or hurt a healthy baby.
The waiting was torture. My husband and I both came down with bronchitis that week. Our cat had to go to the emergency room and it rained every day. Every thing seemed to be moving in slow motion. We had to again meet with the perky counselor, who was selling amnio like a timeshare. We signed the denial waiver. Twenty minutes later I was on the table, husband by my side, warm jelly on my belly -- ready to see our baby. We both were thinking girl: Sophia Jane Escamilla.
Never play poker with an ultrasound technician. It is their job to hide what they are trained to see. Ours was an ace. We listened to the heartbeat, and she confirmed that Sophia, not Lazlo, was the right name. She lovingly asked Sophia to not squirm so much, so she could get all the pictures. Though the images were grainy, I noticed a strange lack of clarity in the heart; I couldn't see four distinct chambers, but the technician was working fast. She took many measurements of the brain too. I wasn't sure, but my anxiety was growing. Then I saw Sophia's hands... both were clenched. Her fists wouldn't open. I kept waiting. The 3D view showed her head was shaped like a strawberry with a small chin. I felt my husband's excitement. He didn't see it. The technician made us a CD of pictures, handed it to my husband and abruptly left. I had to say into his beaming eyes: "I see things that don't look right." He looked away and said that he didn't notice anything.
Dr. Fong delivered her bad news speech with a long exhale and her head dropped to one side. My husband went stiff. He asked a few questions about the cerebral cortex and heart. She returned the wand to my belly. This time we looked at Sophia's flaws -- all indicative of Trisomy 18. I started to shake and knew I had to get out of the room. Oozing with pity, Dr. Fong inquired, "Can I call you? " "Do you want an amnio to confirm?" "No, No." I wiped my belly. My husband crumpled and we both sobbed.
The drive home was filled with long stretches of silence, spliced with initial talk about our options. That night I tried reading about the procedures, but I kept feeling nauseous. Sophia was now moving regularly, and we were planning a 21-week D&E or induced birth. The horror pressed into us. We holed up in our house and grieved, deliberated and found scraps of distraction to keep us sane. We whispered to Sophia, my husband's head lying lovingly on my belly. Postponing her imminent death was not an option. She would develop more sensory ability to feel pain. We filled out consent forms to have an autopsy and cremation performed on our unborn child.
I didn't know where the pluck to go through this procedure was going to come from. Yet, my love for Sophia made me steely against any potential gruesome signs and judgmental comments. We ultimately decided on induction, which put us far away from protestors, but right in the din of healthy babies being born.
I wondered how other women do this. In Japan they have shrines called Mizuko Jizo that offer women a place to grieve for their unborn -- no matter the reason. Women and men attend services, make offerings and place knitted hats and bibs on rows of baby sculptures. In many cultures they believe the soul of the baby doesn't enter the body until the sixth month in utero -- like a driverless car with the engine running. Other faiths believe the soul doesn't fully arrive until seven years after birth, before which they are called water babies. We are one of the few cultures that start the clock and the policies at the zygote phase.
After 17 hours of dilation drugs and contractions, Sophia arrived. We were grateful to hold her tiny body, kiss her face and say goodbye in person. Ending a pregnancy is complex and specific to each woman. Some are going to feel relief, some guilt and others despair. But their reasons or feelings are not our business. Women and their partners need a safe and supportive place to make this decision. Draconian policies meant to make pregnant women "more responsible" abuse women who are already enduring one of the most difficult experiences of their lives. Instead of more punitive dictums, we need sacred ways to honor both women and the unborn that are loving, free of dogma and condemnation.