A wonderful thing is happening: The world is starting to open its eyes to the sadness and depth of grief that pregnancy loss incurs. Articles are being written for large media outlets, blogs are being posted, and there are ample Twitter hashtags. But one type of loss that we still don’t talk much about is terminating pregnancies.
And who would want to? We (as a society) condemn and, in some states, criminalize abortions. The legislative narrative informs us that abortion is wrong.
Nearly seven years ago, my husband and I were recovering from an early miscarriage when we found out I was pregnant again. Filled with anxiety during the first trimester (especially because of early bleeding that put me on bed rest) we waited with hope and fear to find out about the health of our baby. Finally, the bleeding stopped, and the first trimester ended. We were out of the danger zone. Or so I naively thought. Early screenings indicated this was a healthy baby, so at 14 weeks, I started to share our news.
We walked into the 20-week anatomy scan excited to learn what gender this baby would be. (I was hoping to not have to plan for a second bris, as the first one with our living child was hard). The tech was chatty and informed us that, yes, a second bris would be forthcoming. I remember asking if the radiologist wanted to talk to us, and she said no, but to go back to our OB-GYN’s office. In the car, we started to think about names for this son and whom we would name him after.
Entering into the doctor’s study, we kept up the happy dialogue. When the doctor came into the room, she started off with, “I’m so sorry.” This seemed like a strange sentiment to say since I had figured that we’d just have to try for a third child so I could possibly have my girl. The doctor went on (when she saw we had no idea what she was talking about) to tell us that there were problems with our son’s brain.
I went into “psychologist” mode and started to ask about brain development and the possibility of brain plasticity (when the brain spontaneously forms neural connections to offset issues). She referred us to a Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist as these were questions she didn’t know the answer to.
The MFM confirmed the earlier findings: Our son had fluid where his brain should be growing, his ventricles were very enlarged, which was causing the fluid to build up, and they started to talk about our options. We had an appointment for the following week (the week of Thanksgiving) to go to Children’s Hospital for follow-up testing. At Children’s, the findings were more severe and the prognosis was grim: Should our son survive to term and birth, he would have (best case scenario) the developmental quality of life of a 2-month-old.
I called my rabbi. She had been with me when I mourned my miscarriage. Before I could even think about spiritual healing, I had to ask her the burning question that my husband and I needed to think about: Could we terminate this pregnancy? Legally, I could. Morally, I thought I might have to. But what did Jewish law say? As a Reform Jew, she shared that our beliefs indicate that this would be an ethically “kosher” decision. I felt lucky that the way I observe Judaism wouldn’t castigate me for this choice, though my legislators would try.
As I prepared to labor and deliver, I wasn’t sure what I needed or who I needed. The nurse tried to be helpful and suggested that we spend time with our son once he was born. We didn’t think we could do that. My husband shared with me the day before that he believed that the soul of our child was still out in the universe, and it was our job to create a healthy body so that this child could join us. This sentiment was so helpful to me. My family’s Rebbitzin (rabbi’s wife) came to the hospital to spend time with me while I was laboring. The comfort she brought was incredible, and though I didn’t think I wanted anyone but family with me, her presence was perfect.
Our son was born, lived briefly, and died. He never knew pain, as I have carried that for him. The pregnancy that followed was met by a similar situation: a daughter, also with the same brain malformations, was born too soon. Two times, I was noticeably pregnant, and both times, when asked, I had to figure out how to answer the question, “How’s the baby?”
For me, my religion was there for me. It sanctioned my actions, brought comfort in my time of grief, and was there to celebrate the simchas of the two children whose souls found healthy bodies that we were able to create. However, with legislation making abortion more difficult, I can’t help but feel that my country is telling me that my losses aren’t valid. How can my religion do something that my country cannot?
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