My pregnant wife Jeanne and I sat in an exam room at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the radiologist who had performed an ultrasound looked at us grimly and got right to the point: “There are some findings that are troubling.” Over the next few minutes, he explained that the fetus growing in Jeanne’s womb had a malformed horseshoe kidney, a club foot, and choroid plexus cysts on the brain — all tell-tale markers of trisomy-18.
We previously had met with a genetic counselor who explained that Jeanne’s bloodwork indicated an elevated risk of trisomy-18, a chromosomal abnormality involving an extra copy of the number 18 chromosome. The night after that meeting, we sat on our living room couch and read medical research that left us numb: 90% of trisomy-18 babies die before age 1. Those that live longer contend with major physical and developmental problems for as long as their abbreviated lives last. And those are just the ones that make it to a live birth. Many more are stillborn, their bodies unable to thrive even in utero.
As the radiologist spoke, his observations hit like blows to the midsection, one right after another. By the time he finished, I could hardly breathe. At that point, 17 weeks into the pregnancy, the radiologist explained that Jeanne had a choice: She could continue with the pregnancy, to whatever end that journey took her, or she could terminate.
As I listen to the debate rage over the U.S. Supreme Court potentially overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, I am struck by this critical fact: In the future, millions of women in Jeanne’s position might not be afforded the same choice, and that would be cruel. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 25 states likely will ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Texas has already enacted a law banning abortions after about six weeks of gestation; Jeanne did not yet have a trisomy-18 diagnosis at that point. If Republicans win big at the national polls in 2024, a nationwide ban on abortion could follow.
Jeanne chose to continue her pregnancy, a decision deeply grounded in her Catholic faith. “I didn’t believe in abortion as an option for me,” she said recently. “I would never have done that.”
As the due date neared, we were asked to consider a do not resuscitate order and other end-of-life scenarios. We had already dialed down the new baby talk with our then-3-year-old son, Matt, and we had put a hard stop to setting up the nursery, since doctors indicated that our baby would probably spend his entire brief life in the hospital. A chaplain was essentially on call for a nondenominational baptism in the moments after birth, in case a Catholic priest could not be summoned in time.
Our son, Christopher, was born alive on April 17, 2005, weighing 4.4 pounds. Minutes lasted hours as we held our child and watched his pallor alternate from warm pink to cold blue, then back to pink again, his little heart fighting desperately for life. For the rest of my days, I will be haunted by his muted cries that sounded like a sick kitten, the most his frail body could muster. Pink, back to blue again, and this time only blue.
Christopher lived 10 hours. I believe Jeanne’s decision to carry and bear that child was the greatest display of maternal love I have ever seen. I will always be grateful for those 10 hours.
Here’s something else I believe: Had Jeanne chosen to terminate the pregnancy, given the trisomy-18 diagnosis, I would have fully supported her. I would challenge my church to understand that, and my Catholic faith would proceed with no regrets.
As lifelong Catholics, Jeanne and I have been told that abortion is wrong, and that terminating a pregnancy, a gift from God, is a mortal sin. The state legislatures in roughly 25 states would seem to agree. I suspect the people writing those laws — primarily men — have never been asked to consider a do not resuscitate order for their own unborn child. I suspect they have never watched their own newborn go from pink back to blue and only blue. Ideology must be malleable to the moment.
At church last month, our priest at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore gave an impassioned homily directed toward women with unplanned pregnancies, saying they are loved and the church is there to help. Without mentioning Roe v. Wade, he forcefully reiterated the church’s anti-abortion position. Yet as he spoke, I realize something: He clearly assumed all these pregnancies would produce healthy babies who would survive. He probably imagined them one day filling some Catholic school playground with laughter. What about the ones who will die? What about those babies whose lives would be measured in minutes, or hours, or days? If the Catholic church wants to help the expectant mother already ripped to her core by a trisomy-18 diagnosis, maybe the best way would be to offer compassion and empathy for whichever path she chooses with her own body, and to recognize that there are multiple paths that deserve grace.
Why would my church require a woman to endure the physical and emotional pain of pregnancy only to deliver a corpse? Or a baby whose first breaths are also his last?
I would challenge my priest to explain how any just god would penalize a woman for choosing not to endure a pregnancy that, in a day or a week or a month, was going to end in death. And I would ask those lawmakers who are intent on outlawing abortion in all cases, where is the humanity in making a mother — and a couple — endure this agony?
Jeanne continued her pregnancy and gave birth to Christopher, and I will be eternally grateful that she did. That was her choice. All women in Jeanne’s situation deserve a similar chance to choose for themselves.
Bo Smolka is a Towson-based freelance writer.