Kimi Harris: When Our Ultrasound Revealed a Birth Defect, My Doctor Offered an Abortion

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I was a little over halfway through my pregnancy when my husband and I sat gripping each other’s hands while a specialist gesticulated as he described the options for our unborn baby. We could opt for life-saving surgeries, we could give her comfort care once born but allow her to die without intervention, or we could choose to abort.

“The root of [the word] disaster means a star coming apart, and no image expresses better the look in a patient’s eyes when hearing a neurosurgeon’s diagnosis,” says the late Paul Kalanithi in When Breath Becomes Air. A star coming apart perfectly describes how it felt to be told that our daughter had a severe heart defect that would kill her soon after birth without medical intervention.

When the word abortion was brought into the conversation, my hand involuntarily reached out in a painful appeal to leave that option off the table. He brushed my objection aside, “I know that many parents don’t want to hear about this option, but I legally have to tell you.” He continued describing what abortion would look like in some detail, then the medical team melted off into the hospital.

This moment has haunted me for years, and it has come to mind as pro-choice and pro-life positions are again debated in many states, much of the argument being over “nonviable pregnancies” or “medically fragile fetuses.” Some of the debate surrounding new bills and legislation is over what it looks like to show compassion to parents and to unborn babies when faced with serious, life-threatening birth defects. A baby with any birth defect—life threatening or not—challenges us personally and as a society to examine what our values are. The words we use to discuss such situations are vitally important.

We were soon ushered into our next appointment with a cardiologist that went much differently. She had glasses perched on her nose and wispy blonde hair, and she told us in gentle tones of the wonderful lives she saw so many of her young patients experiencing after the needed open-heart surgeries. She was painting word pictures of laughing children, bikes, and a bright future when her face suddenly bloomed bright red. “I’m sorry,” she stuttered, “I forgot to ask whether you planned on aborting or not.”

We assured her that we weren’t considering that option, and she slowly regained her color. While she was embarrassed by her professional blunder, what she could not know was that her “mistake” was a balm to our hearts. She had revealed how she really felt: Our daughter was worth saving. We made clear that our desire was to save the life of our child, and our hospital did everything they could to advocate for her and save her. Although the graphic description of the offered abortion plagued me, I was extremely grateful to have a hospital and medical team that encouraged life. We remain deeply thankful for their work on our behalf.

When we make decisions about a medically fragile baby, we often signal not only what we think about the status and rights of unborn babies, but we also signal what we think about life, death, and suffering itself. Our cardiologist’s implied viewpoint was that while there was suffering involved in open-heart surgeries, potentially saving a life was worth it.

It was only with sorrow that I would learn that some parents in the exact same scenario were not given the full facts by their doctors and were pressured to abort or told that it would be cruel to put an infant through medical interventions. Doctors bring their own values to the table and parents can be put into a vulnerable position when given slanted advice. While it was jarring to be given our legal rights by our first doctor in such a detached and non-empathetic manner, it would have been truly devastating to be shamed for wanting to save our child’s life through the use of words such as “cruel.”

A rallying cry for the pro-choice crowd is that these heartbreaking decisions should be solely in the hands of a mother and her doctor, and no one else. Yet, when I hear those words, I am reminded of the mothers whose doctor’s words influenced them not to try to save their unborn baby or to assume that abortion was best.

Words matter, and they matter acutely in such moments, often starting with the ultrasound when a birth defect is first found. One small study found that mothers noticed during ultrasounds the verbal and nonverbal cues that their examiner gave, including when the examiner switched from using the word “baby” to “fetus,” long silences, and long waits for information. Another study found that women bearing children with birth defects valued being given not only clear information and privacy but also the sympathy of the person giving the bad news.

A health provider’s words carry weight with patients in less stressful situations too. Words used by doctors and nurses can affect how painful a blood draw is, influence how much pain medication is needed after surgery, and affect the health outcomes of diabetic patients. A study from 2018 even showed being told you had a genetic risk caused physiological changes in participants that were more significant than the genetic risk itself. This was true regardless of whether they truly had any genetic risk. Words carry power.

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Source: Christianity Today