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One Woman's Choice
After a Prenatal Test Shows Down Syndrome, A Wrenching Decision

By Maria Eftimiades
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"So when do you go for the abortion?'' my friend asked, her voice sympathetic.

"Wednesday,'' I replied, and then hurriedly got off the phone. I called Mike, my boyfriend, in tears, complaining about how inconsiderate people are, how no one thinks before they speak. The truth was, until I heard the word "abortion,'' it hadn't occurred to me that I was actually having one.

I was, of course. But we'd been using euphemisms for days, ever since my doctor called to say my amniocentesis results "weren't good.'' We'd say "when we go to the hospital'' or "the appointment" or "after the procedure, we can try again.''

We were driving to the post office, Mike and I, near our home when my cell phone rang and I recognized the OB-GYN's number. I said, "It's the doctor,'' and then, a little later, "Oh, no.'' Mike pulled over and held my hand while I listened. It didn't take long; the doctor didn't have much to say. He suggested we digest the news and call him later.

When I hung up, I told Mike, "It's Down syndrome'' and we went home and lay in bed for the rest of the day. We were shocked.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been. I was a few weeks from my 42nd birthday. Mike was 52. This was to be the first child for both of us. We'd read the statistics: at my age, a 1-in-100 chance of a Down syndrome baby, although my doctor said later he'd put the figure closer to 1-in-40. Not the best odds, but somehow we never expected we'd be the couple to receive bad news.

When I first learned I was pregnant, I was thrilled yet guarded. It wasn't because I was afraid of a miscarriage -- though I was. I worried about what I might hear, given that Mike and I weren't married, and had decided to wait before taking that step.

My family and close friends were delighted, but I found myself filing away insensitive remarks from those second-tier friends -- a work colleague, a member of my softball team, a neighbor. Some examples: "It's Mike's, I assume?'' "So, is this good news?'' "Who's the father? Just kidding!'' And my favorite: "How did it happen? No birth control?''

From the start of my pregnancy, I tried to be so careful. Mike brought home fresh fruit for me every evening, and I fretted when the pharmacy didn't have my prenatal vitamins in stock and I had to wait an extra day. I even wrote to Starbucks to request they add black decaffeinated tea to their menu. (Herbals aren't good for pregnant women.) Though we tried not to get too excited, Mike and I began searching for names -- we even found ourselves studying the credits at the end of movies. For a girl, we were far apart; for a boy, we leaned toward John -- we both have a brother with that name.

Once I had the amnio and saw from the sonogram it was a boy, I thought I was in the clear: It didn't occur to me to wait for the test results before sharing the news more freely. One Sunday morning I told my softball friends I was pregnant and they cheered the prospect of a new player and told me I'd done the team well by producing a boy. The very next weekend, I stayed home from the game, devastated by my whirling misfortune.

Later, one of my teammates suggested that I tell others I had a miscarriage.

"You never know how people will react,'' he said.

My mother, too, was a proponent of the miscarriage story. She told two of my brothers the truth; she told the third that I'd suddenly lost the baby. That brother's wife was a Catholic, and my mother was taking no chances.

"People are funny,'' she said.

I've heard the abortion debate my whole life, and while I was a newspaper reporter I had covered stories about clinic bombings and protests. I interviewed Randall Terry of Operation Rescue when I was in my twenties. I talked with his supporters who stood outside clinics and imitated babies crying, begging "Mommy, don't kill me,'' when abortion-seekers passed by.

Once I became one of those women ending a pregnancy, I found myself wondering how I'd react under that kind of pressure. I remember a cop I interviewed once telling me about a "good rape,'' one where the attacker was a stranger and there was no ambiguity, no chance of blaming the victim because she had drunk too much or invited her date in for coffee. I wonder if it's the same for abortion. If your child will be born with a severe disability, is there a "Get Out of Jail Free" card or are you still a baby killer?

While I have no doubt there can be joys and victories in raising a mentally handicapped child, for me and for Mike, it's a painful journey that we believe is better not taken. To know now that our son would be retarded, perhaps profoundly, gives us the choice of not continuing the pregnancy. We don't want a life like that for our child, and the added worry that we wouldn't be around long enough to care for him throughout his life.

For some reason, I expected our baby would look like Mike -- sandy-colored, silky hair, hazel eyes. I hoped he would inherit Mike's personality -- mellow, an antidote to my not-so-mellow.

One night, a few days after we learned of the diagnosis, I dreamed that I saw our baby: he had black hair like mine, but it was long, like a hippie's, the way I'd seen Mike in yellowed black-and-white photos from the '60s. In the dream, we were in a bookstore, the three of us. I heard gunfire. Then, the baby crawled away. I woke up missing him, mourning the child we wouldn't have.

I'm sure pro-lifers don't give you the right to grieve for the baby you chose not to bring into the world (another euphemism, although avoiding the word "abortion'' doesn't take any sting out of the decision to have one). Only now do I understand how entirely personal the decision to terminate a pregnancy is and how wrong it feels to bring someone else's morality into the discussion.

I was lucky. When I walked into the hospital, no one knew why, or cared. The nurses were kind and the doctor held my hand as the anesthesia took over.

As for that baby that will never be, I will remember him always. But I'm quite certain that I made the right choice for the three of us.

Maria Eftimiades is a national correspondent for People magazine. Comments: health@washpost.com.

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