By Tierney Temple Fairchild
Saturday, November 1, 2008
I had a choice, and I chose life. Does that make me pro-choice or pro-life? Our political parties tell us we can't have it both ways. If I am pro-choice, then I must be for abortion. If I am pro-life, I may be lauded for a heroic choice when in fact none existed.
Ten years ago, I made a decision to continue a pregnancy that would lead to a child born with Down syndrome. My husband and I spent two exhausting weeks poring over medical prognoses and developmental research, worrying about inevitable discrimination and divisive family expectations and listening to sometimes bias-laden advice. We filtered all this through candid discussions of whether individually and as a couple we could endure this new life God planned for us.
We chose Naia, our first child, after painfully honest exchanges and much prayer. Making that choice led us to grapple with the essence of what we believed, giving us strength to face new challenges. Without that choice, we might not have been as prepared as we were to bring Naia into our lives, to begin intervention when she was 3 weeks old, to work with therapists and educators to help Naia exceed expectations and thrive.
We opened our lives to the media four days after our decision, convinced that our experiences might help others be more prepared. Our story was told in the Boston Globe; on NBC's "Dateline"; and on CNN, ABC and NPR; and was the subject of the book "Choosing Naia." We (I especially) were painted with a heroic brush for bucking the trend of what 90 percent of others in our position do.
This particular issue of choice came up this year when it became known that our Republican vice presidential nominee chose to continue a pregnancy that led to a son being born with Down syndrome. Ten years after my own choice, I find it disheartening that termination statistics may remain the same, that so many potential mothers choose not to follow Sarah Palin's example. Yet part of me is not surprised, not when my daughter's Scholastic dictionary defines Down syndrome as "A genetic condition in which a person is born mentally retarded and with eyes that appear to slant, a broad skull and shorter fingers than normal." That doesn't describe Naia or anyone like her. Instead, it conjures up stereotypes and probably creates anxiety for children reading it.
In choosing Naia, I turned my fears into focus, learning how to answer expressions of sympathy and convert my longing for a typical baby into determination to give my baby the best our circumstances could offer. By the time Naia was born by emergency Caesarean section, I was so prepared that I caught signs of her distress inside me and called my doctor. During months of uncertainty about Naia's survival, my husband and I continued to confront our fears, aware that, as one sermon foretold, "The miracle you ask for may not be the miracle you receive."
In this economy, I must reflect on the circumstances that allowed us to make ordinary what some view as heroic. We were fortunate to have a health-care plan that covered Naia's medical bills. We were fortunate to have enough money to cover three weekly therapies carrying co-pays of $10 each. We were fortunate to have the educational backgrounds necessary to read research and advocate inclusive education for Naia. We were fortunate to have the lessons of discrimination and perseverance from another choice some also label heroic, interracial marriage.
Now, I look at my budding 10-year-old, and I see her beauty, poise and humor, not her disability. What I have learned is that we are not exceptionally burdened. Naia has some novel developmental and social challenges. Nevertheless, we and others are often struck by how typical she is, integrating with peers, reading on grade level and riding horses. All choices may not have the same result, but it is crucial that we all have the opportunity to make our own decisions.
If it's our choices that define us, choices that allow us to face down fears and lead us to our greatest achievements, what might come from taking those choices away?
Not long after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia's governor publicly apologized for the commonwealth's role in forced sterilization of mentally handicapped people, a law not repealed in Virginia until 1974. When I see this historical marker, not a mile from my house, I am reminded that the Supreme Court's 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell to uphold those sterilizations is a tragic example of what can happen when government legislates reproductive rights.
One day, I expect, we'll talk to our children about choosing Naia. As a mother, I will explain why I exercised my right to choose. Will I relive for them the fears, however unfounded, that preyed on my conscience? Will I tell them of the relative who urged me to terminate lest I burden taxpayers with the costs of Naia's welfare? Right now, I am certain only that I will tell them that with choice comes responsibility.
There will always be some who see choice as condoning abortion and those for whom there is no choice. Rather than view choice as a proxy for abortion, I see choice as defining opportunity.
I am a woman who benefits from the many who went before me and opened doors and minds; a woman who thinks, prays, mothers, works and writes, trying to live out our society's most prized democratic ideals. I chose life, but I am thankful I had the choice.
Tierney Temple Fairchild is an education and management consultant in Charlottesville.