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How do you console a friend who has just lost her baby? This is the question I kept asking myself as I looked into the distraught face of my close friend. With no idea what to say, I simply held her as she cried and listened as she vented her grief and frustration. I made cups of tea and cried alongside her over what should have been.
My friend had already endured years of miscarriage and fertility problems, so discovering she was pregnant with a much-wanted baby was a dream come true. Finally the hoping, praying and steadfast resolve had paid off.
While she could barely contain her excitement, she was understandably nervous. In her early 40s, the risk for both her and the baby was quite high compared to those for a younger woman, as her obstetrician explained. Understandably, those first 12 weeks were an agonisingly long and tense wait for her and her husband. Only family and a few friends knew of their news, but as the pregnancy progressed her obvious morning sickness and a budding belly made hiding their secret more difficult. Slowly friends and acquaintances, particularly mothers, began asking pertinent questions.
As the 12-week mark loomed and her scan was imminent we let ourselves believe the happiness they so richly deserved was finally here. When the initial scans appeared normal we were relieved. With the necessary blood tests completed we waited for the results to be analysed and then her scheduled appointment with the obstetrician.
It was at this point their joy gave way to desperate heartbreak. The combination of blood work and scans revealed serious health issues for their baby. Invasive tests were scheduled. My friend told me the fear she felt was like a tidal wave repeatedly washing over her, leaving her in a permanent exhausted and broken state. She describes this time as the most emotionally painful of her life.
I remember being anxious throughout both my pregnancies. Most pregnant women worry about the health of their unborn child. For some it's fleeting, for others it can be all consuming. To watch my friend experience the actual pain that so many of us dread was shattering.
With pregnancy comes immense responsibility and a multitude of decisions. My friend should have been choosing hospitals, baby names and prams. Instead she and her husband were forced to make a heartbreaking choice: continue with a high-risk pregnancy with hardly any chance of a positive outcome, or reluctantly terminate the pregnancy. The happiest time of their lives had become a living nightmare. And as she was now more than two weeks into her second trimester she had limited time in which to make a decision. So, with the support and love of her husband and the guidance and expertise of her obstetrician, they ended her pregnancy.
Afterwards, people were curious, of course. It's human nature for people to wonder, to ask questions, to be concerned. At first she was aloof, non-committal. She admitted she'd lost her baby but said little else.
She says now that a part of her wishes she'd never spoken of it in the first place, to spare her the pain of having to then reveal that she'd lost the much-longed-for baby.
The more people probed, mostly out of genuine concern, rather than morbid curiosity, the more she felt compelled to be honest.
While many people were understanding and supportive, what she wasn't ready for was the disapproving stares and the shocked whispers, when she explained that she and her husband, had chosen not to continue with the pregnancy. Despite the medical certainty that her child would be facing catastrophic health issues, she felt harshly judged, which compounded her horrible experience.
But ultimately it was my friend's choice. If she'd lived in the US state of Arkansas, she may not have had that right.
Having recently approved the banning of abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, only making exception for rape, incest or to save a mother's life, Arkansas' Republican-controlled State House is currently considering a "foetal heartbeat" bill, which would see abortion made illegal when a foetal heartbeat is detected. This can be as early as five weeks into a pregnancy and the bill does not include an exemption for any lethal foetal disorders.
Abortion has always been a contentious issue. Few subjects ignite such a high and intense level of emotional debate. Women have been fighting the battle to have control over their own bodies for centuries and it's clear the fight isn't over.
My friend made a choice. A heartbreaking, life-altering choice. She didn't make it on a whim. She didn't suddenly decide motherhood wasn't for her. She sat down with her husband and carefully considered all the options available to them as a united couple. She gathered expert opinion, she searched the depths of her soul and did what she felt she could reasonably cope with, and she did what she believed was right.
Despite the opinion of others, this was her choice to make and I respect her decision. If she had decided otherwise, I would have supported her every step of the way. That's what friends are for.