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The lost child

I walked onto the third floor, the labor and delivery floor, just after 6 a.m. I remember thinking how quiet the hallways were at that time of the morning, and how even the sound of my voice at the nurse's desk seemed too loud and conspicuous.

My husband was still at home, taking care of our 19-month-old son. He would be joining me later. I thought surely I was strong enough to check into the hospital alone.

A few minutes later, when a nurse breezed in and saw me sitting on the bed she looked puzzled, her cheery smile wavering. "Who's the patient?" she asked.

"Me," I said, bracing for what I knew would come. I caught her eyes covertly sweeping my four-and-a-half-month-pregnant belly.

I silently prayed she would just go look at my chart. I knew I couldn't answer the unasked question. I knew if I opened my mouth I would start to cry.

When she returned, she obviously had been briefed. She bustled around my room but her voice had been turned down a notch. Someone had put a sign on my door warning visitors away. Apparently the word had been spread. I was there to lose my baby.

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It has been 23 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that abortion was largely a private matter between a doctor and patient. Much of the complexity of this deeply personal issue has since been lost in the thunder over morality and reproductive rights. This year, once again, Congress invites the hue and cry. It is the propriety of second- and third-trimester abortions that now fuels the fight.

I find it nearly impossible to listen now that I am a statistic.

Of the 1.5-million abortions performed in this country each year, an estimated 1 percent are on women more than halfway through their pregnancy. Last year I was one of them.

Perhaps it is true, as some insist, there are women out there who simply decide one day they no longer want to be pregnant; a leading abortion-rights advocate admitted recently that he had understated those numbers so as not to jeopardize sympathies. Still, I find it hard to believe that such casualness is anywhere close to the norm.

If my own views on abortion have been changed by my experience, it is in seeing now how both sides oversimplify their arguments for the convenience of the cause. There is nothing simple about deciding to end the life of an unborn baby you want.

For me it began in November, in the 16th week of my second pregnancy. There had been no sign of trouble but I was scheduled for an amniocentesis because of my "advanced maternal age." I am 39.

During a preliminary ultrasound, one of the technicians found a slight blur on the back of the baby's neck. She grew silent, her face clouded. She summoned the doctor and, for the first time in my life, I began to hyperventilate. I choked out the question: Spina bifida? The doctor said maybe.

Of course, my first thought was divine retribution. I was being punished because I had entertained the thought, during bouts of morning sickness and exhaustion, that I didn't really want another child. But any ambivalence vanished in that moment on the examining table, with my husband crying by my side. I wanted this baby more than anything in the world.

From there, we embarked on a six-week roller coaster of hope and despair. We saw specialists at a rate of two a week. I stopped working. I didn't sleep. There were five ultrasounds in four weeks. I hyperventilated at them all.

We learned that our baby, another boy, did not suffer from spina bifida, a congenital defect where the spine does not close. Instead, he had been diagnosed with a rarer condition called cystic hygroma. A growth on the back of his neck had collected fluid because his lymphatic system failed to form properly in the second month.

We read every obscure medical journal we could find on this mysterious condition. The pictures were hideous. The literature said the fatality rate was 96 percent.

We held on anyway. On a good day I bought teddy bear wallpaper for the nursery. On a bad day I threw out an unopened package of maternity pantyhose. We named our baby Daniel because I needed to reassure myself he was a baby, not a medical condition. He reminded me by starting to kick.

Cystic hygromas, serious on their own, are also usually associated with chromosome abnormalities and severe organ defects. As we waited for the amniocentesis results, we decided if the chromosomes were abnormal we would end the pregnancy. The test came back normal.

At the third ultrasound one of the specialists said she thought the hygroma was shrinking. They do that sometimes. Sometimes they go away entirely, she told us, but we shouldn't get our hopes up. I wrapped myself in my husband's arms and wept. I told him I could hold on if he could. On Thanksgiving, we toasted our family of four.

But then the odds caught up with us. In my 20th week of pregnancy the same specialist said the hygroma was not shrinking after all. She, too, grew silent. Her face also clouded as she summoned another doctor. She said she was having trouble finding all four chambers of the baby's heart. She sent us to a pediatric cardiologist.

For an hour and a half he scanned my belly, barely speaking a word. He said he needed to concentrate as he examined a heart no bigger than a fingernail. Swallowing the panic made my chest hurt. I held my husband's hand. I counted the stuffed animals on a shelf. I tried to think about the errands I needed to do.

The doctor's silence told me what he was going to say. My husband said he knew, too. The cardiologist said one of the chambers was missing _ and that our baby had a large hole in his heart.

Some people might have been able to go on. Our baby was still alive and growing. We will never know what might have been. All we could do was weigh the information we had. The best case scenario we were given was the baby needed at least three immediate surgeries for any hope of survival: two on his heart, and one to repair the damage from the cystic hygroma. That was, if he lived through birth. Or, if he made it to term.

That was the other complication. By Florida law, you can voluntarily terminate a pregnancy only up to the 24th week. Cystic hygromas often worsen over time with serious or fatal complications showing up late in the second or during the third trimester. The only way I could wait and still terminate the pregnancy legally would be if my life was in danger. That seems to be the great caveat in the abortion debate: if the mother's life is in danger. Mine wasn't. There was nothing wrong with me. We were running out of time.

So we decided it was over. It is something you know not in your mind but in your heart. Looking back, I now realize our doctors had already begun gently pointing us in that direction. The cardiologist called us that night to tell us he would have made the same decision. My obstetrician reminded me I had not just my unborn baby to think about, but also our little boy at home.

I checked into the hospital the next week, six days before Christmas.

I used to think I was absolutely sure on which side of the abortion debate I was aligned. Now the only thing I'm sure of is that there are no absolutes.

What I feel most these days is anger at the intractability on both sides. Why are both so afraid to admit the other might have a point? Why is the rhetoric either inflammatory or coldly medical, as if to pick any other words would represent lost ground?

Yes, I am forever thankful for the legal choice to end the life of a baby that I believed had no chance. I believe completely that right should always be there. More than ever I am horrified by the idea that some politician with an agenda could take away such an intensely private decision.

Yet, I no longer can accept it is as simple as a choice I get to make because it is my body. With choice comes responsibility. It was not a non-viable collection of tissue and cells inside of me. There was a little boy there who deserved to be considered.

It took 14 hours for me to give birth. Because I was 21-weeks pregnant, the medical protocol called for labor to be induced so I could deliver the baby stillborn.

It was not the gruesome partial-birth abortion that is so much in the news these days. It was to be a routine vaginal delivery _ four months too soon. I had to sign a form stating that my husband knew what I was doing and approved. I had to sign another promising to make funeral arrangements.

The social workers and nurses had tried to prepare us. They encouraged us to hold the baby after he was born. They said it was important for the grieving process. He weighed just under 1 pound. My husband says he will never forget the first moment he saw him.

That was three months ago. There is a red velvet box tucked in the back of my dresser drawer. It is Daniel's box. Inside is the florist's card that came with the roses my husband sent when he first learned I was pregnant. It also holds the ultrasound pictures and the sympathy cards. There is the tiny knitted hat newborns are given in the hospital and the navigational coordinates where his ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.

There also is an undeveloped roll of film the nurses took in the hospital nursery. They said it was up to us if we wanted to develop the pictures. I don't know if we ever will.

Perhaps there will be those who judge us. Certainly my husband and I have judged ourselves. Still, I'm not sure anyone can fully understand the path to our decision unless they have walked it. They weren't there, in the examining rooms searching each new doctor's face for good news and finding none, or in the hospital when I told my son how sorry I was he would never meet his big brother.

Someday I hope to have another child. It will be our third. Our second was named Danny.

Up next:WEDDINGS

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