Most nights, cable news is just white noise in my bedroom to mask the creaks and groans of an aging house and the loneliness of an empty nest. But that night the news was of a legal stand-off between a pregnant woman, Kate Cox, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the pundits struggling to explain the court decisions ricocheting from judge to judge, abortion allowed, abortion denied. I layered the woman’s story on top of my story, jumbling her facts and my facts as I slept and woke in snippets. I woke up for good at 4:19 a.m. It was Dec. 11, the date that my daughter died.
Like the tiny baby in Cox’s womb, she had trisomy 18, a rare and almost always fatal genetic mutation that isn’t discovered until months into a pregnancy, long after the ever-shrinking window for an abortion in America. That left me, 27 years ago, and Cox, that night, carrying babies who would die before they had a chance to live. Struggling to make the best decisions for our families, wrestling with a devastating reality.
Our stories and our decisions were different, but our outcomes were the same. We would not be taking our daughters home.
I understand the challenges of a difficult pregnancy. My doctors first broached the possibility of a “selective reduction” — a detached trope for an abortion — within days of finding out that I was pregnant with triplets. I was already of “advanced maternal age,” a demoralizing designation in my medical chart that, with each passing day, further jeopardized the chances of me conceiving again if I miscarried. My husband and I faced a decision that had consequences for my health, for the health of our unborn children, for our toddler, and for our family’s future.
We decided. We began to look for a house with lots of bedrooms and a car that had room for four car seats.
At five months, I found out that one of our babies had telltale signs of a chromosome abnormality, physical details that eluded me on grainy ultrasound images but were signal flares to my doctor. A week later — and then 10 days after that — they tried to collect a few drops of the precious fluid that cushioned my baby. The girls were floating on top of each other. It was impossible to extract the amniotic fluid of one baby without piercing the sac of another. It was dangerous to try.
We waited; the babies grew; we waited some more. Did we risk an amniocentesis? Would knowing what was wrong allow us to save her? If we did nothing, would her problems threaten the survival of her sisters? These were questions without answers. We had to decide. Time was running out. I remained statue-still as they threaded the gleaming needle for the amniocentesis into my side, snaking between my babies, finding purchase at last.
At almost six months, we found out that one of our babies had an extra 18th chromosome, a condition that was “incompatible with life” — devastating words, nearly impossible to absorb. How could anything be incompatible with the beating heart inside me? We named her Mary, this daughter of ours who might never hear her own name.
My doctor broached the possibility of a late-term abortion. We had to weigh the risk of aborting Mary against the risk of a total miscarriage. My husband and I asked ourselves more questions without answers. What if we aborted her and lost all of the babies? What if we chose not to abort and she died in utero, triggering a miscarriage? What if I died during what was certain to be a risky surgery? What if I died trying to carry three babies to term? How could we risk leaving our children motherless? How could we not?
Every decision had consequences for every member of our family.
Again, we decided. Several weeks later, all three of our babies were born alive, but Mary lived for only eight days. We picked up her two sisters from the hospital, taking them home for the first time, on our way home from the cemetery.
I am a woman who cherishes life, most especially the lives of my children, but who also believes that women deserve agency over their bodies and their futures. Like the woman in Texas, I know what it’s like to be pregnant with a child who is destined to suffer, expected to die; to be running out of time and options.
And I also know, unequivocally, that the decision whether to have an abortion is of enormous consequence, belonging singularly to the people involved. Certainly not to a politician, legislator, judge, or activist.
I am grateful that, in 1996, my husband and I had the right to make that decision without interference from the state. I am completely demoralized that, in 2023, a family in Texas did not have that same right. And I am heartbroken to imagine that Mary’s three sisters will have fewer rights if they become pregnant today than I had almost three decades ago.
Jennifer Belt DuChene lives in Hampton, N.H.