Roe vs. Wade changed the lives of countless women. It gave women control over their own bodies as they’d never had before. Birth control pills came into being in the 60s giving those with access to and funds for them more control over their reproductive choices. But the pill was fraught with health issues and was definitely not okay for Catholics.
I remember so well an incident that occurred in the spring of 1974. My primary care doctor, the same doctor who had delivered me, prescribed me the pill for heavy menses. He told me that if the pharmacist questioned me I should tell him the doctor put me on the pill because it was medically necessary. Naively, I didn’t think a thing of it.
At my local, small town pharmacy I was gathering some items while the pharmacist filled the prescription. A booming voice came across the store like a shroud: “Susan, what are you doing with this prescription? You are Catholic!”. I felt instantly cloaked in shame. Then I remembered Dr. Berlad’s words. Meekly, I repeated them and the pills were dispensed.
Many years later, after an ectopic pregnancy and several miscarriages, I became pregnant. It was a surprise, and I was thrilled. My partner was happy, my dad was ecstatic.
At the 16-week mark I began to stain and cramp. The tentacles of fear gripped my heart, making it hard to breathe. At a doctor’s visit, blood work and an ultrasound showed that the baby had stopped growing and my pregnancy hormones were not rising. My baby’s heart was still beating as she lay within me, dying. I was told, by a male doctor, that my only option was to have blood work done every two days, an ultrasound every four days, and as soon as Molly (my precious daughter’s name) died, they would take me into the hospital and do a D&C.
I vaguely remember leaving his office, physically moving through my life, my work, for those two weeks that followed. But I don’t remember anything else until the day the doctor called to say my baby girl was dead, and I should come right to the hospital for surgery. In hindsight, I know that my mind must have shut down to protect my heart and my spirit from such piercing pain.
Time marched forward, as did I. I can’t recall much. Back in the 1980s little support was available. No one talked about miscarriage. My Molly lived and died within me. I carried her tenderly and still do to this day. My daughter would be 30 this year.
Two years later, I would be pregnant again. Cruelly, the same scenario began again, this time at the 18-week mark. Only this time, I had a woman doctor. She called me to her office and gently told me what was happening. I crumbled into myself, weeping. She touched my shoulder and said, “You have a choice. You could go to Planned Parenthood”. As I raised my tear-filled eyes to her I knew that I would go. I knew in my bones that I couldn’t, wouldn’t go through this horrific realm of hell again.
I do remember going home, laying on my bed, cradling my belly and crying, singing, talking to my son, Patrick. I hoped that as he was fading from life he could feel, sense my boundless love. I went to Planned Parenthood. The worst part was walking through the gauntlet of hate-filled, ignorant, assaultive protestors shoving photos of dead babies into my face. I kept thinking, oh, how much you don’t know. But once inside the women who worked there were compassionate, strong and skilled. My son would turn 28 this year.
I would not have had that choice without Roe v. Wade. It was the last time I would become pregnant. I am forever grateful to have had the choice for a safe, legal abortion. And I know I was able to save my son from a protracted, painful death. I can only hope my daughter felt my love through her pain.
I’ve heard all of the arguments from anti-choice advocates. They have the right to their beliefs. I will continue, until I no longer can, to ensure that women have access to reproductive choices. Reproductive choice –control over our bodies and our minds –is the cornerstone of all of our freedoms.
And I will continue to offer support for grieving parents who, by horrific chance or heart-wrenching choice, don’t get to see their babies flourish and grow.
Susan Desmarais is a counselor who specializes in working with women and families who experience miscarriage, neonatal death, medical termination of pregnancy, and stillbirth.