Monday, January 28, 2008

Living Coffins

Apologies for the lateness of this post, but I've had a slight crisis around here. Owning a home is like burning money sometimes. But I digress...

Today is Blogging for Choice Day in Canada. Yes we're using the A-word today people. Antonia Zerbisias started it in honour of the 20th Aniversary of R.v.Morgentaler. I've always admired Dr.Morgentaler because he truly was willing to risk jail to protect a woman's right to choose, and how many doctors do you know honour a woman's medical wishes to that extent?

Not many, in my experience.

Now, technically this case was the first and most historic....but the case that came just a short while later, Tremblay v. Daigle was a hundred times more important IMO. You see, the Morgentaler case made it clear that the government could not interfere with decisions between a woman and her Doctor. This resembled the mushy Roe v. Wade in the US and as such is a decision more easily overturned. Sort of like when SCOTUS screwed up royally recently.

Daigle v. Tremblay on the other hand, was definitive. A fetus is not a life in Canada until it is born live, and the sole person who may decide it's fate is the woman who is pregnant and best able to make that decision. Chantal Daigle for those of you who have never heard of the case, was a woman who tried to get an abortion after her boyfriend beat and abused her. (Most women who are abused by spouses are beaten for the first time while pregnant.)

She knew that if she had the child, it would never stop. Wife-beaters don't do it just once and repent. Is she ran, he would find her, stalk her, and eventually kill her. If he couldn't find her, he would sue for visitation and custody, and then, as now, a man guilty of spousal abuse is not considered to be bad parenting material. You know, until after he beats the child a few times. Sometimes he kills the kid before authorities are willing to step in.

After all, they have to be sure he really is a violent person before they save the kid. (I guess the bruises and broken bones on the woman don't count as evidence for that----eyeroll.) The solution of locking him up for life, well, I'd vote for it in a second, but since convicting a man of beating or killing a woman is unheard of in this country, or just about any other country on the planet---fat chance of getting a sentence longer than pre-trial custody.

You can read the whole story on the link above, but in the end, the Court closed off any avenues for a future abortion law. Most Canadians are quite content with that since they assume that most abortions are first trimester, and 90% of them are. A few go over that limit to the second trimester, women like Ms.Daigle who are beaten and abused but can't get one before then.

And then there's the women like me, the Bitches with the scarlet A on our chest. The ones no member of the public ever wants to discuss, the women who get a fatal or severely disabling prenatal diagnosis and make the hard decision to end the pregnancy of a very much wanted and loved child. We make that decision for the same reason that people decide to stop life support on the elderly, on the fatally ill, on those suffering in agony. Doctors like to pretend that they can save everyone, but sadly, they have limits too. The Catholic Church even recognizes this and allows live born people to decline extraordinary medical measures and simply die in peace, without tubes and machines in every orifice of their body.

But for some odd reason, this kindness and logical acceptance of a dignified death all stops at the door to the womb. Women like me are supposed to become living coffins waiting for the moment when the wrecked and barely functioning hearts of our babies stop. We are supposed to risk dying from preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome to birth dying micropreemies. We are supposed to risk our future fertility and our future children's lives to give birth to chromosomally damaged ones who be stillborn or die shortly after birth.

I've always said that the only thing worse than having a dead baby is not knowing you have a dead baby. Well, even worse---knowing you have a dying child in your uterus and being forced to sit in limbo wondering which day, which hour, which moment the death knell will sound. The psychological torture of that is incomprehensible.

And what about the children with serious birth defects who might make it, who might live, who might have a chance if we expend every ounce of our energy and time and money on them? Well, we have a universal hospital care in this country. But we don't have income replacement insurance, or daycare coverage for the pre-existing kids. And to paraphrase one doctor in Walker's story, "We spend a million dollars saving these babies, and then we abandon them and their families."

There is little or no social service supports for the parents of the seriously disabled in Canada. Compared to someone uninsured in the US, perhaps we have a better deal, but quite honestly, not by much. Home care is a joke, OT, PT, travel to appointments, nursing, psychologist coverage, special schools, are only basically covered, even for those of us who live in Toronto and have the access to the best care. And socially? Parents of highly disabled children live very lonely lives, society pretending they put them on a pedestal, but practically speaking, treating them like pariahs.

I'm well-off these days, a fact I'm grateful for every single second I breathe. I'm articulate, well-connected, and smart enough to research what I'd need to know. I have a husband who is supportive and kind and am surrounded by a wonderful community of friends and family, but even I'm not sure I could make it through the 24/7 rollercoaster of raising a severely disabled kid. Could a single mother? A couple living on miminum wage? An immigrant family without much english? A rural family who have to drive 6 hours each way to Toronto for check-ups with special clinics?

If it makes me scared, I can't imagine trying to walk a mile in their shoes.

So, our choice is a sad one at best. Society judges us, no one ever hears our side, and the medical profession tries to help us with the only tool they have.

I pray they always can.


  1. THIS is the kind of man who tries to force his girlfriend to carry his baby.
    The Ontario Court of Appeal just overturned his conviction related to the breach described in this article. He could be out soon.

  2. The world needs more people who are willing to tell their stories. Bless you.

  3. This piece is so well written. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that until I was in high-school, women didn't have the option to end a pregnancy, unless they went the back room route.

    I have been the woman with the dying child inside and it was one of the most psychologically and physically painful times of my life.

    Great post!

  4. Great post Aurelia.
    As we have discussed, access here even with our large teaching hospital network is a problem if you have a late term diagnosis. Why the hell should a woman in my situation have to go to the US?

  5. Well said. Thank you for the great post.

  6. Thanks. You said it better than I ever could right now. Thanks for speaking up for the silenced.

  7. What a beautiful post. I really like your use of the term "living coffins" for women in the most tragic of situations.

    In the US, things are much worse around abortion than in Canada - at least from what I pick up on CBC news from time to time. There are more and more places where a late term abortion - no matter the reason - will not happen because of stupid legislation.

    Awareness of stories like yours is so important to keep abortion available to women in the entire western world.

  8. This must've been hard to write. Thank you for putting your heart on the line.

    As far as living south of you... we better not get another Republican President is all I have to say about it.

  9. Aurelia, all I can say is AMEN. Amen. I'm so pissed I missed blog for choice day, but glad you have one because mine would've sounded pretty much just like this. To think I could carry a child and not have ANY WAY of finding out if that child would live or die until somewhere around birth? I'm sorry, but termination isn't just the logical thing to do in that case, it's what you do as a mother who doesn't want to see a child suffer. It's compassionate. It's the RIGHT thing. And it sucks that we have to fight to treat our children like we would want to treat ourselves.

    Keep up the good fight!

  10. Right there with you on all of this. Great post.

  11. Well written. My baby had a lethal anomoly and there was just no way I could have stayed sane and gone to term, knowing my poor child had no functioning brain tissue and that I was at risk of several serious complications. It is an awful choice to make, but one that I am very glad I have to opportunity to, if that makes sense.


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