This past Tuesday I heard a story on NPR which made my stomach turn. This post will have no pictures, and trust me, you wouldn’t want it to.
I found it ironic that the story aired the week after the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to fine broadcasters for the use of vulgar language and the week before we celebrate Mother’s Day. In what seemed to me a brazen assault to both of these things, Terry Gross interviewed a woman named Ayelet Waldman concerning her memoir titled “Bad Mother.” What follows is a partial transcript, and if you’re easily repulsed, I’m warning you now to not go any further.
Waldman: So for women of my mother’s generation, who struggled so hard to get the right to abortion, what they needed to do in order to achieve that right and to maintain it was to describe what they were doing in a certain way. So when they were describing the process of having an abortion, language was really important to them. So they never called the baby a “baby,” it was the “fetus,” it was the “embryo” at best, it was – and this is a quote – a “clump of cells.” But to women like me who’ve grown up in the age of the ultrasound, we now have three-dimensional ultrasounds of our babies from the very beginning, you know, we can actually see their features, recognizable features, and we can see them suck their thumbs. And for us, abortion, even though I think I’m absolutely as committed to choice as my mother is, the idea of abortion and the fact of abortion has become something very different. I think women of my mother’s generation are very uncomfortable with how we talk about abortion.
Gross: If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk with you about a very difficult decision you had to make. When you were about 35, you were carrying your third child, and because of your age and the risks associated with pregnancy at that age, you decided to have amniocentesis. Tell us what you found.
Waldman: I had just turned 35, so it was sort of up in the air whether I would have an amnio at all, but I am by nature very pessimistic, so I decided that I had to have one. And the ultrasound at the amnio was very very normal, we saw the baby.. I remember they gave us the photograph of his feet, just sort of almost like footprints. And then we came home, and about ten days later we were leaving for a family vacation in Hawaii, and I decided I was just going to call my obstetrician to find out, you know, to just kind of get the “clear”, the go-ahead, the clean bill of health, just so I wouldn’t have any worries while we were, you know, floating in the ocean. And I called her, and — this experience is so clear in my mind in a strange way — I called her, and she said, “are you sitting down?” And at that moment, I felt myself lift out of my body; it almost felt like I was watching what was happening in this very detached way, almost like hovering up on the ceiling. I remember having this thought: “oh wow, when something terrible happens, people really do fall on the ground and scream.” And I had fallen on the ground and was just holding the phone and just wailing. And my husband, Michael, took the phone out of my hand and talked to the doctor. And then we embarked on these three days of just… just misery. We went to the genetic counselor and we found out the baby had a genetic abnormality that’s rare, it’s a trisomy, a triple chromosome, but not trisomy-21 which is Down Syndrome which is the most common trisomy, but a different one. And a much more ambiguous defect. On the one hand, there was a decent chance that the baby would have this genetic defect and be unaffected, that you would never know, that he would lead a very normal life and you wouldn’t be able to tell. On the other hand there were chances that he would be mentally retarded or be predisposed to cancers of the kidney, things like that.
Gross: So, when you have amniocentesis, you usually have it with the idea that if it comes back bad news, you’d have an abortion, otherwise why bother to go through with the amnio, in a way? Maybe that’s faulty logic?
Waldman: Absolutely. No, I think that’s definitely true.
Gross: But you were slapped in the face by this really bad news, was the decision obvious to you about what to do?
Waldman: You know, in one way the decision was really really obvious to me. I mean, I knew as soon as I first heard the news what I wanted to do. What I was going to do. But the decision was- you know, there’s your decision and then your decision as a couple, as a family. And my husband is as much of an optimist as I am a pessimist, and he heard the statistics and thought, “all right, we’re good; we’re safe.” And so we spent three days kind of trying to come together and as a couple—we weren’t arguing at all, it was almost the most intimate experience of our marriage—but, at the end, we were sitting at the kitchen table and crying—we’d been crying pretty much for three days, and he said, “you know, if you’re wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with the baby and we have this abortion, I will always love you, and our relationship will continue unaffected. But if I’m wrong, and we have this baby, and he is, in fact, mentally retarded, I don’t know if we ‘make it.'” And it was this, you know, moment of terrible honesty—we both just cried and the next day we went and we had–these abortions take a number of days—and we had sort of the first step of a two-day abortion.
Gross: Can I stop you…when you’re husband said, “if I’m wrong, and the baby is born mentally retarded, I don’t know if we make it”… what did that mean?
Waldman: I think he meant two things. I think he meant that our family would be forever changed, but I think he also meant—and I know he meant this—I think he meant that he didn’t know if I would be able to forgive him. You know, in a way that was a very harsh thing to say, but he was right… I mean, he knows me better than anybody else in the world knows me, and at that moment, he was saying, “I know you, and I love you, and I want to make sure this doesn’t happen” It took–you know I had to look in the mirror in that moment and look at the ugliest side of myself, too, and say, “you know, you’re right.” It’s not like I wouldn’t love him, but I don’t know if I would have forgiven him.
Gross: So you decided to have an abortion. You were four months pregnant. This was past the first trimester, what were your options?
Waldman: [very dispassionately] Well, we had a D&E, which is a dilation and extraction, which is, you know… and here’s another point where my mother and I will differ completely on this. When my mother describes a procedure, she doesn’t describe the details, and for me, I needed to know exactly what was happening. In this procedure, your cervix is dilated, and the baby is extracted, and the baby is extracted, essentially, in pieces from your uterus. It’s horrible—you know, the photographs you see, you know, that the Right to Lifers show, they’re real photographs, that’s really what it was like. And I say this because I can’t support a woman’s right to choose unless I’m willing to look at the darkest side of it. And that was the darkest side of it. So, one of the things I asked the incredibly generous, gentle doctor who did the abortion was if he would make sure that the baby didn’t [voice starting to choke with emotion] feel anything. That was really important to me, that he be dead, essentially, before that grim process took place. And the doctor promised me that he would give an injection that would make that happen.
The interview went on for another twenty minutes or so, and you can hear the whole thing on the NPR website if you can stomach it. It turns out this was Ayelet’s second abortion (her first was as a teenager) and then after she’s 35 she psychotically goes on to have two more children even as she continues to write about how she loathes being a mother.
On the NPR website, the comments are mixed. Many of those which are most frequently “recommended” by other readers come to Waldman’s defense and call her decision a “brave” one. This is not humanity’s finest hour.
I’ve lost quite a bit of sleep the past couple nights, cried a couple times, and thought especially about Dora for some reason. I’m wondering if somewhere in the baby garden there is a friend of hers named Rocketship Waldman, and hoping that this precious little soul is never told the truth about his parents.
It’s been hard to know what to say, and I spent two days quietly reflecting on this interview. Finally this morning I posted my thoughts over two comments:
This was by far the most disturbing and reprehensible thing I’ve ever heard on radio. I should have known better than to keep the radio on, but at first I was intrigued by how Waldman recognized that ultrasound technology had shifted the terminology of abortion. She seemed to understand what many in the pro-choice movement understandably avoid: that we are talking about killing babies.
The most unsettling part of the interview, apart from the graphic description of a D&C (sic) procedure, was how Waldman recounted how she and her husband arrived at the decision to murder their baby. As I understood it, the genetic condition detected by the amnio had a greater chance of no measurable abnormality than any degree of mental retardation. As she debates her husband over whether or not to keep the baby, he finally caves and tells her that he’d love her even if she aborted the baby, but if they kept the baby, and the baby had special needs, he wasn’t sure they would make it. In other words, he knew how selfish she was, and hearing him express that to her she described as a special moment in their marriage. The depravity & lack of courage on the part of both parents made my heart feel sick.
As a father of a severely mentally disabled son, I can relate to the shock and fear of finding out everything might not be “OK.” Someone recently commented on www.sweetbabyjames.info that my wife and I were “lucky to have a wonderful boy like James” and that James was just as lucky to have us. The wording seemed strange to me, because during his 482 days on earth, we would not have probably used the word “lucky” in the daily trials we faced. But as so many other special needs parents will attest, we were given a special measure of grace, and I now see I was lucky, indeed, to be his dad.
The title of Mrs. Waldman’s memoir shows that she writes as one who is accustomed to the judgment of others. I don’t mean to judge. But I do agree with the many other commenters who have observed that her own impairment is more severe than any her aborted baby might have had. Mrs. Waldman, I hope you find help, that in your journey you receive mercy and find grace from Jesus in your time of need.
I hope the tenor of that was not too harsh. I want to assure everyone who may have just found us from the NPR site or Cakewrecks that the House of Gjertsen is a place where all are welcome. Not all posts will be me getting fired up about social justice. I do feel passionately about this one. But even more passionately, I believe a fountain of grace in Jesus Christ can rescue and restore all of humanity, even in its ugliest and darkest hour.