An excerpt from The Radical Housewife, chapter one:
Our obstetrician explained that a first appointment focused more upon completing paperwork than much else; as proof, she handed my husband a stack of insurance forms and an official Fairview Hospitals publication entitled Your Pregnancy and You. On the cover, a hollow-cheeked supermodel pressed her lips to the downy head of a doughy-looking newborn. “But since someone left the mobile unit in here already,” she said, nodding towards a contraption in the corner of the room, “we could take a peek, if you like.” I assented eagerly. Dr. Farber switched on the machine, a combination of wheels, PCU, keyboard and monitor that resembled a plastic version of the robot Clonky from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
By the time Dr. Farber finished rattling off the list of things I could no longer enjoy (alcohol, blue cheese, ibuprofen, regular bowel movements), her hands had warmed up the tube of K-9 jelly to her liking. “Shirt up, now,” she ordered, and I obeyed. She squeezed a great dollop of lube on my stomach, then squashed down my innards with the sound wave wand as she watched snow undulate on the video monitor. “Ah,” she said, satisfied. “Here we are.”
Here, indeed: on the screen was the first picture of the baby I’d carry until the following February. It looked more like a salamander than a human child, with a fifth nub that was definitely a residual tail. The tiny creature writhed in its liquid home, thrashing about eagerly as the doctor pressed in firmly for a clearer picture. Somewhere below the bulbous, bean-shaped head we saw a soft flutter, like the quiet gray wings of a miniature moth. It was a heart. This thing was alive.
Not far from the Minneapolis office where we sat, on a grimy east-west throughway called Lake Street, are billboards featuring outsized photographs of babies. Some of these children open their mouths into gummy smiles; some gaze heavenward, their eyes round and damp with guileless gratitude. These billboards sell neither diapers nor formula; instead, they provide factual information. They announce that an embryo, from whence each of these babies came, has a beating heart 21 days from its conception.
It’s a fact. I can’t dispute it. Yet when my car rumbles down Lake Street, I shake my fist at those babies. I curse their sponsors, the Pro-Life Across America campaign, for reducing the explosive emotions behind a wrenching issue to the simplicity of a baby’s smile. On the far west end of Lake Street, closer to the gentility of Lake Calhoun than the chaotic halal markets of Little Mogadishu, stand clusters of bundled-up white women and men, their gloved hands clutching trifold pamphlets adorned with babies, but these babies do not smile; instead, they glower “j’accuse!” from faces streaked with blood, a dire warning to all who might enter the local Planned Parenthood.
In the United States of America, it is legal to terminate a pregnancy at nine weeks, to take action to stop the fluttering heart of this salamander-like creature I watched on the ultrasound screen. Medical terminology labels it embryo or a fetus. On the billboards, it’s a baby. There’s no room for that slithery, amoebic time in between that technology made visible to me, my husband, and our doctor .
In Exam Room 12, in a flickering series of black and white images, I too saw a baby—my baby. My husband squeezed my hand. Dr. Farber printed out a picture that I showed to my mother, my father, my in-laws. Still, the sight of this heart did nothing to change my lifelong support for safe, legal abortion, available on demand and without apology.
The abortion debate, like any other, pits chilly science against hotly contested theories, many so deeply felt as to attain near-factual status. Pro-Life Across America wishes us to understand the fact of a baby’s heartbeat proves the theory that nine-week-old wrigglers are conscious and sentient, however diminutive. Certain factions go back even farther, claiming that the fusion of two cells, spermatozoa and egg, require as much protection as a smiling baby.
I believe our fascination with where life begins has its source in our terror of how it ends. No person owns a memory of the dawning of her consciousness. To define the self, then, we must work backwards from life’s second great mystery: death. Our collective dread may have inspired the idea of an immutable soul that has the power to transcend that which we fear most. An unchanging soul at death, therefore, requires a unique soul at birth—or, as some believe, much earlier.
I will never forget the sight of this tiny heart’s flutter, yet I wonder: was there a consciousness swirling about that pinpoint-sized brain? Were there thoughts? Emotions? Scientists know that farm experience emotions, yet millions are slaughtered daily to satisfy our hunger for their meat. I could not rationally argue that a nine-week-old blob in my belly contained the mental powers of the average full-grown pig, so what makes the blob a more valuable object? But does it have a soul? This agnostic vegetarian dares not guess.
What I do know is when my infant son came home from Fairview Riverside Hospital, he did not smile. His wet mouth twisted as he screamed without regard for the poor, anxious heart of his mother. No billboards announced to me Hang in There, Mom, It’ll Get Better!, and nobody stood on the sand-crusted snow bank outside my house in Sorel boots, much less rosaries, handing me pamphlets of support. A heart can set things in motion, but cannot finish the job.
Lacking the framework of faith, I seek not perfection, but balance. When I looked my blob, I understood him as the culmination of countless events and choices, the sum total of my years on the earth. My years, and no one else’s. I also saw a creature that drew sustenance from me and me alone. He lived on my blood, my nutrients, my oxygen, my energy: all of it mine. If I died, so did he. His tail could not wiggle outside the safety of my womb.
I gave him life. I also gave him meaning.
When does life begin? I suspect it is a process requiring a complex engagement between both the being and its world, much like a story requires a reader. Otherwise, the words remain only a series of unintelligible scratches on a page. If we accept that a story has different meaning for a different reader, we may understand that no person will approach either their soul, or a zygote’s, identically.