My daughter, Sidonie, is now two. If circumstances were different, this would probably be the time that my partner, Mickael, and I might be thinking of giving her a little brother or sister. Sadly, that is not going to happen, and Sidonie is destined to be an only child. While there are several reasons for this, not least my age (I am 46), by far the biggest reason is an apparently illogical one: Sidonie may be an only child, but she is not my firstborn.
Almost five years ago, my first baby, Elodie, died at 24-weeks gestation. She was tiny, but perfect, with the same Cupid’s bow lips as Sidonie, the same dark hair. Today, the only evidence I have of her existence is a box containing her hand- and footprints, a little teddy bear and a few photographs taken shortly after her birth. They are not the sort of photos you would display on your mantelpiece.
How, when she asks – and she will, one day – can I tell Sidonie that she had a sister who she’ll never meet, a ghost sibling who exists only in a future that will never take place? How can I tell her that her big sister died because I chose to end her life?
It was September 2012 and I was almost six months pregnant, when I discovered, after many invasive tests, that the longed-for baby I was carrying had a chromosome disorder called Trisomy 2 mosaicism (an extra copy of chromosome two). This condition is so rare that there are only five children known to be living with it in the world, and only seven live births recorded in medical literature. Each of the surviving children has severe, but different, disabilities. I was informed that if I continued with my pregnancy, it was very likely that my daughter would die, if not before birth then shortly afterwards. Any life that she did endure would certainly be one of suffering.
What I experienced – a termination for medical reasons defined in law as a Ground E – seems to me to be a kind of halfway house between abortion and stillbirth
And so, after many long discussions with Mickael, doctors, geneticists, family and friends, I made the only decision I felt I could make, in the circumstances: I chose to end my pregnancy. On 24 September, two days before I reached 24-weeks gestation, Elodie’s heart was stopped by a lethal injection of potassium chloride. Horribly, they call this feticide. It’s done to prevent the distressing possibility of the baby being born alive. I carried her around, dead, inside me for two days before, on 26 September, following a traumatic and painful labour, I gave birth to her. After a funeral at Golders Green Crematorium, we scattered her ashes on our favourite isolated beach near Nice, in France, where she was conceived.
The psychological and emotional impact of taking the decision to end the life of your much-wanted child is not easily explainable. There is a complex tangle of grief and guilt, the rational wrestling endlessly with the emotional. It’s a decision made against every instinct in your body – against the actual body that is kicking inside you – and one that seemingly goes against nature. Whenever I hear that someone has murdered a child, my reaction – like everyone else’s – is horror. But then a dreadful thought hits me: I did just that, I killed my own child. And, while I know it’s not ethically or morally the same, that I am not a murderer, sometimes it feels like it is. When an emotion is so raw, so deep, your brain cannot always process it in a rational way.
Let me make something clear: despite the emotive language that I’m using, I am 100 per cent pro-choice. I believe every woman should have the right to have an abortion for whatever reason motivates her. I do not expect her to feel any guilt or regret, and I don’t consider her to be a murderer.
There is, I believe, a vast difference between the abortion of an unwanted and a wanted baby. What I experienced – a termination for medical reasons defined in law as a Ground E – seems to me to be a kind of halfway house between abortion and stillbirth. I feel little in common with the woman who gets accidentally pregnant and takes an abortion pill, or who has an early surgical procedure, painful as those decisions are to make. Neither can I relate to the woman who suffers the terrible tragedy of unexplained stillbirth. For one thing, everybody sympathises with someone who has suffered a stillbirth, but you can’t predict how people will react if you tell them that your baby’s death was not an accident. Some would, and have, damned me to hell.
Mickael is sad about her, of course, but for him Elodie is in the past. He did not grow her inside his body or feel her kick; he did not give birth to her
Jane Fisher is director of Antenatal Results And Choices (ARC), a UK-wide charity providing non-directive information and support to parents through antenatal screening and their consequences that helps approximately 5,000 women every year. “You can’t underestimate the level of shock and trauma that women experience,” she says. “The grieving process starts the moment the doctor says there’s something significantly wrong with their pregnancy. And then they’re asked to make this momentous decision. It’s the ultimate rock and a hard place for many women. They are choosing the least worst option.
“Many women who have a termination for medical reasons have this sense of disenfranchised grief. Because they made the decision to end the pregnancy, they won’t give themselves permission to grieve. They don’t feel worthy of it.”
Five years on, I do not think about Elodie all the time as I once did, but I am still grieving for her. It is not a normal type of bereavement. I have no happy memories to cling to, just traumatic ones. I can imagine what might have been, who she might have become, what she might have looked like, but it will never be a reality. I am mourning a potential life, rather than a lived one, a being who will always be both a stranger and a part of me.
It’s also a lonely grief. No one else met Elodie, save Mickael and the two midwives who were with me at her birth, and who washed and dressed her afterwards. Mickael is sad about her, of course, but for him Elodie is in the past. He did not grow her inside his body or feel her kick; he did not give birth to her.
One day, when Sidonie is old enough to understand, I will tell her the truth about her big sister, Elodie. I hope she understands that my decision was made out of love
When Sidonie was born, a healthy baby, I knew instinctively that I had made the right decision for Elodie. But, in other ways, my sense of loss now feels more acute. Now, I can see exactly what I have missed and what will never be. Every stage of Sidonie’s development is a stage that Elodie will never go through.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that my feelings are so complicated and conflicted. People don’t talk about this, and there is no template for it. Women have only been making the decision I had to make for the past 30 years or so, since scanning and screening techniques became good enough to allow doctors to diagnose serious conditions in-utero. And there really aren’t that many of us. The latest abortion figures show that in 2016, 3,208 women had a termination under Ground E, with only 507 carried out after 22 weeks.
Nobody chooses to have a late termination, unless it’s unavoidable. While, in theory, women are allowed to abort past 24 weeks under Ground E, doctors prefer to avoid it and it happens rarely. Just 225 terminations for medical reasons took place after 24 weeks in 2016. These figures belie the idea that the abortion limit needs to be lowered. It can take many weeks to diagnose a complex medical condition, and women need time to process it and seek advice. I, for one, didn’t find out what was wrong with Elodie until I was 22 weeks pregnant. Jane Fisher says that if the limit were reduced from 24 weeks to, say, 22, “it is likely that we would see an increase in terminations at 21 weeks as women felt pressured to make a quick decision in case the choice was taken from them. Inevitably, this means some women would opt not to wait for further testing and so would be making this painful decision based on incomplete information.”
The guilt and the “what-ifs” never entirely go away. I did what I thought was best for my daughter, to prevent her suffering, and I would make the same choice again if I had to. And one day, when Sidonie is old enough to understand, I will tell her the truth about her big sister, Elodie. I hope she understands that my decision was made out of love.