It’s 1989. I’m 26, 19 weeks pregnant, and I really need to pee.
The technician calls my name and I follow her to the examining room where I undress and slip under the cold white sheet on the examining table. After some discussion about morning sickness, she applies a gel to the wand and places it on my small baby mound. She gently presses the wand over my full bladder. I feel a slight release of warm urine between my legs.She presses the wand a little harder, then takes another pass around my mound before returning it to its cradle and telling me, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
“The doctor will explain.”
I’m frightened and alone, no longer worrying about needing to pee.
Is my baby alright?
The answer is no. What the technician saw, my doctor explains, is a sign that my baby is developing with numerous birth defects. Namely, my baby is developing spina bifida — a neural tube defect in the upper lumbar region where the baby’s spinal cord hasn’t closed — and anencephaly, meaning a major portion of the baby’s brain, skull, and scalp was missing.
Long hours turn into endless days barricaded inside my bedroom. My husband, Steve, and I meet with a geneticist who asks questions about our family history — most of which I can’t answer because I’m adopted — and lays out the baby’s dire prognosis and our options for addressing it.
We ask what caused the baby’s neural tube and brain defects. The geneticist offers no clear answer, only speculating that the “anencephaly was likely caused by things mom came into contact with.” Something I ate or drank, or perhaps a chemical I was exposed to during pregnancy. She means these words to be reassuring. She means my future pregnancies probably won’t be at risk.
I’m far from reassured. All I can hear is: You did something wrong to cause this.
She tells us the baby has a 50/50 chance of surviving to full-term. If the baby does survive, he or she will be paraplegic, or even quadriplegic. The baby will also be severely cognitively impaired, require a brain shunt, and will likely die within six to nine months of birth.
That’s option A.
We ask about terminating the pregnancy. The doctor looks down at her notes and replies, “It’s late, but you still have that option.” Steve and I exchange clueless looks.
“Go home and sleep on it,” she says, as if sleeping is an option.
Faced with two options, one bad and the other worse, we choose worse — or is it bad? At 21 weeks, the doctors sedate me and proceed to disassemble the growing child inside my womb before sucking the remains out of me with a vacuum. I mention these details not because I am opposed to abortion. I’m not. I mention them because I asked the doctor what the procedure involved and I continue to live with both that explanation and the event itself. Sedated but still awake, I lie in the operating suite, my legs in stirrups, staring at the buzzing fluorescent lights above me, listening to sounds that seem to be traveling through water: instruments picked up and set down are translated by my mind’s fog into the breaking and disjointing of bones only recently formed; of the doctor’s reassuring voice saying she’s “almost finished” is translated to the indelible knowing that the life inside of me is almost finished and that I, not the doctor, am finishing it. The sound of suctioning will forevermore trigger me in the same manner as a loud noise triggers my stepmother who lived through the Blitzkrieg of London as a child.
After the procedure, I ask my obstetrician the baby’s sex — something the ultrasound technician hadn’t looked for once she’d found the abnormalities.
“A girl,” my obstetrician, Dr. Hansen, tells me.
Steve and I leave the hospital and head for Windansea Beach. We hold hands and cry. We decide to give our daughter a name: Caitlyn.
After the abortion, I fall into a depressive stupor. I spend days wracking my brain, trying to figure out what I might have done to cause my baby’s defects. Was it because I kept forgetting to take my prenatal vitamins? Could it have been the two beers I drank at the Indigo Girls concert before I learned of my pregnancy? Maybe it was my twice-a-week tennis lessons?
Twenty-eight years later, in March of 2017, I’m driving down Highway 1 in Southern California listening to NPR’s All Things Considered when I hear a story that makes me bolt upright. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, is lifting a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Numerous studies — including one longitudinal study on the neurodevelopmental effects of indoor pesticide exposure — have linked the chemical to neural tube defects and brain malformations.
“Until the late 1990s,” the reporter says, “chlorpyrifos was the active ingredient in household flea bombs.”
The words flea bombs land like a punch. In addition to the two beers I drank and the tennis lessons I didn’t give up, my husband and I had set off flea bombs in our condo before we knew Caitlyn was growing inside me. That year had been particularly rainy by San Diego standards, and wet weather breeds fleas. Our house and pets were infested, and my husband’s skin was covered in welts from flea bites.
We were broke, so instead of calling a pest control company, we purchased flea collars for our cats and two flea bombs to fumigate our condo — one for upstairs and the other for down. We followed the instructions on the label, closing all windows and leaving our condo for a set number of hours. When we returned home, the chemical odor was so strong that we opened all the windows and left for a few hours more.
Could this chemical have caused Caitlyn’s neural tube and brain anomalies? Part of me doesn’t want confirmation that I, in fact, did do something wrong. The other part of me can’t help but begin researching chlorpyrifos on the internet.
After filling out an online questionnaire offered by Birth Defect Research for Children, I consult the organization’s director, Betty Mekdeci, again to get her thoughts on my family’s history.
I press her about my chlorpyrifos hypothesis, and while she is careful not to give it her full-throated endorsement, she explains that because of its chlorinated structure, chlorpyrifos can be stored in body fat., and that it’s possible I harbored what she calls a “body burden.”
You go to the body’s resources to build a baby, and fat is one of those resources. Studies have shown that, for instance, dioxin — the active ingredient in Agent Orange — has been detected in body fat and seminal fluid 30 to 40 years after exposure.
Mekdeci goes on to explain that certain enzymes are known to play a role in the detoxification of the body, and some individuals lack these enzymes. She suggests that I submit my 23andMe raw data on the Genetic Genie website to see if I am one of those individuals.
It takes less than 10 minutes to upload my data, receive my “Detox Profile,” and discover that I have a gene variation that roughly translated, this means my body does not produce enough of the detox enzymes that protect cells against the toxicity of many compounds including pesticides, heavy metals (present in many pesticides), herbicides, solvents, steroids, and many other harmful environmental pollutants. In fact, some health professionals recommend individuals with my genotype minimize their exposure to pesticides and heavy metals.
I continue my quest for definitive answers as to why Caitlyn was developing without a brain.
You may ask yourself Why? What’s done is done.
It matters because the patriarchal system we live in wants to regulate women’s bodies, all the while refusing to adequately oversee corporations whose only loyalty is to their shareholders. My story about a wanted pregnancy that leads to late-term abortion, the inconvenient truth that Caitlyn’s birth defects were the result of corporate malfeasance and political dereliction of duty, are a grave threat to this system. Political and corporate powers-that-be want you to believe that my immorality is the reason for my late-term abortion; that I, the individual, caused her birth defects. This myth of “individual responsibility” is how corporations protect quarterly profits and how politicians win your vote.
It matters because a $1 million donation by Dow Chemical — the maker of chlorpyrifos — to the Trump Inauguration happened to coincide with former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejecting the advice of his agency’s chemical safety experts and reversing the Obama era’s prohibition against agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos.
It matters because Dow continues to sell chlorpyrifos without proper warning labels in developing nations.
It matters because while the right beats its chest about the rights of the unborn child it continues to allow chlorpyrifos to be sprayed on the people who pick our fruits and vegetables, and the students in schools located in agricultural communities. And it is applied to the grounds around our homes or offices where children play in the dirt, then, as children often do, put their poisoned hands in their mouth.
It matters because while the right is engaged in an all-out assault on reproductive rights, it is also engaged on an all-out assault on evidence-backed science that in meant to protect our nation’s public.
It matters because I want to do everything in my power to ensure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to you.
It matters because I see a pattern of reproductive rights being chipped away at, mostly by men, and am afraid of where this is all heading. In America, profits have always come before the health of the marginalized. The U.S is the only developed country in the world with no universal health coverage and one of only a few with no guaranteed paid maternity leave.
Affordable childcare is a pipe dream for most parents, and here in the “we’re number one!” U.S. of A. women are at a shockingly high risk of dying in childbirth. For instance, Black a woman in America is 3–4 times more likely to die than white women during pregnancy, childbirth, and the year after giving birth. And while the death rate for both white and Black infants has gone down, childbirth for Black people is now twice as likely to involve death. The reasons for this have little to do with the individual and a great deal more to do with the systemic inequities faced by women and persons of color.
And then came Trump.
From rolling back the Obama-era birth control mandate to chipping away at Medicaid, which covers half of all births in this country, to attempting to limit access to abortions, President Trump and his enablers in Congress are working hard to reshape women’s health law and policy with the penultimate goal is to eliminate access to reproductive health care and family planning services altogether.
The most recent evidence is a new Trump administration rule which forbids Title X — a federal family planning program that helps poor women access birth control and other health services — clinics from referring patients for abortions. As a result, Planned Parenthood has withdrawn from Title X a move that will cost the organization $60 million a year in federal funding. This is not the end of the line. We should all brace for more stops on the road to Gilead.
Hitler rose to power espousing that women must return to their traditional roles. So too the Taliban. It is a hallmark of all patriarchies that they seek to control women and their bodies. And the Trump Administration is no exception. So please forgive me if I’m skeptical when I hear others talk about the sanctity of life in one breath while praising politicians who are busy dismantling the — minimal as they are — laws and policies that protect women and children’s health in the next.
Or who refuse to hold accountable the manufacturers of the environmental toxins that deformed my child. Until I see more proof that our so-called leaders and lawmakers truly care about public health, and begin cleaning up the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, I cannot help but fear that our country will continue to put profits before women’s health and continue to use women’s morality as a scapegoat for what is the true blasphemy: greed.