Commentary Human Rights

Did I Kill My Baby Boy? And If I Had Been in Mississippi, Would I Be Facing Prison?

Lorraine Berry

If I had lived in Mississippi in 1996, would I have dared go to the hospital when I suffered a miscarriage? And if I had, would I be facing prison?

See all our coverage on Mississippi Initiative 26 here.

In 1996, I suffered a second-trimester spontaneous abortion, (miscarriage). It ranks as one of the worst experiences of my life, losing a fetus that was hoped for, longed for, and for whom a future had been imagined.

Next week, Mississippi votes on a “personhood” amendment that would define personhood as occurring when the egg is fertilized (not implanted, prior to this, fertilization).

If I had been experiencing the pains and bleeding that I knew signaled the end of my pregnancy, would I have gone to that hospital emergency room? If I hadn’t gone, and had passed that fetus alone, would I have known that I had not entirely expelled the contents of my uterus and was now vulnerable to a deadly infection? Would I have died from fear of being prosecuted for losing my baby?

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Friday morning. June 7, 1996, I was attending a conference at a university. I ate some breakfast, and went downstairs. I was having pain in my back and in my groin. I felt the familiar tingle of fear go up my backbone. My hands began to shake. I went into the bathroom, and I felt something pass out of me. I looked at it in the toilet. An unrecognizable blob of something that looked like something an old man would hock out of his lungs floated in the water.  But there was no blood. Still, I knew something was wrong.

I approached the student union information booth. A bored, young woman stood behind the desk, and calmly, I told her I thought I might be having a miscarriage and I thought I needed some help. Her compassion shown through immediately: She called 911. And she escorted me over to a couch, made me lie down.

First, the firefighters arrived. They seemed weighed down in their heavy rubber boots, their fireproof pants with the suspenders that crossed over navy blue shirts. One of them asked me how I felt. When I told him what had happened, that something I thought “the size of a golf ball” had come out of me, he said, “A golf ball?” And then he said, “I don’t think that’s a miscarriage. I think, given how far along you are, it would have been bigger.” I suddenly felt embarrassed, like I had brought everyone out for nothing. I was relieved, yes, because maybe it meant that this thing wasn’t happening to me, but the casual dismissal of my experience left me as flustered as someone caught in a lie.

Two EMTs showed up. I explained to them that I thought I might be having a miscarriage. Explained what I was feeling. I was scared, and I’m sure my fear showed in everything about me. They loaded me onto a gurney, put me in the back of an ambulance, and drove me to the university hospital. I chatted with the EMT who rode in the back of the ambulance. He monitored my blood pressure, my heart rate. He and I talked about why I was in Chapel Hill. It could have been a conversation in a grocery store line, the kind of chat provoked by the need to kill time while you wait for the cashier to get a price check on frozen pizza.

I was examined by a nurse, and then the ER doctor. He checked me for bleeding, and there was none. But, in the time it took for the OB-GYN resident to come to the ER, there was bleeding. Crimson spots. Crimson, like death. I called the nurse back into the room, convinced that all was at an end. “It’s not too much blood, honey,” she said, and she tut-tutted over me as if I was one of her grandchildren who had come to her with a skinned knee.

The doctor came back into the room. He passed the ultrasound wand over my stomach. My baby was in there. “See?” He pointed him out. “Everything looks fine. It’s just a little spotting.”

But the baby’s heartbeat was almost 190. And some voice inside me told me that wasn’t right. But the doctor was reassuring. “I think you’re going to be just fine,” he said. “I think you have about a 90 percent chance of carrying this baby to term. I’m going to release you. Go back to the dorm room. Put your feet up. You’ll be fine.”

I left the hospital. The conference staff had sent a car over to get me, and I happily reassured the worried staffer that I was fine. False alarm. Sorry to have gotten everybody so concerned.

He dropped me at the entrance to the central conference area. I remember I was wearing a pale pink dress. It was loose, and I had purchased it just the week before to serve as a maternity dress that I could wear for the conference. At one pm, an acquaintance of mine was giving a paper in a panel. The room was crowded, and I managed to nab a chair right near the door.

The room filled. There were people sitting on the floor. It was crowded, and I looked around, was thrilled to recognize another rockstar professor whose books had changed my whole way of looking at things. I was thinking about some way that I might be able to talk to her after the session, but I brought my mind back to the panel, which was just about to be introduced. I settled onto the hard wooden chair and then something happened. Something let go inside of me, and I felt a flood into my underpants.

I just jumped up, said, “Oh my God,” and ran from the room. I heard someone sigh behind me, as if I had greatly inconvenienced them, and once again, I felt embarrassed. The women’s restroom was next door. I went in there. It was empty, the tile white, the mirrors everywhere. I went into a stall. I pulled down my underpants and sat down. I hurt. My back hurt. My pelvis hurt. And something passed through me. Something big, like a softball. I heard the plop as it hit the water in the bowl.

I didn’t want to look. I couldn’t look. If I looked, my life was going to end. I stopped thinking. I flushed the toilet without looking behind me. I pulled up my pants. Calm overtook me; Eirene, or perhaps it was Morpheus, laid their hands on me, and I became a sleepwalker. But I was a sleepwalker in the midst of a troubling dream; still, the blank was winning.

I washed my hands. I could feel fluid pouring down onto my legs. I didn’t want to look. I knew that my dress was going to be covered soon. I didn’t want to look. I grabbed my briefcase and walked down a long staircase, into the conference organizers’ room. I walked up to the first person I saw behind a table. “Excuse me,” I said. “I seem to be hemorrhaging. I think I need some help.”

I had to repeat myself. I don’t think she believed me the first time. Someone helped me over to a couch. I lay down. I began to cry. Now that I was not alone, I could allow myself a moment to fall apart. Even still, they were not the great wails of the banshee; my sobs were quiet, reserved, controlled. Tears dripped into my hair, as my uterus emptied out onto my legs. Someone stroked my hair, shushed me. I told them I thought I was bleeding all over the couch. “Do you want me to look?” she said. I nodded. She looked. “It doesn’t look like blood,” she said.

The EMTs arrived. It was the same EMTs from the morning. “Oh God,” I cried to the young one. “I think I lost my baby.”

“Where were you?” he asked.

“In the bathroom. Oh God, I think I flushed my baby down the toilet.” I began to sob. How could someone flush her baby down a toilet? My stomach scrambled; it reminded me of the clatter of a dog’s paws on a wooden floor when the dog is panicked. Panic fought with the need for distance, and the wave of anxiety passed.

He started an IV. I was out of it, alone in a world of pain where my pelvis ached and my brain was actively closing off anything that looked like knowledge of loss. His partner came over, whispered something in his ear.

Again, they loaded me on the gurney. This time, the lights were flashing. I was in shock. I needed attention. We arrived at the ER. The same nurse. She came to me, and I remember saying to her “The baby’s gone.” And she stroked my hair, gave me a hug. I looked up, and the same ER doctor from just a few hours ago was there, too.

Someone from the conference, I never knew her name, had ridden with me in the ambulance. She kept holding my hand. I needed someone to call my husband. He was at work in Syracuse. He needed to know what I had done. I had killed my baby. I knew that. Even as I was transferred from the gurney to an ER cot, that thought imprinted itself on my brain. I had killed my baby. And now I had to pay a price.  Someone in the ER called him. They told me that he had said he would be on the next flight he could get out on. I held onto the hand of a woman I didn’t know.

No one had confirmed that I had lost the baby at this point. I was being treated, but no one had yet told me that the baby was gone. I had somehow convinced myself in the ambulance that the baby was still there, inside of me. At the same time that I was beating myself up for killing my baby, I still thought that perhaps, as it had been earlier in the day, this was simply a false alarm. A second heartbeat still throbbed within me.

The ER doctor came in. “We have the fetus.” he said.

“I don’t understand,” I said. It turned out that the second EMT had retrieved the fetus from the toilet. I had not flushed it down. Even now, my mind cannot go where this image leads.

I remember when I was a child, our dog had puppies. When the first puppy came, the dog was so startled that she ran away from what had dropped out of her body. I had had the same reaction. Pure instinct. To move away from it. To not see it.

The ER doctor told me I was going to be okay. “My wife lost our baby six weeks ago,” he said. “I know this is hard, but you’ll get through this. I promise.”

A second OB-GYN resident came in. The first one, the one who had promised me my baby would live, obviously didn’t want to face me. It was okay. I forgave him. He had tried to make me feel better. It was a lesson in being a doctor. Don’t promise the things you have no control over. I even said that to the new doctor who was examining me. “Tell him this wasn’t his fault,” I said, or something similar. I absolved him of blame. I knew who had really killed her baby.

“I need to do an ultrasound,” he said. “I’m going to turn the machine away from you, so you don’t see the screen. I know you saw a baby there this morning. I don’t want you to see the empty uterus.”

I was so grateful. Such a kindness. I don’t think I could have borne looking where just a few hours ago, a fetus had lived. As it turned out, there was a mess in there. I needed an emergency D&C. I was given an anesthetic, and something to calm me. But as the doctor placed the speculum inside of me, I began to shake, grow cold. “I’m scared,” I said. The nurse squeezed my hand, and more medicine was added to the drip. I zoned out. I was there but not there. I felt the instruments. I knew what was happening. But I was somewhere else. Something inside of me shut off. Completely.

Without the follow-up care I received at the hospital, I would have died of a massive infection. If I thought that what I had done might be perceived as a crime, would I have gone to the hospital when the pain began? When the fever started? Or would I die, as so many millions of women have died, for lack of concern about women in this world.

Jesus. I want to weep.

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