Sunday, June 07, 2015

Quebec Author Tells of Her Abortion Experience at 23 Weeks

Photo: Radio-Canada/Olivier Lalande

Recently French CBC Radio broadcasted an interview with an author who had had an abortion at 23 weeks in 2010. Her name is Katherine Girard. She wrote a book about her abortion experience called L’Enfant d’avril (The Child of April). I was rather moved by the interview, and I thought I would translate it and publish it here. I thought it offered a lot of insight into the phenomenon of late-term abortion. 

At the time of posting, her book was sold out online at Chapters.

Just a bit of background into the book: I have gleaned from other media that the book was supposed to have been a novel, but it was re-written as a non-fiction book. This might clear up some points that didn’t come through in the translation.

Unfamiliar terms are linked to explanatory pages.

My editorial comments are in red.


Host: I now have the pleasure of receiving Katherine Girard who is a literature and communications professor in a Cégep, but I’m welcoming her as an author and as a mother (I could that, too). She wrote a book entitled L’Enfant d’avril. It’s a touching and troubling story which, among other things, talks about a therapeutic [sic! It was ‘medical’] abortion she underwent at 23 weeks of pregnancy, which is rare, which is difficult as we can imagine, because of a genetic disease that was detected. Her objective in writing this book I think it was… in fact, I think I’ll ask her… Hello Katherine Girard.

KG: Hello.

Host: Katherine Girard, in writing this book, you had to have overcome many things, first, a personal resistance…

KG: I originally wrote it only for myself because after a few years I felt that there remained a void, as if I hadn’t really mourned, so I wrote it to, in a way, give the child who hadn’t had a chance to live a second life. After that, I showed it to some other people who convinced me to make it into a story, maybe something publishable, which could serve to break certain taboos, surrounding abortion, surrounding late-term abortions, surrounding mental illness-- because I underwent a post-traumatic shock after the events, and I developed anxiety—and which could also spread awareness about recessive hereditary genetic disorders in Saguenay-Lac. St-Jean.

Host: That’s the region you are from?

KG: Yes.

Host: Is the father of your children from there, too?

KG: Yes.

Host: Therefore you were both carriers of that infamous gene?

KG: Yes.

Host: And in this case, what was the disease?

KG: The disease is called tyrosinemia. We didn’t know about it at all, we learned about it late. We learned about it when I had completed twenty weeks of pregnancy – twenty one.

Host: And you already had a little girl in perfect health aged 4 years old. So what happened? I just want to clear up the technical aspect. When the two parents are carriers, what are the odds the child will be affected?

KG: Twenty-five per cent. One in four.

Host: Oh. One in four. You had a girl in perfect health, you did not know you were carriers. And then it hit you… And what is tyrosinemia?

KG: It’s a little difficult to explain. It’s a disease that affects the liver, that damages the liver, and which can also damage the kidneys. It can also affect the nervous system. We can sum it up this way: it’s an enzyme that doesn’t do its job properly that doesn’t deteriorate tyrosine which is present in most animal and vegetal proteins that we consume. As soon as the child is in contact with food, even with breastmilk, his condition deteriorates very rapidly. He must have recourse to products that are supplied by the government that are very low in animal and vegetal protein.

Host: But I imagine it must be difficult to live in perfect health with such an impoverished diet.

KG: It can be difficult, so they have a certain kind of shake that provides the nutrients that they need, and now they have a protocol--- at the time it was an experimental protocol—the results have come out recently—and they were encouraging—It’s a protocol of a drug called NTBC which is Nitisinone. It’s a medication that they must take every day of their life, which in the beginning was an herbicide.

Host: That’s right. In your book you explain that at the time it was a poison. It’s an herbicide! But in the end it will help, through the body’s chemistry, which will solve the problem of tyrosinemia.

KG: Yes, it helps keep the child alive.

Host: That’s crazy.

KG: It’s true that we don’t know the long-term effects, but at the time it was presented to us as an experimental treatment. Very few of our questions were answered.

Host: And that’s why you found yourself in this situation… It happened in 2010 I think?

KG: Yes.

Host: In a cruel situation. You’re at a little more than 20 weeks into the pregnancy. You receive the results of a simple routine test. Then there was another one because it was realized that the two parents are carriers of the gene and then it is discovered that the fetus has tyrosinemia. You are then told you must decide very, very quickly. You either continue with the pregnancy;[otherwise] here is the way in which we treat this disease. But the prognosis of this disease was not very good either at the time, right?

KG: In fact, nobody could tell us anything. We asked “how long will the child live?” “We don’t know.” And before this experimental treatment, the children often died at a young age in great suffering. We didn’t know where this drug would lead us so nobody could tell us anything. We asked the doctor if the child would suffer. He couldn’t answer us. We were in the dark. And the information we did have access to on the Internet was very alarmist. There wasn’t any good news. There were only sites that would tell us the number of children who died, or the effects of tyrosinemia.

Host: It was not an easy life [for the child].

KG: It seemed very difficult to us.

Host: A difficult qualify of life for the child. And you had a few days to make a decision. Your pregnancy was already well advanced… But Katherine, am I wrong to think that there is another fact in your history that played a certain role, that’s the story of your own brother…

KG: Yes. We had two days to decide whether we would keep the baby or not. And I had on my mind what I had lived through. When my little brother was born, he had a malformation of the kidney. His arteries were blocked which destroyed his kidney’s condition, because of an infection during his first few days of life. So for the rest of his life he had to undergo numerous operations and take drugs. We never knew how well he was doing, we never knew how long he would live. His quality of life slowly deteriorated. When he was seventeen, I gave him one of my kidneys. Today he functions, but he takes a lot of drugs. And there are other effects attached to that. So it was quite the epic that I experienced close up. I was nine years old when my brother was born. So I was a little bit like his second mom.

Host: And pre-adolescence is a time where was can be more affected… It was not like he was only three years younger than you. You were conscious.

KG: Yes I was quite marked by that. And by my mother and the way she managed the situation. I admire her a lot. But I suddenly felt like – with regards to my fetus of 22 weeks-- that I was going to re-live all that.

Host: So would you say that tipped the scale?

KG: Yes, it tipped the scale in favour of abortion.

Host: When you started to write this narrative, to publish it in order to overcome the taboos regarding late-term abortion, people must not come to think that the taboo to overcome is “oh no, it’s not so bad.” Because that’s not what you tell people in your book.

KG: Not at all.

Host: It’s a physical shock, an ethical shock, a psychological shock, and you don’t want to minimize that at all.

KG: No. I do not advocate at all in this book, neither for nor against abortion, especially late-term abortion. There is a process of reflection in the book, during which I ask myself: why did I come to this? What would have been better? With the ethical aspect, the way I was guided; what was proposed to me; the way in which Quebec reflects on this question—is it okay, is it sensible? And inside of me I was completely destroyed.

Host: You obviously felt an immense sense of guilt.

KG: An immense sense of guilt. It was as if I was no longer able to live after what I had done. I felt like a murderer.

Host: So it wasn’t easy. It’s not something we can go through and say “well there, that’s what happened in my case and that’s too bad.” But if there is a message to draw from this, it’s that perhaps the support was not very well done at the time?

KG: I don’t know. I think I am hyper-sensitive, therefore very fragile in the face of that kind of news. I think the genetic counselors did their job.

Host: I thought the psychologist jumped in pretty late in your case…

KG: Yeah

Host: She comes in and she says “sorry, I had family problems.”

KG: Yeah. Well I thought I was well supported. There was a nurse who was very kind. But in spite of it all, there’s a certain coldness surrounding these processes. But I won’t lay blame on anyone.

Host: Okay. It’s a personal experience, and it couldn’t be easy. We can’t be jovial about it. You had another child afterwards. Another little girl. In good health. You did the test I imagine at much earlier time…

KG: Yes, I underwent a CVS. It’s where we take a peripheral part of the egg, [it's actually the placenta] a small part of the egg to verify if the child is affected with the disease. But at the 11th week. Therefore much earlier. But it was especially to know. It wasn’t necessarily with goal of a having an abortion sooner; it was because I wanted to prepare myself.

Host: … more adequately. And the fact that you gave birth to another child, that you had that confidence, to have your girl who must be about 10 years old now, can we say that life has fixed things, or is there still a significant wound from that episode?

KG: I can say that life goes fast, that it advances rapidly. At some point, you can’t always be looking back. I think that yes, life has helped me heal my wounds, but I would say that there remains a wound of a philosophical nature that will remain inside of me for the rest of my life. Because we got the results of that experimental drug, and the results were encouraging and the children have an appreciable quality of life according to what I know--- because I haven’t met with them—so I feel like I’m in the wrong. At the time that I committed the acts I did not have any alternatives, I felt like there were none. I did what had to be done at the moment that it had to be done, but today I still feel remorse and it’s with respect to the fact that that child did not live and I didn’t give him the chance to live. And I think that that kind of wound is not the kind you can heal one hundred percent.

Host: Whether we like it or not, this brings us to broader reflection on abortion.

KG: Yes.

Host: At 23 weeks, the baby was moving.

KG: Yes.

Host: And it’s terrible to say, but you had the courage to say it in the book, there had to be an injection in the umbilical cord-- it was a terrible scene-- an injection in the umbilical cord to kill the fetus before you were to deliver…

KG: Yeah.

Host: It’s terrible. I say that and… we can imagine what it is to confront that. To the degree that you see yourself as a murderer—and far be it from me to re-open the abortion debate—but does it bring you to question abortion, even in the earlier stages of pregnancy?

KG: I don’t want to judge anyone, each case is different and particular, but yes, it did cause me to reflect on what an abortion is, and reflect on the philosophical level at what point the fetus becomes a baby…

Host: …a human being…

KG: Interesting fact: When the poison was injected, the baby was moving quite a lot, he wanted to escape. I could feel it, it was dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. And the nurse held my arm and said “Calm yourself and your baby will calm himself, too.” And that really hurt me because she had just said “the baby”.

Host: Instead of saying “the fetus….”

KG: Yeah, so she considered it to be a baby. So we’re in the middle of assassinating… So that caused me to see red. That made me reflect a lot. I ask a lot of questions concerning abortion… late-term abortion, therapeutic abortion. And I’m not against it at all… but, yeah.

Host: And then there‘s the question of viability that we keep pushing back. In the old days, we used to have trouble saving preemies at 26 weeks and now we’re crossing new thresholds…and it’s where the boundary becomes difficult… But do you feel above all that no two cases are alike? Is that the biggest lesson, that sort of humility, that we can’t make a definitive judgement without appeal?

KG: What I’ve realized… because never would I have believed I could have done something like that, never would I have thought that… Each case is unique. And here in Quebec we’re talking about therapeutic late-term abortion because in the case of late-term abortions that are for reasons other than an incurable disease, the person must go to the United States… you can’t abort here in Quebec for other reasons [mostly, but not completely, true]. Each case is unique, each case is particular. It’s difficult to judge. I know that there will probably be some people who have the urge to judge what I lived through. To them I would say: do it, but after reading my book, after seeing all that I have been through, and everything I thought, and all the reflection process around the ethics and eugenics that I underwent.

Host: And we can read all about it in the book L’Enfant d’avril, preface by Pierre Lavoie, whom we all know because of his Défi santé [health challenge] and also his concern for genetic disease. The message to retain [from the preface] is an encouragement for parents from that region [Saguenay Lac-St. Jean] to get tested because a number of them are carriers.

KG: That’s another thing. I don’t want to obligate people to undergo testing. But they should at least know that those diseases exist in their families. And if they don’t want those diseases to surface, they should get tested.

Host: You have become aware that many people prefer to ignore that. That knowledge isn’t transmitted. Katherine Girard is a literature professor in a Cégep and she writes very well. Thank you for your visit.