This Friday will mark 4 months since Owen was born and died. During this week last year, I was taking my first positive pregnancy test, barely able to believe it. For some reason, that feels pretty significant to me–that in a week, what I really consider “the year of Owen” will be over.
People have asked us if we are going to have another baby. Owen’s cardiologist paid us the overwhelmingly kind compliment that we absolutely should be parents because a child deserves to experience our love. That was definitely a balm to my heart. Without even knowing it, I had been feeling insecure about parenthood, as if maybe we shouldn’t be parents because we couldn’t keep our baby alive. Anyway, I don’t really plan to share our thought process about how we plan on having more children (either biological or adopted) in this space for now. It’s too private and involves a lot of ethically murky decisions. I’m sure I’ll post when we are actually bringing home a live infant, but until then, we’re keeping our cards close our chest(s).
However, I would like to share some of the decisions we face as carriers of a genetic disease because it’s an important part of our grief. As I’ve said before, Owen’s form of skeletal dysplasia is genetic, autosomal recessive. We have known this since we initially saw problems on his ultrasound at 15/16 weeks, but it didn’t really start to sink in until he died that we have a 25% chance of having another baby with a lethal disorder. I was on the phone with a perinatologist who specializes in the short-rib dysplasias (SRPS, EVC, and Jeune’s) the other day, and she said “Unfortunately, genetics has no memory. It’s not as if your genes will realize they’ve already caused your family enough heartache to last a lifetime.” It’s true–we have a 1/4 chance in each pregnancy. We do not get a pass in the next three pregnancies because we already had our 1/4.
We aren’t exceedingly rare. Many other people carry genetic diseases somewhat more common than ours (cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, and Tay-sachs, for instance), so we have some experience and trial/error to look to when we make our own decisions about family-building. Before I enumerate our options, know this: there are people reading this blog who have made many of these decisions. It is impossible for anyone who has not gone through this to know what they would do when presented with these options. Every choice is deserving of respect and validation. In no certain order, here are the options:
- Conceive naturally: Numbers-wise, we have a good chance of having a healthy baby. 75% is nothing to scoff at, and the chance that we’ll have a baby that doesn’t even carry an EVC gene is the same as having a baby with both EVC genes…those are pretty good odds. BUT. It’s hard to say that those are good odds when they didn’t work for us on our very first try. I know women who have had multiple pregnancies in a row that resulted in sick babies. I also know women who have 2-3 other children and have only had one sick baby. Trying to have a baby naturally is not without heartache. We know Owen’s genetic mutation. We can test for it in the first trimester. Getting pregnant begs “what if?” Do we carry the baby to term knowing he/she will die? Do we terminate the pregnancy? Is it even ethical to get pregnant knowing there’s a 25% chance the baby will die, whether we choose when or not?
- IVF with PGD: PGD stands for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which is the testing of an embryo before it’s implanted in the mother’s uterus. Even though we don’t have any apparent problems with fertility, we could opt to undergo IVF to create embryos that can be tested before they are implanted. I’ve spoken with a doctor from one of the major PGD labs, and there’s apparently no correlation between natural fertility and successful IVF. That means that even thought we could get pregnant on our own easily, IVF isn’t going to be easier just because I’m fertile. IVF/PGD has a 45-65% chance of resulting in a healthy baby. Technically, the odds are worse than with natural conception, but the stakes are far, far lower. If it doesn’t work, we don’t have a baby, but we also aren’t risking anymore dead babies. However, if it’s successful, we could be left with healthy embryos that we will never use. That’s a lot of potential life. IVF/PGD is also quite expensive, anywhere from $25,000-$50,000 or more, depending on how many rounds of IVF it takes to get pregnant. This is not covered by our insurance, so it would be totally out of pocket. We aren’t struggling with money (although having a critically ill baby leaves a lot of medical bills, even if he dies), but we don’t have thousands of dollars just sitting around.
- Adoption: First, we plan to adopt no matter what we choose as far as biological children goes. Even if we have one or two of our own successfully, we want to give a home to a baby or child like with special needs, like our Owen. However, the idea that healthy infants are in high supply in the US is incorrect. Traditional domestic adoption costs many thousands of dollars and can take years. International adoption is also quite expensive and can also take years. We would like to save to adopt internationally, as resources for kids with complex medical needs are scarce in many other parts of the world. We are good candidates: healthy, stable, and young, but the notion that we should “just adopt” makes the process sound easy, straight-forward, and free of grief. It’s none of those. Adoption is a viable option, but it isn’t without its difficulties.
- No more kids: A viable option! Not one that we are likely to choose, but I guess anything is possible.
I share all of those options to say this: there is no easy way. Getting pregnant and having healthy children is a miracle and a blessing. For us and people like us, it will also be a feat of science, money, or both. There is truly no black and white, right or wrong answer. I’m a member of an on-line message board for women (and men, I guess, but only women are really on the board) who carry genetic diseases. Some people conceive naturally and either carry to term or terminate. Some go through IVF/PGD with success, some don’t. Some choose adoption or use donor gametes/embryos. There are no easy answers, and every choice is valid. I’m not sure what we’ll choose (and I don’t know that I’ll ever discuss it here until I have a live baby in my arms), but I rest in the knowledge that there are women who have gone before me and have come to the other side with grace.