The Sexist

Swine Flu and the Abortion Debate

The danger of swine flu in pregnant women has received a great deal of press attention recently. As concerns over the health of pregnant women rise, the abortion debate has slyly emerged as a a central influence in the dialogue.

Yesterday, the New York Times told the story of Aubrey Opdyke, a 27-year-old woman who was pregnant when she contracted swine flu last June. What began as mild symptoms of aches and fatigue turned into a harrowing four month ordeal. Writes reporter John McNeil:

In the four months she was hospitalized, she spent five weeks in a coma, suffered six collapsed lungs and a near-fatal seizure. High-pressure ventilation blew her up like a molten balloon until “she looked like she weighed 400 pounds,” her husband, Bryan, said, and she has stretch marks from her neck to her ankles. Her muscles and lungs are still so weak that she uses a walker.While hospitalized, she missed seeing her 4-year-old daughter, Hope, learn to swim and start pre-school.

And, most important, she lost her baby. Parker Christine Opdyke, almost 27 weeks in the womb, was delivered by emergency Caesarean section on July 18, when her fetal heart rate plummeted during Ms. Opdyke’s third lung collapse. Her airways were too blocked to let a breathing tube in, possibly a side effect of the drugs saving her mother. She lived seven minutes.

In McNeil's profile of Opdyke, losing the baby was "most important"—more traumatic than even falling into the coma, suffering a seizure, temporarily losing the ability to walk, talk, and see her family, and facing death. The trauma of losing a child in the womb is clearly central to Opdyke's experience. But it is still Opdyke's experience—the ordeal is hers, not her baby's. Compare that treatment to a previous profile of Opdyke, which ran in the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. It's worth it to examine the entire lede:

The baby was beautiful, with tufts of long eyelashes—just like her mother.

But she didn’t cry.

Her heart stopped minutes after doctors delivered her from the belly of Aubrey Opdyke, who had swine flu and lay in a medically induced coma.

Aubrey never had the chance to see her.

So the baby’s grandmother, Joanne Felker of Stuart, readied tiny Parker Christine for photographs and a video.

She bathed her and held her.

“She looks like she’s just peaceful,” Felker said of the images, shot by the volunteer group Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

One of these days, the family will show the images to Aubrey.

They’ll fill in the blanks about the time she has spent in a coma at Wellington Regional Medical Center, battling a case of H1N1 influenza that took Parker’s life on July 18 — more than two months before she was supposed to be born.

This is a story about a fetus. Opdyke, who endured months of comas, collapsed lungs, and seizure in a fight to stay alive, is introduced in a prepositional phrase: "from the belly of." Joanne Felker is not Opdyke's mother; she is "the baby's grandmother." The loss of Parker Christine is mourned at length, but the fact that Opdyke herself was on the verge of death is never mentioned in the story. Tellingly, Opdyke was not even able to speak at the time this profile was written about her. Given her condition, it's doubtful she had a hand in authorizing the story at all:

Now that doctors have eased her off coma-inducing medication, Aubrey can blink in response to visitors.

She indicated that she recognized her husband, Bryan Opdyke, and can wiggle her toes.

The sources in the story are Opdyke's mother, her former co-workers, and her former Girl Scout troop leader. Opdyke's husband is not quoted in the story. That's too bad, because he provided an extremely interesting insight to the New York Times:

Mr. Opdyke was warned he might have to choose—her life or that of the baby, who was just at the border of survivability outside the womb.

“I said, ‘Save Aubrey,’ ” he said of the woman he married last year. “I can make another baby, but I can’t replace her.”

Her third lung collapse forced the issue. Parker had to be delivered, but she did not survive.

The Times addresses the issue head-on: Losing Parker was a tragedy for the Opdykes, but it may very well have saved a woman's life. Andrea Opdyke wasn't given many choices throughout her horrific ideal. At least, in the New York Times, she's afforded a voice in her own story.

Photo by flickr user Andres Rueda, Creative Commons 2.0

  • Lindsay

    Thank you for this blog post. I found the NY Times article jarring on several levels, starting with the claim that the loss of the baby was the worst part -- from Andrea's state od health, that doesn't seem so clearcut to me -- and then, most of all, the passage in which the husband was asked to choose between his wife and his unborn child. That really horrified me. Why would the default not be the wife??? and do husbands commonly have the legal right to make this decision?

    Anyway, I googled to look for discussion of it, and found this post. The other article you discuss introduced an equally disturbing angle to the story.

  • kza

    Well she didn't actually die unlike her child. So sux to be that baby I guess.

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  • Kelly

    Her Name is Aubrey NOT Andrea. Please Correct this where you have it in Bold print. Thank you.

  • Danielle

    I second Lindsay's comment, and I'm glad I wasn't the only one shocked that the doctors in the Times article would present such a choice, the woman or the baby.

  • Magnetic Crow

    I agree with Lindsay and Daniel. People who think that a fetus with little to no chance of viability (or any fetus at all, actually) should have MORE HUMAN RIGHTS than those of an adult woman are psychopaths. To give that choice to anybody but the woman herself is inexcusable-- saving the mother absolutely should be the default.
    I'm relieved to hear that Andrea is recovering.

  • Erica A

    I second (fourth?) the comments above--I am glad Bryan Opdyke made the choice he did, but the question should not have been posed. Barring specific instructions from Aubrey Opdyke to save the fetus at all costs, I can't comprehend how Ms. Opdyke's physician(s) found it appropriate to warn the husband he may "have to" choose between his wife and his "baby." The fact NYT chooses to portray it as some tragic decision Mr. Opdyke was forced to make is an abhorrent (and, I hope, aberrant) perversion of "choice" if I ever saw one.

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