London - Eight weeks after excitedly announcing her pregnancy on Facebook, Sophie Parks posted another message on the site - this time an utterly heartbreaking one.
“My baby has gone to heaven where I hope I will be reunited with him one day,” Sophie wrote. “His daddy and I loved him very much and miss him desperately.”
Sophie went into labour at 18 weeks knowing that her baby was going to die, having chosen to have a termination on medical grounds.
It was an agonising decision, one which came close to destroying her relationship with her partner, James Laurance.
With one in three British women now having an abortion before they reach 45, it’s easy to forget the maelstrom of emotions behind the statistics. In Sophie and James’s case, the dilemma about whether to terminate the pregnancy was made all the more agonising because they disagreed so vehemently on what to do after discovering their unborn baby had Down’s Syndrome.
Around 90 percent of Down’s pregnancies are terminated, but 24-year-old Sophie wanted to keep her son despite the diagnosis. However, James didn’t. So, in the blink of an eye, the couple who thought they knew each other inside out, and had planned to spend the rest of their lives together, found themselves at loggerheads.
Their story shines a spotlight on the question of how a couple with diametrically opposed views can decide the fate of their unborn child - and whether a mother-to-be has more right than her partner to decide if their baby lives or dies.
“James and I love each other so much that I never imagined we could disagree about something as fundamental as our baby’s life,” says Sophie, a carer.
“How do you choose between the man you love and your baby? I can’t describe the agony.”
She and James, 29, who live in Reading, Berkshire, met on an internet dating site and have been together for almost three years.
In May this year, Sophie discovered she was pregnant. The baby was unplanned: she and James intended to marry before starting a family, and Sophie had been fitted with a contraceptive coil - which is supposed to be 98 percent effective. She says: “We bought a pregnancy test and I was so nervous, I made James look at the result first. When I saw it was positive, I was so shocked I almost fainted.
“We hadn’t planned the baby, but we were thrilled. We were going to be parents! I remember James had the biggest grin on his face.”
He says: “The pregnancy wasn’t planned but I felt ready to be a father. I was on a high.”
Two days later, a scan at Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital confirmed that Sophie was six weeks pregnant. Together, she and James made out the tiny outline of their growing baby.
Unable to contain her excitement, Sophie announced her pregnancy on Facebook. “We’re having a baby! We couldn’t be happier,” she posted. As congratulatory messages flooded in, she and James started planning their future as a family.
Sophie says: “We were still living at home with our parents, but with the baby due on January 1, 2013, we started house-hunting.”
They found a place in Reading town centre and moved in together. Everything seemed to be going smoothly when Sophie and James went back to hospital in July for a routine 12-week scan.
“We were so excited about seeing our baby again,” Sophie recalls. “We didn’t mind whether it was a boy or a girl - we just wanted our baby to be safe.
“We were giggling as we looked at the screen because the baby was throwing his head back and seemed to be laughing at us. We joked about what a cheeky little ‘bambino’ he was.”
But then the sonographer went quiet. After a pause, she told Sophie and James that there was an unusually high level of nuchal translucency (NT) fluid around the baby’s neck - one of the indicators of Down’s Syndrome.
She suggested taking a blood sample from Sophie to check her hormone levels for any more indications of a potential problem.
“But she was so reassuring that we didn’t panic,” says Sophie.
It was only when the couple got home and started reading up about NT on the internet that they felt their first stab of fear for their unborn baby.
Sophie says she suddenly had a bad feeling about the future, but James, who manages his family’s catering and furniture hire company, tried to reassure her.
He says: “Everything’s always gone smoothly for me. Naively, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t have a perfectly healthy baby.”
Sophie scoured the internet in search of information about Down’s Syndrome. A week later, a member of nursing staff at the hospital rang to confirm that the blood tests showed the baby had a 20 percent chance of having a chromosome abnormality - probably Down’s Syndrome.
Sophie says: “By that point, I knew that Down’s children could be wonderfully happy with a great quality of life, and anyway there was still an 80 percent chance that our baby was unaffected.”
By now Sophie was 13 weeks pregnant and beginning to show. She was committed to the pregnancy, but James didn’t feel the same way.
“It may sound selfish but I didn’t want a disabled child,” he says. “I didn’t want it for me, for our relationship, or for any child of mine. It was just too much.”
There was only one conclusive way for Sophie and James to find out if their baby had Down’s Syndrome, and that was by going through with an amniocentesis test, where fluid from the uterus is analysed.
Although the test carries a small risk of miscarriage, Sophie reluctantly agreed to it.
She had to wait three weeks for the test, since it can only be done at 16 weeks - and each day of waiting was agony.
“All we talked about was our baby, and what we should do if the test came back positive,” says Sophie. “James has been my rock through so many traumas, including the death of my grandmother last year.
“He’s my soulmate, so I couldn’t believe we would disagree about something as important as our baby. There was no right or wrong.
“I loved James with all my heart, but I knew I couldn’t kill our baby just to please him. I’d never expected to feel this way, and I was stunned by how protective I felt about the life growing inside me.
“I was responsible for giving our baby life, and I wasn’t going to take it away.
“I’m not stupid. I know that having a disabled child would probably be hard work - Down’s children are prone to heart defects and often have problems with sight and hearing - but all that mattered was our baby’s quality of life. If our little bambino could laugh, that was enough for me.”
The couple canvassed the opinions of family and friends, which proved to be a mistake.
‘”e just became more confused,” Sophie says. ‘”veryone had different views. James’s parents were worried that his life would be over if he had a disabled baby, whereas my family were confident we could cope.
“There was no escape. One evening we went out for a meal and swore we wouldn’t talk about the one thing on our minds. But there was a baby in a high-chair next to us, and we spent the meal in stony silence.”
Finally, in late August, James went with Sophie to hospital for the amniocentesis test.
“I’d been booked in to have it the previous week but I’d had a panic attack, so James had to take me home,” she explains.
“The thought of miscarrying was terrifying, but I knew that while I was determined to keep the baby, we needed to know what we were dealing with. That’s why I agreed to have the test.”
A sample of fluid was sent off for analysis: three days later, Sophie took a phone call from the hospital. Her baby was a boy, and he definitely had Down’s Syndrome.
‘” didn’t cry when they told me that,” says Sophie. “I just vowed that I would fight like a tiger for this baby and give him the best life.”
But the news felt like a hammer-blow for James. “Sophie told me over the phone and I was in such turmoil that I didn’t know what to say.
“But by the time I got home that night, I was in no doubt what I wanted - I just had to make Sophie understand.”
James explained to her that he felt termination was the best option. He says: “I know you have to deal with what life throws at you, but this was something we could control. I wanted Sophie to have a termination.”
Sophie disagreed, saying that if they loved their baby, he would have everything he needed.
“I was so torn,” says Sophie. “I felt guilty for having a baby James didn’t want, but I knew it was the right thing. I would have felt even guiltier having a termination.
“Although it was James’s baby too and he deserved a say, I felt I had to fight for my baby because he didn’t have a voice.
“Who were we to say his life wasn’t worth living, or that a child with Down’s isn’t just as happy as a child who doesn’t have it?
“I loved this baby more than I believed possible. It was growing inside me, part of me. James simply didn’t have the same bond with it.”
James admits he found it impossible to feel any deep emotion for the baby.
“It was just a blob on a screen,” he says. “I was shocked at how maternal Sophie felt, but I wasn’t angry - how could I blame her for being so kind and caring? But I still didn’t want to go ahead and have the baby.”
Compromise was impossible. Sophie knew she risked losing James, but her conscience wouldn’t let her back down.
“I was like a lioness fighting for her cub,” says Sophie. “If I had to have this baby by myself, I would. If James wanted to walk away, that was his right. But I was having this baby.”
Faced with the possibility of breaking up, Sophie and James were both distraught. Finally, in tears at the prospect of losing Sophie, James agreed to look at the research she had done on Down’s Syndrome.
He still wasn’t convinced he wanted to go ahead with the pregnancy, however.
“Sophie reassured me that we could be great parents, but I was still scared,” he says. “I loved Sophie, but could I really be a dad just because it was what she wanted?”
James was still in a quandary when, three days later, he and Sophie received even more devastating news.
Tests on the amniotic fluid showed that, in addition to Down’s, their baby had a rare chromosome abnormality known as Jacob’s Syndrome. He had an extra Y chromosome which meant he might have learning difficulties and autism.
The specialist had never encountered a pregnancy where the baby had two chromosome conditions, so an accurate prognosis on what kind of life he would lead was impossible.
“I went to pieces,” recalls Sophie. “Our baby had come through so much and I had been so positive but now, for the first time, I worried about his quality of life. If anything I loved him even more, but was it fair to saddle him with all these problems?
“How could I bring a child into the world knowing he might suffer?”
James says: “We were heartbroken, but even Sophie knew then that we had to terminate the pregnancy. This wasn’t the sort of life we wanted for our child. It just wouldn’t have been fair on him.”
And so, on August 10, Sophie was taken to the labour suite in hospital for a termination with James at her side. She was 18 weeks pregnant.
“I could have had an abortion under anaesthetic, but our baby was much-loved and I preferred to bring him into this world by giving birth to him,” she says.
Sophie was given drugs to induce labour, which lasted 29 hours. Joseph Leo was born dead, too young to survive. He was so small he fitted into the palm of his mother’s hand.
“Seeing our son was when it really hit me,” James says. “Until then he hadn’t seemed real, but I felt stunned with grief.”
Joseph was cremated last week, and his parents are now trying to come to terms with their loss.
James says: “Sophie and I had come so close to breaking up over this, but what we have suffered, first with the arguments and then with the death of Joseph, has actually bonded us together.
“If we can survive this, we can survive anything, and I love and respect Sophie even more now.”
He and Sophie have been told there is no reason why they can’t have a healthy baby in the future.
“But we both need time to grieve first for Joseph, our little fighter,” she says.
“So many people are ashamed of admitting they had a termination. The truth is that this was the hardest decision of our lives but, in the end, we acted out of love.” - Daily Mail