Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 10: Pregnancy
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Getting pregnant is a personal decision, and every woman should have the right to decide for herself if and when she wants to become a mother. But all over the world, women are often pressured by their partners, families and communities to have children, often as many children as possible.
For women with disabilities, however, the opposite is most often true. They are encouraged not to get pregnant. Many disabled women are sterilized against their will, so they can never get pregnant. Others who do get pregnant are pressured to have abortions, even where abortions are illegal. This happens because people often believe a woman with a disability cannot be a good mother, or that babies born to her will also be disabled. These ideas are wrong.
There is no reason why most women with disabilities cannot have a safe pregnancy, give birth to a healthy baby, and be a good mother (see Chapter 12). However, there are precautions women with some disabilities must take when they are pregnant, and some women will need more assistance than others.
This chapter has information that will help you understand some of the changes that can happen during pregnancy, how they may affect different disabilities, and how to plan for a safe pregnancy and birth.
Naomy’s Story: How I became a mother
When I was young and my women friends used to talk about having babies, they all used to tell me that because of my disability, I would not be able to get pregnant. And if by some miracle I did conceive, they said the baby would have to be delivered by caesarian operation and would probably be disabled in one way or another.
I really did not understand what my friends meant, because I knew I was a woman, just like them. But because I walked differently from them, I believed what they said. Also, I had not been examined by any doctors to confirm this. I used to feel very sad, because I loved little children. Every time any of my friends had a baby, I wished it was mine.
In 1987, I started feeling strongly that I needed to try and see if I could have a baby, despite the possible problems. I had a boyfriend and one day I just thought, well, why not? And it happened. On 27 December, 1987, I became pregnant.
When I realized I was pregnant, I was delighted, but at the same time I worried. Because I am a polio survivor, I went to see a doctor, a gynecologist, to prove I was pregnant and to find out if it was true there would be complications during my pregnancy and delivery.
The doctor was shocked to hear I was pregnant. Before he even examined me, he told me that because of the way I walked, I was not going to be able to carry the pregnancy to full term. He said I would lose it within the first 3 months. He advised me not to wait for the 3 months, but to have an abortion right away. I agreed and made an appointment for 27 February, 1988. It was very expensive, but I somehow managed to raise the money.
I had not yet told anyone I was pregnant or about how worried and afraid I was. Abortion is illegal in Kenya, so I did not want anybody to know I was planning to have one. I also did not know how my friends would react. Would they laugh at me or be disappointed with me? I therefore kept the whole thing a secret.
I spent many sleepless nights, and felt sad and afraid all the time. First, I could not stand the idea of not having a child in my life. Second, abortions were dangerous and I had known a number of young women who had lost their lives from having an unsafe abortion. Third, I am a Christian and believe that abortion is a sin. And finally, I was not married and pregnancy outside marriage is not culturally accepted. So you can imagine how troubled I was.
Well, life had to go on. I gathered courage and prepared for the abortion. When the day arrived, I went to the hospital and sat outside the doctor’s office waiting to be called in. This was the most trying moment of my life. Courage failed me, and I found myself worrying again about what was going to happen to me. I was sure I was going to die. I started praying for forgiveness and courage.
Suddenly I remembered the doctor saying that I was going to lose the pregnancy anyway at 3 months. This excited me, and I realized there was no need for me to have an abortion. It would be safer, cheaper, and there would be no stigma if I had a miscarriage instead of an abortion. So I went back home to wait for the baby to come out. However, I was not quite sure I had made the right decision.
My first 4 months of pregnancy were horrible. I lost a lot of weight, I had no appetite, and I vomited all the time. Above all, I lived in fear and expected the worst to happen at any time. When I first felt the baby move, I was scared. I thought the time had come for the baby to come out.
For quite some time I was afraid of going for a medical checkup, even though I knew it was necessary. But one day I decided to go to the nearest health center, where I met a doctor who examined me and assured me I was going to carry the pregnancy to full term and that I was going to deliver the baby normally. He did advise me, however, to give birth in hospital.
I felt confident and started going for frequent checkups at the antenatal clinic. The staff told me that all was going well. The nurses also gave me books to read on pregnancy, delivery, and taking care of a newborn baby. These gave me good information and helped give me strength to carry on. All I wanted was to have a baby, see how it would look, see if it was going to be disabled, and above all be called a mother, just like my friends.
To everyone’s surprise, I carried the pregnancy to full term—9 months—and delivered normally a healthy, non-disabled beautiful baby girl after 36 hours of labor. My ‘baby,’ Ann, is now 18 years old, a very healthy girl, and doing well in her studies in form 4 in secondary school.
Questions to ask before becoming pregnant
Every woman needs to make plans and decide how many children to have and when to have them. A woman’s age, health, and personal living situation can affect her decision to become a mother.
Before getting pregnant, it may help to think about these questions:
- Do you want to have children?
- If you already have children, can you take care of any more?
- Has your body recovered from your last pregnancy?
- Can you care for a child by yourself?
- Do you have a partner or family to help you support and care for the child?
- Is someone forcing you to have a baby?
- Will a pregnancy have any affect on your disability?
Will my baby be born with a disability?
Most disabilities are not passed from mother to child (inherited or familial disability). But there are some that are passed—sometimes by the father, sometimes by the mother, and sometimes by both. See more information about some of the disabilities that are passed in families.
If you think your baby might be born with one of these disabilities, it is best for you to arrange to give birth in a hospital in case there are any complications.
Will the baby be a boy or a girl?
It is the man’s sperm that makes a baby either a boy or a girl. About half of a man’s sperm will produce a baby boy and the other half will produce a girl. Only one sperm will join with the woman’s egg. If it is a boy sperm, the baby will be a boy. If it is a girl sperm, the baby will be a girl. This is no different for a disabled woman than for a woman without a disability.
In communities where families prefer having boys, women are often blamed if they do not have sons. This is unfair both to girls, who should be valued as much as boys, and to women, because it is the man who determines the baby’s sex.