Part of an occasional series on living with hardship
The date was April 16, 1977, and abortion had been legal for four years. A 17-year-old woman in her third trimester of pregnancy entered a southern California abortion clinic for a late-term abortion. Toxic saline solution was injected into her womb, and she was expected to deliver a dead baby within 24 hours. Instead, after being burned alive in her mother’s womb for 18 hours, Gianna Jessen was born breathing. She weighed 2 pounds. Gianna’s birth certificate lists her place of birth as a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic.
Abandoned by her parents, Jessen spent her first three months in a hospital incubator. Lack of oxygen in the womb had caused cerebral palsy, and doctors did not expect her to survive. She spent more than a year in temporary foster care, unable to even lift her head, until, at 17 months of age, she was placed with a loving woman named Penny. "I was 32 pounds of dead weight," Jessen says.
The doctor told Penny that the baby would never crawl, never walk, never speak. He urged Penny to give up hope that Gianna would progress beyond a vegetative state.
But Penny did not give up hope. She did physical therapy with Gianna three times a day, and at 3½ years of age, the little girl began to walk with the aid of a walker and leg braces.
Since that time, she has undergone four surgeries, and today, Gianna Jessen walks with only a slight limp. She dances, rock climbs and runs marathons.
When Gianna was 13 years old, she was invited to speak at a Mother’s Day banquet. Gianna limped to the front of the room and, addressing the women, described how she had survived an abortion. "I forgive [my birth mother] totally for what she did," Jessen stated. "As a result of the abortion, however, I have cerebral palsy – but that’s okay, because I have God to keep me going every day. It’s not always easy, but he is always there. He’s there for you, too."
After the talk, a woman approached the young girl. "I had an abortion," the woman admitted quietly. "Nobody knows. I’ve confessed it to God, but I still feel guilty."
The woman began to sob. "I have longed to hold my baby and tell her I am sorry. Somehow, hearing you say you forgive your mother makes me feel maybe [my baby] would forgive me."
"She would," Gianna replied earnestly. "I know she would."
The woman’s tears released half a lifetime of pain. "I have had this bottled up for so many years . . . Thank you so much."
It was the first of many such encounters. "Women who have had abortions have come up to me crying, saying, ‘I wish I had never done this. I had no idea the pain I would live with for the rest of my life,’" says Jessen. Men, too, have admitted feeling powerless or regretful about being party to an abortion.
Now 35, Jessen refutes the notion that abortion is a women’s rights issue. "There was no radical feminist standing up and yelling about how my rights had been violated that day. In fact, my life was being snuffed out in the name of women’s rights."
Gianna Jessen has spoken across the globe. Her story was reported by BBC News and World Radio, and she has addressed the House of Commons in London. She testified before Congress in opposition to partial-birth abortion and in support of the Born-Alive Protection Act, which protects infants born alive during an abortion. Before this law went into effect, many such infants were left to die.
"I do not consider myself a by-product or any other of the titles given to a child in the womb," Jessen declared to Congress. "Today, a baby is a baby when miscarriage takes place at two, three, four months. A baby is called a clump of cells when an abortion takes place at two, three, four months. Why is that? I see no difference."
Gianna Jessen often refers to her cerebral palsy as a gift. "There are things that you are only able to learn by the weakest among us," she states. "We misunderstand how beautiful suffering can be. I don’t willingly sign up for it, but when it comes, . . . God has a way of making the most miserable thing beautiful. It seems like the more challenges, the more joy I get."
"I’m his girl," she is known to say. "You don’t mess with God’s girl. I got a sign on my forehead that says: You better be nice to me, for my Father owns the world."
The movie, "October Baby," currently in theaters, is based loosely on Gianna Jessen’s life.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.