(CNSNews.com) - Although Amanda Clarke was only 22 when she became pregnant with her first child, her obstetrician said she could be screened to see if her baby was at risk for Down syndrome and other genetic conditions. She said she agreed, feeling certain that a woman her age would bear a child free from disabilities.
“I thought no matter what happens, it will be fine,” Clarke, now 26, and the mother of three children, told CNSNews.com.
Clarke’s first son was born without problems, and when she was screened while carrying her second child, the results predicted another healthy baby. So when she was offered a screening during her third pregnancy, she did not hesitate.
“Yeah, why not?” she remembers telling her doctor.
But this time the results of the screenings – done by a blood test when she was 16 weeks pregnant – showed an increased risk of her child having the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause some health problems and varying degrees of mental retardation. She received the news by telephone.
“I hung up the phone, and I just lost it,” Clarke said. “I cried. I thought it was a death sentence for my child. I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome.”
Clarke then met with a perionatologist, who told her the odds of her child having Down syndrome.
“She told me I had a one in 100 chance of having a Down syndrome baby,” said Clarke, who lives in Michigan. “Usually, it’s one in 870.”
But even before Clarke agreed to have an ultrasound and an amniocentesis – an invasive diagnostic test that examines the DNA of the child in the womb by using a needle to draw out amniotic fluid – she said she already knew the results.
“Deep down, I knew he would have Down syndrome,” Clarke said. “I could just feel it.”
Although many medical professionals claim to give patients “non-directive” counseling free from personal bias when giving a diagnosis, Clarke said that was not the case when she was told of her unborn son’s condition by the perionatologist.
“She said, ‘Unfortunately, your child has Down Syndrome,’ ‘you do have the option to terminate,’ and ‘do you have any questions?’”
Clarke recalled only seeing one person with Down syndrome who attended her church and remembered hearing stories that these children often ended up in institutions. And although Clarke describes herself as a Christian who opposes abortion, she admits to briefly considering that option.
“I thought, maybe it would be easier if I got rid of this baby,” Clarke said.
But between her religious beliefs and the support of her husband, Clarke decided to continue her pregnancy.
That decision made Clarke one of the minority of American mothers who are diagnosed as carrying a Down syndrome baby yet decide to bring the baby to term. Studies indicate that almost 90 percent of American women terminate the baby when pre-natal genetic screening shows the child has Down syndrome.
“He was my rock,” Clarke said of her husband, Dax. “He said, ‘It will be fine. We’ll get through this.’”
And there was something else that made Clarke certain she was making the right decision.
While Clarke was working in a hospital emergency room, a woman who was having a miscarriage was admitted. After the baby was expelled, the woman asked to see her child.
“It was a fully formed, perfect little baby with 10 toes, 10 fingers, a nose and a mouth,” Clarke said. “It was so small, but so perfect. That image kept popping into my head. (My son) is a baby. He’s fully formed.”
Clarke was 17 weeks pregnant – the same as the woman who miscarried – when she knew for sure her baby had Down syndrome.
“How could I abort him? He was a human being,” she said.
Clarke also had an even more personal reason for believing that choosing life for unborn children is the right thing to do.
“My mother was raped when she was 15,” Clarke said, adding that her mother had planned to give her up for adoption until her grandmother arranged a meeting between her daughter and her newborn.”
“I always thank my grandmother,” Clarke said.
Still, Clarke admits she was terrified the night before her scheduled C-section.
“I’ve never cried so hard in my life,” Clarke said. “It was like I was having a monster instead of a baby. I thought I might not want to see him or hold him.”
But on the morning Ethan was born, Clarke said her fears were quickly quelled.
“I can’t even describe it,” she said. “It was a feeling like I was holding a piece of heaven.”
Aside from her faith and a supportive family, Clarke also credits a support group of other parents who have children with Down syndrome for helping her enjoy her new son and get the support and resources necessary to raise a special needs child.
Ethan is now 9 months old and also is adored by his older siblings, brother Dax Jr., 4, and sister Emma, 2, Clarke said.
“There are challenges,” she said. “But I know I was meant to be his mom.”