A Brave Story and a Bitter Pill
With teenage pregnancy affecting women since the beginning of time, the choice is ultimately one that is hers to make. But with a new offering of hope and the controversial discussion around the new ‘abortion pill’ RU-486, this is a topic where every angle needs to be discussed. MELODY TOWNS reports
Walking up the corridor, Bernadette moved slowly towards the pink Wendy’s t-shirt that clung to the growing physique of her boyfriend Dave. Dressed in an identical shirt, Bernie and Dave were on their lunchbreak from the ice-cream parlour where they both worked, but there was something different about this break and with each step Bernadette took, she knew that both their lives were about to be changed forever. “I saw him differently”, says Bernadette, “He was a 16 year old boy about to be told he was going to be a father”.
When Bernadette Black was just 16 years old she, like 25,000 other teenage girls in Australia each year, was faced with a decision that would ultimately affect the rest of her life. Raised in a strict middle class Catholic home, Bernadette had always been the ‘good girl’, the girl she describes as “someone that you thought that this could never happen to”. Little did Bernadette realise the consequences of losing her virginity when she slept with her boyfriend for the first time in his bedroom while his parents were out. She says, “I found myself in an emotional pull towards Dave and, as a result, Dave and I had sex. I didn’t think about the repercussions of having sex, like the possibility of falling pregnant. I just assumed it wouldn’t happen to me. So, we had sex and the condom broke…”
Bernadette’s story is not an unusual one. With teenage pregnancy occurring since the beginning of time, this is a story that many women could relate to, despite whatever decision they make regarding their pregnancy. But Bernadette, now 30, has written a book that may surprise many. A story of a teenage mother who decided to have her child and, despite all odds, aim to make a success of her life. While being objective in saying that she is not placing any judgement on any decision that a teenage mother may make, Bernadette says the aim of her story is to present another outcome, one that is positive and has never been offered.
When I meet Bernadette, I am overwhelmed. She bounces up to me, wraps her arms around me and with a big beaming smile welcomes me into the waterfront pavilion where, today, she is getting all the attention for all the right reasons. It is like we are best friends, but we have only just met, the genuineness in her greeting something that seems surreal in the networking world of small smiles and meet-and-greets.
It is her book launch, the day that she has been working towards since she was 16. She is there with her husband, three children, a few politicians and a huge crowd of support. The media flocks around her as she shares her heart with the world and the day that so many thought would never arrive, is unraveling a new story of hope for all to see.
It is just over 12 years since the day that Bernadette made a pact with herself, despite constant criticism, that she would firstly, be a great mum, secondly complete her education and thirdly write a book to offer some hope to other girls who may and who do find themselves in this situation and decide to have their babies.
She was sitting in a mothers’ group when Bernadette conceived her dream that would see her persevere against all odds. “At the group there were many girls that had no support, their parents had disowned them and their partners had left them. These girls literally had no hope. We asked in our mum’s group if there were any books available that would be able to show us that we could be great mums regardless of our age. The nurse who ran this group said that there were no books ever written like this.”
Acknowledging that she did have the support of her family and the stability of a middle class background, Bernadette says she feels most passionate about the girls who may not be so lucky. “The amount of judgemental attitudes that some people displayed to me in society was huge, and I was with my mum and dad, but for these girls all they see is no hope, so thankfully this book and hopefully my website with the collaboration of education and health care will be a resource for them that they haven’t had access to before”.
Despite her success, Bernadette, now a trained nurse, has had to walk the hard road and empathises with other girls in this situation. Endorsing motherhood, but not sugar-coating the reality of it, Bernadette openly shares the way that she had to deal with society’s reactions and their constant disapproval of her. “I was very vulnerable, especially only being 16. I used to keep my head down to avoid people’s prying eyes. I wanted to wear a sign saying that I would be a good mum but it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Leaving room for only the truth, Bernadette describes how she felt at this time in her book. She writes, “I remember shopping at Myers for some foundation, and the shop assistant noticed my growing belly. She looked at me in disgrace saying, “Babies having babies”. I felt so inadequate, so unable, so scared. Who was I kidding?”
Going to a Catholic school and growing up in a Catholic home also proved to be a paradox for Bernadette. Although she had the support of her family, many of her friends couldn’t understand her decision, a decision that she says had a lot to do with her own beliefs. Well-meaning friends told her that she was going to ruin her life and kept asking why she wouldn’t have an abortion? “I fleetingly thought about having an abortion certainly”, says Bernadette, “however after I contemplated it a little longer I thought, “No, I can take this on. I have to take responsibility now to care for this child”, and that’s when I decided I would be a great mother”.
Dave was a great support despite the lack of encouragement he received from his family. Described by Bernadette as being very respectful, Dave supported her choice despite the critics and is still a big part of his son Damien’s life today. She says, “Early on his family had said to him that it would be better if I did have an abortion, and that was a very difficult thing. His mother had said to me that if I made this decision, then both Dave and I would make nothing of our lives and have absolutely nothing to offer our baby. At the time I felt stripped bare, like I had no defence, but I would not compromise my decision”.
Now as a mother, Bernadette says that she understands Dave’s family a little more. As a mother to 13-year-old Damien, Bernadette understands just how frightening it must have been for Dave’s family to have their son come to them and tell them that his girlfriend was going to have a baby. “For them, they’d never seen a girl who had succeeded in having a baby when she was 16; they’d seen a lot of girls that we all see today-their situations around them are often negative and when you only see negative things, then obviously your outlook can also be negative”, explains Bernadette.
“Everyone has their own personal beliefs and stances. To date in Australia, you can find out about pro-life, abortions, adoptions, the mini pill and the ‘abortion pill’ RU-486. One option that has not been presented to young mothers is a story like mine that shows you can be a young mum, continue with your pregnancy, and also have a fantastic, successful life.
With the controversy surrounding RU-486, or the ‘abortion pill’, this is one side of teenage pregnancy that needs to be told. Not political, not religious, just an offering of hope to thousands of girls faced with this life changing decision daily throughout the world. With what seems a relatively “harmless” option to surgical abortion being an issue of continual controversy between Australian politicians, RU-486 is another kind of ‘emergency contraceptive’, that women in the US, Britain, Canada and Sweden have as an option.
While the Australian parliament argues over whether or not this pill should be approved, every mother has a right to know every option that they may choose when faced with the decision of having a baby. While Bernadette’s story is one of the first offerings of hope to teenage mothers who decide to keep their child, the introduction of RU-486, whether you agree with it or not, has side effects that also need to be discussed to mothers in more depth.
An American website, standupgirl.com, offers a resource for young mothers and teenage pregnancies to discuss all aspects of pregnancy from abortion to pro life. In an article posted by one of its members named only as Mary, the ‘abortion pill’ is discussed as being linked with the death of 10 women since it was approved in the year 2000. What many don’t know is that the ‘abortion pill’, is actually two pills. Not as simple as just popping it in your mouth and waiting for it to go away, the first pill, Mifepristone, is taken to kill the tiny foetus and then a few days later, Misoprostol is taken to induce labour and expel the remains. But, as Mary writes, “with two or three visits to the doctor, an ultrasound, and the possible removal of the dead foetus, it’s not private. It’s not just contraception and it’s definitely not harmless”.
A study by Ralph P. Miech MD, PhD, describes the relationship between the drugs and the ten deaths. He states, “The first drug blocks progesterone, the hormone that tells the placenta to provide nutrition and oxygen to the baby. This causes changes to the cervix that allow c. Sordelli to enter the cervical canal. C. Sordelli thrives in the low oxygen environment and derives nutrition from the decaying foetal tissue. Meanwhile, it’s disrupting the immune system, so that even the woman’s body now becomes vulnerable to bacterial attack. Her body cannot fight the bacteria, and c. Sordelli and its toxic wastes spread throughout the body, causing widespread shock and sometimes death”.
Accessible to any woman under seven weeks pregnant in the approved countries, Danco, the leading American distributor of the drug claims that the deaths were not specifically caused by taking these pills. Their argument is that it cannot be proven that the drugs directly cause death, due to the fact that septic shock caused by c. Sordelli is possible in other circumstances including childbirth and menstruation. But the standard of safety still remains a concern, as the cause of death may not be from the pill but from the toxic shock caused by the remaining foetus that is not completely expelled from the uterus.
Describing the abortion pill as a waking nightmare, Mary states that “perhaps worse than all the bodily effects of RU-486 is the psychological effect”. Linked to a higher suicide rate for depressed women, the ‘abortion pill’ leaves no one to clean up the mess except for the mother herself. A horrifying image is presented by abortiontv.com on their website, stating that a “woman may find herself sitting on her bathroom floor at two in the morning cradling her tiny child in her bloody fingers”. While this may be considered extreme, the fact that unlike a surgical abortion where the foetus may be expelled not intact but rather in shreds, is a haunting reminder that this, like any decision regarding teenage pregnancy, or any pregnancy in fact, is something that cannot be taken lightly.
Information regarding all aspects of pregnancy is vital to teenage girls placed in a situation where a decision needs to be made. Without placing judgement on whatever decision they do choose, all information does need to be made aware to them. Whether it is an abortion that they choose to have, an adoption or like Bernadette a decision to have her child, every girl has a right to make an informed choice regarding something that will not only affect her body, but her mind and her life forever.
As Australian celebrity Marcia Hines states in the forward of Bernadette’s book Brave Little Bear, “I do not condone teenage pregnancy, please understand this, but in life things do happen…and it happened to me. Luckily Bernadette and I had support and as with anything in life if you have support and self-belief you’re going to make it. But please don’t make life any harder than it already is, and your teenage life is a gift. (And so is motherhood at the right time). If I could I would not change a thing and I’m sure Bernadette wouldn’t either, but precautionary measures is what it’s all about. However if you do fall pregnant, remember that you are no longer a child, you are taking care of a child.”
In the heat of discussion about RU-486 and the offering of hope from one teenage mum who aims to help others, lets remember that it’s life we are talking about here, and what every girl needs from society is not a judgement but a soft place to fall and the support and self-belief to get back up again, whatever her choice.
Brave Little Bear is being used in the young mothers’ program in Tasmania Australia and is under review by each state’s education department in the school curriculum. With its website, www.bravelittlebear.com.au, a dedicated resource to helping young mothers, Bernadette hopes that the incidence of teenage pregnancy will be reduced, but for now she wants to help the girls who are there walking this journey today. “What I’d like in this country is for these levels, 25,000 teenage pregnancies a year – to decrease. This is like a long term plan, it generations down the future, but what needs to happen to stop that generational cycle is that these girls, as I said before, they might see around them that all there is, is negative feedback, or just their circumstances: if they can grab that light or just that one bit of hope, then their child may not have a child at 16”.