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Gianna Jessen abortion survivor

16 minutes

Gianna Jessen grew up believing that she was born with cerebral palsy because she had been delivered prematurely in a particularly traumatic birth.

That was the story told to her by her adoptive mother and it was not until she was 12 years old that she discovered the truth about what made her different from the other children at school.

"I had an innate wondering," Gianna Jessen says. "I wasn't satisfied for some reason, so I kept asking why I had this disability.

"She tried to break it to me gently and then, just as she was about to tell me, I said 'I was aborted, right?' She said 'Yeah, you were.' And my reaction was 'Well, at least I have cerebral palsy for an interesting reason.' "

That was 16 years ago.

But while her outward appearance might have changed, her inner determination to overcome even the most insurmountable challenges has remained absolutely constant.

From the very beginning, Miss Jessen survived in spite of herself. Her mother, Tina, a 17-year-old single woman, decided to have an abortion by saline injection when she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant.

But in the early morning of April 6, 1977, the abortion failed. Against the odds, the baby had lived. A nurse called the emergency services and the child was taken to hospital. She weighed only 2lb and the abortionist had to sign her birth certificate.

Then, at 17 months, Miss Jessen was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, caused by her brain being starved of oxygen during the termination. "The doctors said I was in a horrible state," she says. "They said I would never be able to lift up my head, but eventually I did.

"Then they said I would never be able to sit up straight, but I sat up straight. Then they said I would never be able to walk, but by the age of three I was walking with a frame and leg braces." She pauses before adding: "I have a little bit of feistiness in me."

It is this "little bit of feistiness" that has enabled her to become a full-time disability rights and anti-abortion campaigner. Although she lives in Nashville, Tennessee, she travels the world to talk about her experience and, last year, ran her first marathon in seven-and-a-half hours.

"Two years ago, my upper-leg muscles had atrophied, so I had to build them up. I could only lift 30lb of weight. Now I can press over 200lb. It can be exhausting, but at least if you run, you get there faster."

Does she ever blame her mother for leaving her with this condition? "I've never been angry with her because she's a stranger," Miss Jessen says. "She hasn't said she's sorry and I know that she had another abortion after me. But I don't feel sad or bitter because we can choose to overcome and be sweet or we can overcome and be angry. I want to be the former."

Her biological mother has remarried and now lives in Southern California, and although she has seen her daughter on television, Miss Jessen has never contacted her.

Perhaps, after enduring the trauma of four operations in her first 10 years - three to resolve problems with her Achilles tendon, the fourth to splice the spastic nerves in her spine together - the pain of sitting down face to face with the mother who tried to kill her would be too great.

"I feel that I have my mother already - my adoptive mother, Diana [who adopted her when she was four]," she says, with quiet firmness. "At this point, I don't want to be in touch with my biological mother. But it's not that I'm angry with her. I forgive her totally."

It becomes clear that forgiveness has not come easily. Miss Jessen's earliest memory is of having tantrums on the floor of her foster mother's house.

She also remembers a tremendous fear of fire. "I think that was the result of what had happened," she says. "A saline injection abortion effectively burns you in your mother's womb."

She was bullied at school and recalls crying at the taunts of other children. When she was 16, a stranger came up to her and told her that children with disabilities were a burden on society. "I just looked at her, smiled and knew she was wrong," Miss Jessen says.

It is not surprising, then, that however much Miss Jessen claims to have no bitterness, there is still a slight sadness in the downturned corners of her blue-green eyes.

"My mother made a decision that she thought affected only her, and yet every day I bear the result of that decision through my cerebral palsy," she says. "I'm not saying that in condemnation, but in truth.

"It's more comfortable for people to think of abortion as a political decision, or a right. But I am not a right. I am a human being. I am the reality. Gently I put the question, if abortion is about women's rights, then where were mine? There was no radical feminist screaming for my rights on that day.

"That is why I want to live my life with integrity, having lived what I profess. My job is not to change your mind [if you are pro-abortion]. My job is to present the truth and leave you to decide.”

Gianna Jessen

Abortion survivor