The other day I met a woman whose story could help save thousands of lives. She is a successful 33-year-old entrepreneur named Charnette Messe.
Charnette is founder of a dance company whose students have performed at the Lincoln Center. As creator of Embracing Life greeting cards, she won the 2001 Louie Award -- the greeting card industry's Oscar.
But it is not the story of Charnette's creative success that has the power to save lives. It is the story of her abortion and subsequent struggle with breast cancer.
"I was a young woman with a dream," she said last week at a conference in Arlington, Va., organized by Bay Buchanan's American Cause Foundation. "I wanted to be married. I wanted children. I had this dream as a young child to be a dancer, and an actress, and a writer. I wanted all of that."
Then at age 20 she became pregnant. She approached her boyfriend holding some hope in her heart. "Maybe he'd say we could get married," she said. "Then I could have the house and the baby and everything I wanted. I could have my dream. But he said, 'Are you going to have an abortion?' "
He took her to a clinic. "I laid on my back," she said, "and I allowed a nameless, faceless person to take my child from me and ultimately my health."
A few years later, Charnette met Thomas Messe, a Navy doctor. It was love at first sight. They married. Her dreams were coming true at last. But then there were complications.
"Following my abortion," she said, "I suffered from infertility. I suffered from pelvic pain, abdominal pain and pain in my left breast."
Worst of all she suffered emotional isolation, even from her beloved husband who was deeply pro-life.
"I suffered from the pain of silence," she said, "because I was not able to tell anyone -- not a single person -- why I was hurting, because after my abortion I was determined never, ever to tell another human being that I had lost a child to abortion."
Following surgery to treat her infertility, she gave birth to a daughter, Gabrielle. After another surgery, she became pregnant again.
Then she found a lump under her arm. Ultrasound revealed malignancy. "It was a snowstorm of cancer in my left breast," she said, "the same breast I had suffered pain from ever since the day of my abortion." The cancer was at stage three, one stage below the most advanced. Her pregnancy would delay treatment. She was determined to save her own life and her unborn baby's.
In self-imposed silence, she faced a crisis.
"I fell to my knees in a Catholic Church," she said, "and begged God and begged a priest to please give me the strength and the courage so that I could tell my husband that I had an abortion and that I could tell the world that I had an abortion and that I now have breast cancer -- because I do not want what happened to me to happen to someone else."
She went home to tell her husband. He gently stopped her and asked if she had had an abortion. "I said, 'Yes,' " she said, "and he sat down beside me on the bed and he put his arm around me and said, 'Honey, we both lost a child.' "
Charnette stepped unflinchingly into one of the most controversial debates in medicine: Does induced abortion increase the risk of breast cancer?
Numerous case studies indicate it does. In 1996, a group of researchers led by Prof. Joel Brind of the City University of New York published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health a comprehensive analysis of all studies of a potential link. There was a 30 percent overall increased risk of breast cancer, they concluded, among women who had any induced abortions.
Other researchers contest the link. They argue that women who haven't had breast cancer are less likely to reveal past abortions to researchers than women who have had breast cancer.
Given that one in every eight American women now faces the prospect of breast cancer, our all-Republican federal government has a duty to settle this issue -- stat -- with honest science. They should listen to Charnette, whose story will be available on video from the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute (BCPInstitute.org).
Gabrielle is now 4, and son Christian is 1. But they aren't the only children in Charnette's heart. "I would feel greatly accomplished," she says, "if everyone in this world will remember me as a mother of three beautiful children -- because that is who I am."