CONCORD, N.H.—State Rep. Mary Brown's graduation photograph of President Clinton and her daughter at the Coast Guard Academy represents far more than a Kodak moment to the proud mother.
The legislator has been displaying the photo and reliving bittersweet memories of daughter Jessica's premature birth in 1974 to give exposure to her negative stance on partial-birth abortions. Jessica, photographed shaking Clinton's hand after her 1996 Coast Guard Academy graduation, was born in 1974 during her mother's 24th week of pregnancy.
“The next time the partial-birth abortion bill comes to the president, I hope he'll stop and think about what a fetus really is. It's a human being,” she told the state's House of Representatives during a debate on a bill to restrict partial-birth abortions.
She also has provided the full text or portions of the speech to various newspapers and magazines, most recently The American Feminist magazine's summer issue.
Brown, 46, said she feels compelled to share her own experience when she hears debate about the humanity of premature infants and particularly about partial-birth abortions.
“If people see what I've seen, there would be no question in their minds that this is a human being,” she said.
“I remember just standing over her and looking at her at 24 weeks and I just couldn't believe it. She was this tiny little baby and yet she was completely formed. She had fingernails and she was moving around and she cried when something hurt her,” Brown said.
Brown, a Republican who has served two terms representing the town of Chichester, said such vivid images of Jessica spurred her to speak out when other legislators called a second trimester fetus “a blob of tissue.”
She admittedly has become increasingly vocal in recent months, as she points with pride to her now 24-year-old daughter, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Jessica Brown, who currently is serving as a company officer at the Naval Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.
The soft-spoken legislator readily acknowledges that she has come a long way since 1973, when she was juggling roles as a wife to Gary Brown; a homemaker with one baby (son John, then about 9 months old); and again a mother-to-be, only this time having medical problems from the earliest stages of pregnancy.
“Despite the uproar over Roe v. Wade going on at the time, I'd never thought about abortion. I guess I was always too sick and just too busy being a mom and a wife,” she recalled.
Jessica's surprise arrival Jan. 1, 1974, which doctors had predicted to be a stillbirth, brought the issue into focus quickly and momentously for the Browns.
She feels compelled to share her own experience.
“The doctor looked at my husband and me and said, ‘Her chances are slim, and even if she survives, she'll probably be physically and mentally handicapped, blind or worse. Do you want to try and save her or dispose of her?’” she recalled the doctor asking. “I kind of caught my breath because I couldn't imagine such a thing. Both Gary and I said at the same time, ‘Save her!’”
Brown now looks back on a first year of nightmares, confusion, and “dire predictions” from medical authorities during which love and fervent prayers were the sole sustaining forces. A merry-go-round of hospital trips and two near brushes with death for Jessica cemented her faith in the power of prayer.
“When I took her for her one-year check-up with her pediatrician, the doctor looked her over,” Brown recalled. “When I left she looked at me and said, ‘You know, Mary, she [Jessica] really is a miracle.’ And I did know that.”
For her own part, Jessica not only beat the odds but flourished, eventually attending public grade school and then a private Catholic high school, where she distinguished herself in cross country and other track sports. She graduated as class salutatorian before moving on to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., from which her brother John also graduated, and where she again was active in track.
While Jessica was in college her mother was elected to represent Chichester in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. A self-described political neophyte with a fear of pubic speaking four years ago, Brown said it was also then that a debate on late-term abortions set the stage for her current activities.
“These two women were saying, ‘What's the big deal about these [late-term] abortions? At 20 or 24 weeks it's not a human being, anyway.’ But I was so shy, I couldn't get up to the podium and say anything. All the memories came flooding back and I felt shocked, devastated to the point where all I could do was leave the hall and find a corner downstairs where I cried and cried,” she recalled.
“And I thought to myself, if only I could tell these people what I know, some of them, maybe, would understand.”
So began another odyssey of prayer for Brown, who is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. Last spring, while the House prepared for debate on a bill to restrict partial-birth abortions, Brown rehearsed her speech repeatedly before the family's Beagle Labrador mix dog, Dixie.
Brown's testimony, which she capped by holding up the photograph of Clinton and Jessica, now is part of the legislative body's record of a defeat for the bill. And while admitting to disappointment about the outcome, Brown, who now is running for a Senate seat, said the experience was worth it if it can change even one mind on the issue.
“I think if most people saw what a young, premature baby looks like, you would see a big change in this idea of abortion on demand, and you'd see a big change in the hearts of people,” she said. “And I hope that happens.”
For her own part, Jessica said she is proud of her mother and ever-mindful of the extraordinary difficulties her parents faced through her lifetime.
“I feel that I don't ever want to take life for granted, or to take for granted the wonderful support my parents — especially my mom — has given me from the very start,” she said. “I owe her my life at least three times over and I am very, very grateful.”
Roberta Tuttle writes from Hamden, Connecticut.