The failed abortion survivor whose mum thought she was dead

By Adam Eley and Jo Adnitt
BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme

  • Published
Media caption,

Melissa Ohden: 'My mother tried to abort me'

When Melissa Ohden was 14 she learned a shocking secret - her mother had tried to abort her. She was saved by a nurse who heard her crying as she lay among medical waste at a US hospital. This is the story of her survival, and of the mother who thought she was dead.

"I grew up knowing I'd been born prematurely, that I had been adopted," Melissa Ohden, now 41, tells the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.

"What I didn't know was that there was this great secret behind all of this. That I should have been delivered dead, and instead I was born alive."

In 1977, in a hospital in the US state of Iowa, Melissa's 19-year-old mother had undergone an abortion using a toxic saline solution over five days.

Born at eight months and weighing less than three pounds (1.3kg), Melissa was placed among medical waste.

That was, until a nurse heard her weak cries and slight movements.

Melissa was rushed to an intensive care unit, where - against the odds - she survived.

Doctors thought she would be blind, and at one stage believed she had a fatal heart defect.

But she has gone on to live a perfectly healthy life, being brought up by an adoptive family.

"It is astonishing", Melissa admits. "I pinch myself some days."

Image source, Melissa Ohden
Image caption,
Doctors thought Melissa would be left with long-lasting health problems

Melissa - who has written a book about her experiences - says she only found out she was an abortion survivor when her sister in her adoptive family let it slip during an argument.

"You know Melissa, at least my biological parents wanted me," she had shouted, without thinking.

At first Melissa was confused, but as the realisation kicked in - and she sat down with her adoptive parents - it led to a downward spiral in her mental health.

"I turned my pain upon myself," she explains. "It was a lonely place.

"I developed an eating disorder, struggled with alcohol abuse. I didn't want to be me."

Image source, MELISSA oHDEN
Image caption,
Melissa with her sister

The pain continued to build, until five years later - aged 19 - she took the bold decision to track down the mother who had aborted her.

It was a process that took more than a decade, but eventually she found her - and discovered a truth that shocked her.

"The biggest secret truly is that my birth mother had spent over 30 years of my life believing I had died that day at the hospital.

"She was not told I survived. It was kept a secret from her," she says.

"I was placed for adoption without her ever knowing.

"She never knew if it was a little boy or a little girl she had delivered."

It was for this reason that when the two first met face-to-face, three years after they had begun emailing, Melissa was most struck by the "regret" in her mother's eyes, which she says haunted her for some time.

She struggles to describe the moment they first met, but says "it was absolutely surreal.

"It was one of those defining moments of your life."

Image caption,
Melissa was a teenager when she discovered the truth

But the shocks continued to come.

Her birth mother, Ruth, told her she had never wanted to have an abortion, and that she had been put in a position of feeling forced to go through with the termination.

"What I learned was my grandmother - her mother - was a prominent nurse in the community, and that the local abortionist was a friend of hers.

"Together they literally forced the abortion on my birth mother against her will.

"They were able to bypass the hospital regulations and procedures that my birth mother would have had to go through.

"So people at the hospital thought it was her choice, and she had no opportunity to fight back."

Melissa's survival had been even more unlikely as her grandmother, who worked at the hospital where she was born, had instructed her colleagues to "leave the baby in the room to die" that day - a fact she had openly admitted among family members.

"It's not been easy for me to live with," Melissa says, reflecting on her grandmother's comments. "But I'm not angry with her. We all make mistakes in this life. I don't hold that against her.

"My heart breaks for her," she continues, "because I will always wonder what it was in her life that made her take that decision on mine."

'One of the luckiest'

In fact, Melissa insists she is "one of the luckiest people in the world", to firstly have survived, and then to have both her adoptive parents and her birth mother in her life.

By complete chance, Melissa and her birth mother now live in Kansas City, as well as one of her half-sisters.

They see each other "as often as we possibly can", Melissa says, with joy.

"My biological family is a huge part of my life."

It means that having seen the regret in her mother's eyes on that first meeting two years ago, she now gets "to experience her joy".

Watch the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel in the UK.