We Need to Talk

Yesterday, a close friend of a close friend of mine was told that his four-month old daughter, his only child, is suffering from a rare genetic disorder and will die, without possibility of reprieve, within the next few months.

As you can imagine, this news has shattered the baby’s parents, their extended families, and their friends around the world. 

I’ve been turning this situation over and over in my mind since I heard about it, so much so that I can’t seem to think about anything else. The awful particulars bring a whole slew of core issues into full relief, issues that are central to many of us here at Ricochet.

The illness this poor child is suffering from is detectable via prenatal testing. Had her parents known that she was doomed to a short, painful life, they would almost certainly have aborted her.

Now, before you rush to denounce the parents, I ask that you take a step back and consider how you might frame the pro-life position in a way that might justify what to them would have been an agonizing choice: the choice not to abort the child but to have her, aware that her life in its predetermined brevity and painful hopelessness would be a distilled essence of pure suffering. Simply saying, to paraphrase the pro-life line, that you’ve got a direct line to God and you know better than the parents do, and that they should — contrary to their hearts — inflict that predetermined suffering on the unborn child, just won’t do. It isn’t going to convince anyone of anything. On the contrary: such an argument would serve only to confirm the worst popular suspicions about the pro-life movement.

The antipathy goes both ways, of course. To the pro-life community, pro-choice advocates are profoundly selfish, placing their own desires ahead of the very existence of their offspring. But to the pro-choice community, the refusal to countenance abortion under even the gravest of circumstances is not simply an attack on a woman’s right of self-determination, but a variety of self-righteousness that enters into the territory of pure cruelty. You are heard to be saying that that child should be condemned to suffer and die, and her family devastated, because of your, and not their, religious convictions.

I know that on the pro-choice side (where I was raised), there is a whole spectrum of opinion and belief, some of which — perhaps a great deal of which — does in fact intersect on the hypothetical Venn diagram with the opinions and beliefs of pro-lifers. The issues at stake are incredibly polarizing, but neither side really is monolithic, and I believe (perhaps in vain) that it has to be possible to build a bridge between them. 

Let’s start by frankly addressing the stereotypes. To pro-lifers, pro-choicers are (best case) godless confused people, and (worst case) godless selfish sluts. To pro-choicers, pro-lifers are (best case) well-meaning God-fearers who don’t want their own deeply held beliefs defiled by the system, and (worst case) interfering, sanctimonious prigs who are determined to force their beliefs on others, no matter the pain they cause in the process. To pro-choicers, pro-lifers taint religious belief with their presumptuous certainty of God’s intentions. To pro-lifers, it is the pro-choicers who are presumptuous, daring to dispose of life as if it is their right: indifferent murderers. And if they can’t be bothered to see the error of their ways, their unborn children will in any case be defended.

This morning, when I talked with my good friend (a secular Jew), she told me that the only way she can find to accept the tragedy of that four-month old girl is to try to embrace the idea of progressive reincarnation: the notion that we must all keep returning to life again and again until we are released from human suffering to be with God. She is trying to believe, in other words, that the baby’s suffering is a necessary crucible through which she (and her family) must pass to liberate her into eternity with God. Perhaps, my friend said, that baby’s soul has been through many lives before, and this is her final hurdle before union with God. That would certainly make any human interference a grave error. But are these the terms in which pro-lifers generally think? Or does it come down simply to a refusal to, as it were, exceed our authority as human beings — that we just don’t have the right to extinguish that which God has created, under any circumstances?

This is such a difficult debate, but we have to have it. I know that on the pro-choice side, there is much squeamishness about the casual, almost self-congratulatory defiance with which so many women celebrate their right to abort their children. And I sense that on the pro-life side, into which I’ve been introduced as an adult, there is as much compassion for women as there is for the unborn. But for the most part, we’re all talking past each other (or only to our own side), offending one another with stereotypes and assumptions.

We have to do better. We have to talk.

  1. Wolfsheim

    Judaism teaches that the Lord’s ways are not our ways, and Christianity inherited that humbling view. So the image of pro-life theists as self-righteous fanatics is terribly ironic, though as a pro-life theist myself I must concede that the ferocity of some pro-abortion secularists makes it very tempting to return the hostility and hatred in equal measure…I live in Japan, where there is a dishearteningly high abortion rate but where the issue is rarely discussed. Very few of my compatriots are theists, and despite the country’s long Shinto and Buddhist traditions, religion in any formal sense has little influence. Abortion nonetheless does not appear to be generally regarded as morally neutral. In pre-modern times, infanticide, euphemistically called rice-seedling trimming,, was practiced. A sad father would throw a newborn into a river, the rationalization being that the family was “returning” the child to the Buddha in the hope of a better reincarnation. Something of that spirit endures, because women who have had abortions are known to pray to Jizo, the bodhisattva who serves as a guide to the spirits of children. A solution? No, but I would say less barbaric than the “it’s my body and it’s my right!” argument.

  2. Israel P.

    Sometimes I have so many comments I would like to make that it’s better I just shut up.

  3. J Climacus

    The standard pro-life view (at least that of the Catholic Church) is that extraordinary means may be taken to relieve suffering, even if those means have the unintended consequence of increasing the chance of death, i.e. pain-killing drugs may be administered in doses sufficient to relieve suffering, even if such dosage increases the likelihood of death. The key point is that death can’t be the intended consequence. I don’t know the details of the child’s condition, and I am no doctor, but it would seem an important point the extent to which the child’s suffering could be relieved by extraordinary means.

  4. Robert E. Lee

    We don’t have to talk so much as we have to listen to each other.  Most of the pro-whatever I’ve tried talking to have minds like a steel trap – closed and rusted shut.

  5. Roberto

    Your friend’s tragedy  is heart wrenching Ms. Levy,  but I am uncertain as to your question. 

    There is no possible comfort, no balm that can ease that pain. What are you asking?

  6. J Climacus
    Judith Levy, Ed.: 

    Now, before you rush to denounce the parents, I ask that you take a step back and consider how you might frame the pro-life position in a way that might justify what to them would have been an agonizing choice: the choice not to abort the child but to have her, aware that her life in its predetermined brevity and painful hopelessness would be a distilled essence of pure suffering. 

    I don’t think this is the appropriate context in which to frame the question. As you write, this issue forces us to think about very fundamental philosophical and religious issues; but the time to think about those issues is not when one is in extremis, rather it is in the leisure time before the crisis occurs. When the crisis occurs, you deal with it as best you can with whatever philosophical/religious/personal foundation you have.  It’s too late to give a suicidal man philosophical lectures on the evil of suicide; what will stop his suicide is the philosophic-religious foundation he has already built up and perhaps a personal connection with someone.  cont…

  7. J Climacus

    And it is too late to give philosophical arguments about abortion to a couple that is facing the choice you describe, or even to give them in retrospect after their hearts have been broken. So when you say that we should think how we would frame a pro-life argument to a couple suddenly faced with the choice you describe, I say it is too late for argument at that point. They are not looking for philosophy but a personal answer to a devastating crisis.

  8. Pseudodionysius

    Judith,

    I will return in 24 hours with an extended comment and won’t rush my thoughts on the matter. In the meantime, St Gianna Beretta Molla, a female physician who gave up her life to save her 4th unborn child may provide some consolation for someone facing an especially difficult choice in what they perceive to be a cloud of unknowing. The 4th daughter is very much alive and now speaks to sell out crowd about her mother — her favorite saint.

    “One cannot love without suffering or suffer without loving.”

  9. Gus Marvinson

    Right answers are not the same as solutions. Being pro-life doesn’t automatically give this child 10 years, 50 years, or 100 years on this planet, but letting the child be born is still the right answer.

    My wife’s first ultrasound revealed that our baby had spina bifida and his brain was compressed so severely that the prognosis was likely death in utero  or profound retardation outside the womb. The doctor raised the option of abortion. We looked at one another, turned backed to the doctor and said, in unison, “That’s not an option,” then went home, cried, and doubted ourselves.

    Regular ultrasounds followed with the same result until we got into the third trimester when we saw enough improvement for the doctor to be “cautiously optimistic.” Our son is now 14, has some paralysis in lower extremities and has undergone a few painful surgeries, but is doing well, and is currently engrossed in A Tale of Two Cities.

    I understand that not every story will turn out as well as ours, but

    Lincoln-at-full-draw.jpg

    it’s much easier for me to trust God than to try to be Him.

  10. Marythefifth

    I don’t see the logical difference in being willing and encouraged to kill your baby 4 months after birth vs. 4 months before birth (or 6 of 9). One week after or one week before. I can’t fathom the reasoning behind there being a difference. The point of birth looks kind of arbitrary to me for the death of that child. I felt that way before we had all the advances in sonograms and medical science. It need have nothing at all to do with religion. If one is unthinkable, so should the other be. Sadly, our society is creeping toward making them both acceptable. But the same logic would apply to revering the life of the person 4 months old as much as the person 4 years old, and so on. 

  11. Merina Smith

    Having had the child and loved her for 4 months, I wonder, if they were to go back, would they would choose abortion?   Pain and loss are a part of this life.  Much as we would like to escape them,  we can’t. They are experiencing terrible sorrow, but also deep love and compassion.  I hope they would have experienced terrible sorrow over an abortion, but at least this way they had the wonderful love. 

  12. SMatthewStolte

    Sometimes, we use language suggesting that, when you are in the womb, you are not yet in the world. “Will you bring the child into the world?” “Will you have her?” It is as though the womb were a kind of heaven. 

    But it seems to me that any person who lives in her mother’s womb is already in the world — this person already exists. 

    The situation forces a difficult question on the parents and their friends: How will you relate to this child in the months ahead? Theoretically, the answer is that you should love the child, and love the child deeply and without hesitation. But not everyone would, and you can imagine why. Won’t that just sharpen the pain of the loss? Wouldn’t you feel some temptation to distance yourself from the child? 

    But however you relate to the child emotionally, I think most of us would tend to think that the child should be cared for and comforted for the remainder of her days. If there is a way to ease her pain, then it should be eased. But I think most of us would recoil — …

  13. SMatthewStolte

    … 

    and in context I even recoil from typing the word — from euthanizing the child. 

    I can articulate reasons for this: the child has an intrinsic and irreplaceable worth, and is (for this reason) loved by God with an unqualified love. But even if I couldn’t articulate the reasons, I think I would still have the feeling. 

    But the question posed to parents who get bad news from prenatal screening is the same: How will you relate to this child in the months ahead? If, in this case, abortion is an option, and if it seems to be acceptable in a way that euthanizing the child is not, then it would be good to know how you can explain this difference. Is it thought that an abortion could save the child — not just from suffering — but from ever coming into existence, from ever living at all? I don’t know if this is how many people think, but I often get the impression that it is. And it may be the source of disagreement between others and me, since, as I said, it seems to me that the child in the womb is already a living child in the world.

  14. Frank Monaldo

    Dear Judith,

    First, prayers go out to your friends in their painful, heart-wrenching situation.  I hope there is some consolation in having friends like yourself to help them through. Second, I do not feel confident at all in offering an opinion on this situation. I try separate very hard particular cases from the general pro-life and pro-choice arguments.  If the only abortions that were performed were associated with extreme cases, there would be many fewer abortions and the philosophical considerations could be separated from political ones. This does not make the philosophical arguments less difficult, but the separation is still a good one.

    Perhaps, a year from now, the parents in question and you as their friend, will have a more complete perspective. I would be interested in that perspective.

    Best wishes,

    Frank

  15. Gus Marvinson

    SMatthewStolte is pitch perfect on this one.

  16. Skyler

    I don’t know about anyone else, but if I could only live for four years, I would be grateful for each of them. And I would look unkindly on someone who would wish that I not have had the chance to live.

    Killing children is not a topic that can be easily compromised. It is not enlightened to seek middle ground on core philosophical questions.

  17. HVTs

    … the choice not to abort the child but to have her, aware that her life in its predetermined brevity and painful hopelessness would be a distilled essence of pure suffering.

    I wish you’d explained if the genetic disorder means she suffers pain or if there is relief from that. I’m going to assume there is.

    (a) Smart as we may think we are, we have no rational basis for assuming what is or is not “predetermined.”  At the level of quantum mechanics “predetermined” is the opposite of what we understand to be the nature of reality.  There’s no point in arguing with someone who has already assumed God-like knowledge of life’s outcomes.

    (b) Is the love that this baby undoubtedly feels from her parents–however brief–what you really would describe as “painful hopelessness” and “pure suffering”?  I should think it is the essence of hopefulness and the opposite of suffering. Do you really think it’s better to snuff out this precious soul in the womb, rather then giving it  the dignity of pure parental love–the warmth of a loving mother’s and father’s embrace–before being taken we know not where?

  18. katievs

    Judith, I will have that little baby in my heart at Mass today.  

    Meanwhile, I want to address the stereotypes you mention:

    To pro-lifers, pro-choicers are (best case) godless confused people, and (worst case) godless selfish sluts.

    As a pro-lifer who travels in pro-life circles, I have to say that this “best case” possibility isn’t nearly as good as the truth and the “worst case” is far, far worse than any real case I have ever met.  

    To pro-choicers, pro-lifers taint religious belief with their presumptuous certainty of God’s intentions.

    Again, I recognize neither myself nor any other pro-lifer I know in this description.  In defending the inherent preciousness and dignity of each and every human life, including the small and weak and vulnerable and disabled, we aren’t presuming anything about God’s intentions.  We’re defending really existing human beings.

    To pro-lifers, it is the pro-choicers who are presumptuous, daring to dispose of life as if it is their right: indifferent murderers. 

    To the first part, yes.  To the second part, no.  There is no assumption among pro-lifers that all pro-choicers are “indifferent murderers.”

  19. JB

    Thanks for posting that, Judith. It was very thoughtful. I particularly enjoyed the way you were able to see each side of the debate the way the other does. It’s a skill that we could all benefit from having more of.

  20. katievs

    The pro-life position is that no one has the right to deprive another innocent human being of life.  We don’t get to decide that another person’s life is inconvenient, or that it’s not worth living.  

    For religious pro-lifers, it goes deeper.  Each life, however short, however burdened with suffering, is a gift from God.  Each is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, “knit in its mother’s womb” in His Image, from love and for love.  Each instant of his or her life is held up by love, surrounded and sustained by love, and destined for still greater love.

    We also believe that suffering, though it is terrible and can be acute, doesn’t have the last word.  It comes to an end.  “Mourning may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”  We believe that God is the Author of Life; we are its custodians and caretakers.

    And we see and experience that efforts to relieve others’ suffering and surround his or her suffering life with love and care is beautiful and humanizing.

    Love says, “It’s good that you exist.”  

    Who can say to suffering child, “You should never have been born”?

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