With increasing hope for the medical profession, and with heartfelt compassion for J.D. Rucker and his wife, I read his recent Federalist article, “Every Doctor Should Discuss An Unborn Baby’s Health Problems Like Ours Did.”
After sketching his unborn son’s life-threatening heart condition, Rucker wrote these words of promise: “I knew our doctor would pressure us to have an abortion. Except, she didn’t. She didn’t tell us not to have one, either. She laid out the situation kindly and factually, even drawing pictures of our son’s rare condition so we could better understand what he’s facing.”
“YES!” I silently cheered. Finally, a doctor focused on science and facts rather than pushing abortion. But a few lines later Rucker shared: “Then, she said something that astounded me. ‘Whatever decision you make will be the right one because it comes from love.’”
While Rucker believed their doctor had delivered an “utterly neutral presentation” of “facts,” she hadn’t. Their doctor didn’t “present the facts as the facts,” but instead superimposed on the discussion her philosophical and ethical worldview, one built on moral nihilism (or possibly moral relativism; I’ll leave that for the philosophers to debate).
Killing an Innocent Is Not Morally Neutral
Unfortunately, in today’s culture of death, this may be the best we can hope for from secular physicians—that they don’t push abortion on the parents of unborn babies suffering from birth defects or genetic diseases. But Rucker is wrong to believe that “[i]f all doctors presented the facts the way our doctor did, fewer preborn children would be killed.”
As pro-life parents who expected to be pressured to abort, Rucker and his wife heard their doctor’s words through that lens—expressing support for their decision not to end the pregnancy. But that is not how pro-choice or less firmly-footed pro-life parents will hear such a message, especially when given on the heels of a detailed and dire medical prognosis.
Rather, these parents will hear that aborting their unborn baby is a compassionate choice, one made of love, and the right thing to do under the circumstances. Unfortunately, for many parents, that will be the only “out” they need to end their child’s life—and they will likely later regret it.
Addie Morfoot and her husband Ross took that out, as she explained in an article for Salon several years back. Morfoot walked the readers through their “impossible parenting choice” that began when they learned while she was pregnant with Annie that she and her husband were both carriers of cystic fibrosis:
Ross and I had one working copy of the gene and one copy of the gene with a mutation, meaning we are carriers but asymptomatic. If our fetus inherited two defective cystic fibrosis genes—one from each of us—that would mean a definite CF diagnosis. The chances of that happening were just one in four.
The odds were in our favor. But I grew alarmed when the geneticists informed me that Ross and I both happened to carry a particularly defective mutation of the disease, meaning our baby would have a severe case of CF. ‘If the baby is diagnosed, be prepared to spend a large portion of his or her life in the hospital,’ the geneticists said. We were also told that while 36 ½ was the average life expectancy, our child, if diagnosed, would most likely die at a much younger age due to a rapid decline of lung function in early childhood leading to respiratory failure. In addition to frequent hospitalizations, pounding on the baby’s chest for a few hours every day to loosen the mucus in the lungs (chest physiotherapy) would be necessary, and a lung or heart transplant was a strong possibility. Later that day, I found an article in the New York Times stating that ‘the median survival for all lung transplants is about 50 percent in five years. That is much less than the survival for kidney, heart or liver transplants.’ My heart sank.
One month later, while baby Annie rested nestled safely in her mother’s womb, her parents learned that she did indeed have cystic fibrosis. Their reaction: “I can’t imagine watching her suffer,” Ross said, “and possibly burying her,” Addie added. They didn’t. Instead, Addie aborted her daughter. On those rare occasions she gives herself permission to think about Annie, her husband reassures her: “We did the right thing. We helped her. She was sick.”
“You did the right thing. She was sick.” That was the message Addie, Ross, and the Ruckers heard from their doctors, but the Ruckers’ framed with an even stronger appeal: the decision will be one of love.
Try Consulting Other Parents of Disabled Children
But as Nancy Flanders said in her direct, but compassionate response to Addie, “abortion is not the answer.” Abortion is never the answer.
Of course, neither is sugar-coating or lying. But that is a false choice. Parents faced with dire prenatal diagnosis need facts, and accurate ones, but they also need hope. The best people to provide both are not solely doctors or geneticists but the parents of children living with such conditions.
Flanders, who has a little girl with cystic fibrosis, made that point extremely well. As Flanders pointed out, Addie received a lot of misinformation about cystic fibrosis. As a parent of a son living with cystic fibrosis, I concur.
For instance, rather than having spent most of his life so far in the hospital, our seven-year-old son has never even had a cold (or the flu, or an ear or sinus infection). Yet our son also has two severe CF mutations—likely the same ones Annie had since it is also the most common mutation. Rather than having a rapidly declining lung function, our son’s spirometer results consistently show that his lung function exceeds 100 percent of the predicted value for a “normal” child his age, even though he also has asthma.
Yes, he has time-consuming daily treatments, but that is his fun time with mom or dad. I also manage to sneak in some extra cuddles—something I doubt most moms of a boy his age get. Yes, when he was younger, he often had painful GI issues, but as I learned the triggers and the “cures,” they’ve become fewer and less severe. All in all, his life—our life—is happy and filled with love. There is also a very high probability that within five years, he will have a medication that corrects his CFTR gene function, allowing it to perform nearly normally.
Love Cares For the Needy, It Doesn’t Dispose of Them
But Morfoot didn’t know any of this. Had she and her husband reached out to patient-support groups or parents, she would have learned these facts. Luckily, many other parents do. Over the past seven years, I’ve been privy to many such “conversations” on a community forum at which I contribute.
Expectant parents who have received a possible or definitive diagnosis of cystic fibrosis for their unborn child regularly post a desperate thread seeking advice. While occasionally these parents will state outright that they are not aborting, more frequently the threads hint that they are considering (or planning on) an abortion.
Response after response by parents provides detailed facts, both scientific and personal, as well as love and compassion. Almost without exception, the experienced moms and dads speak with a presumption of life and embrace the humanity of the unborn baby. The message is resoundingly life-affirming, without even the slightest hint of an anti-abortion perspective.
The message is also authentic because it is born of understanding. We have all been there. We know firsthand what it is like to be told your baby has a deadly disease. We know the pain. The fear. The worry. And the pull of despair. But we also know the love. True love that doesn’t take the “out” provided by a “compassionate” doctor.
That is what parents truly need to choose life when confronted with one of the most devastating things a parent can ever learn—that their child has a life-threatening condition. Not that aborting their baby is a decision born of love and therefore the “right” thing to do.