In the lead-up to Ireland’s abortion referendum, The Tablet, a Catholic weekly out of London, ran an overview of both sides of the debate. Lorna Donlon’s article was headlined “Ireland’s Very Personal Question,” and it begs the question: just how personal is a woman’s decision to kill the life she is carrying? Is abortion no more than a matter of subjective preference? In a society that is serious about what is right, can the personal dimension overtake the moral?
The article called to mind three women who have grasped the falsity of the feminist rallying cry: “It’s my body.” None of them were Catholic. Two of them I knew well. I met the third only in the pages of an article about a close-knit Jewish community in upstate New York. The grace of each woman’s decision throws into relief the lurid jubilation in Ireland over the results of the May 25th referendum.
Leslie’s Baby Threatened Her Spinal Cord
Begin with my friend Leslie. She was a young mother with a toddler when she became pregnant again. All was well until sometime between the fourth and fifth month of pregnancy. The baby was sound, developing on schedule, but exceptionally large for her frame. He was crowding his accommodations, positioned in some precarious way that put pressure on his mother’s spine. At the time, doctors could not dislodge the fetal posture without endangering either mother or child.
As the infant grew, so did the strain on Leslie’s spine. If she carried the baby to term, she risked serious injury to her spinal cord. Probability of paralysis was high. Doctors recommended abortion. It was the only certain means of avoiding a tragic outcome.
Leslie faced the possibility of being permanently disabled, incapacitated as a wife and mother. How could she sentence herself — and her husband — to the wreckage of a life they had only just begun together? Neither she nor her husband Paul had any taste for martyrdom. Besides, they had a daughter to raise.
Yet there was more at stake here than a healthcare decision. The couple recoiled from the nature of abortion. Not yet born, their child was nonetheless a separate human being with its own heartbeat, fingerprints, and facial features. In prayerful anguish, they hazarded the pregnancy.
For some four-and-a-half months, Leslie was bedridden, forbidden to get up except to use the bathroom. Paul hired aides to take over household activities and care for their two-year-old while he held his job.
At the end of this perilous confinement, Leslie gave birth to a strapping baby boy. That son is now a six foot four grad student, a handsome, gracious, and accomplished young man who looms protectively over his sisters. And his parents.
There is a postscript to the couple’s story. Doctors warned against another pregnancy. Leslie had beaten the odds this time; the chances of her doing so again were slim. The couple took the cautions to heart and adopted their next child, an infant daughter. Years later, they adopted a six-year-old girl surrendered to the child welfare system by a feckless mother. All four of their children are living testaments to the meaning of marriage.
Helen and Her Shattering Diagnosis
Helen was my neighbor. She and Peter, both lawyers, had moved from Manhattan onto our Brooklyn block in anticipation of family life. Newly pregnant, Helen began making friends with the young mothers she would soon be joining. She sat with us on our front stoops and chatted about family life and child rearing. To celebrate her first Christmas on the block, she made decorations for us from the familiar kitchen formula: flour and water snowflakes, baked and hung on ribbons.
Her pregnancy was normal. The baby’s room was ready. Life was filled with promise. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a shattering diagnosis: brain cancer. How could this be? Helen was not yet thirty and in good health. What went wrong? Could pregnancy have had anything to do with it?
The couple hunted for a reprieve. They consulted oncologists at Sloan Kettering, at MD Anderson in Texas, and Dana Farber in Boston. At each hospital they asked the same inevitable, desperate question: If the pregnancy were ended, could Helen survive? They received the same answer: No. Abortion would grant her a few more weeks; perhaps a few months. But she was under a death sentence. Abortion would delay but not lift it.
Another couple might have seized those extra few weeks or months. Anything at all to keep on living. Instead, Helen and her husband lived out the pregnancy in grief. Her only solace — if that word applies to what little can be salvaged from inconsolable heartbreak — was intuitive belief in the primacy of life, even if the life could not be hers.
One sweet spring day, Peter drove his wife into the city to give birth. He came home a widower with a newborn daughter. He brought the baby to his parents on Long Island, put their apartment up for sale, and disappeared.
Each Christmas, I hang Helen’s snowflakes on my tree. Each year I wrap them in tissue and put them away with the ancient prayer: “May perpetual light shine upon her, O Lord. May her soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace.”
Helen, a Christian of no particular denomination, proved more faithful than all the cheering women of once-Catholic Ireland.
The Baby a Rapist Fathered
Lastly, there is Freida. An Orthodox Jew and mother of five, she was attacked and raped on a country road. Her first missed period told her she was pregnant with a child she would never want. She sought the advice of her rabbi on whether an abortion would be permissible.
The rabbi did not answer immediately. The traditional Jewish starting point is nuanced. There exists a halackhic imperative to safeguard life; at the same time, abortion is not forbidden under certain grave conditions. Certainly different strains of Judaism interpret traditions differently. But Freida was Orthodox. So the words of an Orthodox rabbi, writing in Haaretz, are relevant here: “Judaism is overwhelmingly about responsibilities, not rights. And both Jews and non-Jews, according to halakha, have responsibilities to protect fetuses. There may be rare cases where those responsibilities are superseded by other concerns, but, put starkly, it is almost always Jewishly wrong to end even a potential life.”
Freida’s rabbi interviewed her husband at length. Did his wife’s defilement render her distasteful to him? Would this pregnancy consume the marriage bed and, with it, the marriage itself? Would it render null the sanctity of their family life? The rabbi queried the couple’s children with similar questions. Always responses were the same: heartfelt, unambiguous testaments to a virtuous and loving mother. Yes, her violation was vile. But no humiliation attached to it. She remained an innocent, unsullied by the evil done to her.
When the questionings were done, the rabbi gave his answer: No. He could find to reason to justify an abortion. However grievous the means by which Freida had been impregnated, the fetus was as much an innocent as she was. Besides, Freida was a resilient women, in no danger of depression or disintegration of any kind. She was sustained by overwhelming sympathy within the family and unqualified support from the surrounding community. Following the rabbi’s judgment, Freida carried to term, signing the baby over for adoption at birth.
The woman’s story has stayed with me for one reason: Even in this textbook instance of a hard case, any assumption of a “right” to abortion was totally absent. To all those jubilant women dancing in Dublin streets, Freida’s choice would have been incomprehensible. She chose obedience to a principle that transcended her own inclinations. She submitted to a particular stance in life, a fundamental attitude to reality that stands in utter contrast to the reductive slogans of contemporary culture.