The shortest life

MARGARET SOMERVILLE

A woman decides to carry her child despite the fact it is doomed.

Genevieve, Joseph, and Barry Lanigan

My Saturday morning luxury is breakfast-in-bed reading newspapers.

The Globe and Mail on July 19 had an article by Cate Cochran, "Why not just talk about it?" that discussed women's reluctance to speak about having had an abortion and Toronto photographer Kathryn Palmateer's Arts4choice project in which women who have had abortions tell her their stories and pose for a portrait as a way of breaking the silence. It was thoughtful, but strongly pro-choice in the sense that all the women featured believed they had made the right choice in having an abortion.

Just after reading this, I went downstairs and opened my e-mail to find one from a woman whom I'd never been in contact with that had come in at the same time as I was reading the Globe article. It tells a very different story, one of a pregnant woman's truly remarkable, life-affirming and life-respecting response to a tragic situation and why she decided against abortion.

One reply from pro-choice advocates to the story this woman tells, would be that she had a choice and decided to continue her pregnancy and that is consistent with their stance. That's correct, if you focus just on having choice. But if you focus on the substance of the choice she made and why, and compare that with the substance of the choices made by the women featured in the Globe's article and why, there's a night-and-day difference. These two stories reflect two very different sets of fundamental values.

But, overwhelmingly, only the pro-choice values stories are being told in the general media. The pro-life values stories are dismissed as being too personal, just based on religious belief, and so on. (Why one set of reasons for holding certain values is regarded as automatically validating these values in the public square and the other set of reasons as necessarily invalidating the values based on them is an important question that I can't explore here.) The point is that this imbalance in media coverage means there is not a balanced approach to the abortion debate in the public square and, whatever our own personal stance on abortion, we should all be concerned about that. I can't recall ever having seen even one story like the one below in a major newspaper, but pro-choice ones, similar in tone and content to the story that appeared in the Globe, are not unusual.

So, in an effort to change that, here is one courageous woman's story explaining her reasons for deciding against abortion (edited to ensure privacy and for length, and used with the permission of the author):

Dear Dr. Somerville:

I'm sure that you have probably heard many stories like the one I'm about to tell, but wish to share mine with you anyway .... I secretly pray that by telling my story to you, that in future debates (on abortion) ... you will be able to reference the circumstances of my situation (not directly of course) to help clarify for people some realities I have been experiencing.

So, to begin ...

I am a happily married, 32-year-old Catholic and a teacher. This past February, after seven glorious months of marriage, my husband and I discovered we were expecting a baby in October. My doctor confirmed the happenings of a "regular" pregnancy, and we refused any genetic testing.

Then, at a scheduled 20-week ultrasound, the technician discovered something in her sonographs that caused her to consult with the radiologist. He told us that our baby appeared to have hydrocephalus, and that we would be referred to the "high-risk maternal unit" at the (university teaching hospital in our area).

Four days later, Dr. G, a fetal maternal specialist, informed us that our baby actually had holoprocencephaly (a hole in the brain stem), much fluid in his brain, and a severe heart condition. At this point, Dr. G. offered a few options (not necessarily in this order): a termination of the pregnancy; the opportunity to perform an amniocentesis; or an uninterrupted continuation of the pregnancy.

Termination was not an option for me, and I informed the doctor of this immediately. He was extremely supportive of this decision and said that he would happily monitor me through this pregnancy, and future ones.

As I am writing this letter, the little one in my womb is moving around, kicking his mother, and hopefully enjoying a refreshing swim. I am told that he knows no pain, and that while he is in the uterus, he is as safe as can be. I walk him every day, talk to him often, and pray for him always.

The next day, Dr. G performed an amniocentesis. It was my understanding that results from the amniocentesis might have the ability to indicate the cause of our baby's abnormalities, and therefore help to determine possible future developments related to the pregnancy. Dr. G was certain that the results would show that one of five known "lethal" chromosomes was responsible for our baby's health and that our baby would die quite quickly after birth (if he made it that far).

So far (a month and a half after the initial information was passed down), no testing has shown a cause of the abnormalities. Long story short, Dr. G's "certainty" was discounted. He honestly says that he cannot predict whether our baby will die in utero, shortly thereafter, or whether he will live for a time. We have been told by another specialist (heart doctor) that our baby's heart condition can be repaired with surgery, but leaves that decision to us considering the severity of the brain condition. Both doctors have indicated, that should we wish, during labour, our baby can receive an injection that can stop his heart before he is born (which of course is also not an option in our opinions).

As I am writing this letter, the little one in my womb is moving around, kicking his mother, and hopefully enjoying a refreshing swim. I am told that he knows no pain, and that while he is in the uterus, he is as safe as can be. I walk him every day, talk to him often, and pray for him always. I tell you this because I want you to know that, despite the grim outlook described above, I am carrying this baby as long as he will let me, and will not be the killing hand. After his birth, if he lives longer than a few days, my husband and I will let ourselves be advised by doctors, but do not intend to extend extraordinary means to keep our little one alive (as hard as that will be). Our prayer is simple: That we will get to meet our little one, tell him that we love him, and watch him fall deep into a sleep that will bring him to heaven.

With each new day, I learn to accept this situation. For example, I know that I cannot change my circumstances, and therefore must proceed with the daily grind of life. In other ways, it becomes more difficult. It is a very odd experience to be pregnant, knowing that I may never get to bring my baby home from the hospital, and that instead of anticipating his whole life, I may have to prepare for his funeral and burial.

We are in awe of how our little one continues to live despite his abnormalities. I say he must really be extraordinary to be discounting all medical theories with respect to chromosome-gene results, and his longevity. I tell him that even the doctors aren't sure why he's lived so long (most babies with these abnormalities self-abort long before now), and that he is special because of this.

As I said in the beginning, I am telling you my story because I want you to know (and to tell the world), that there are women who do not wish to "terminate" their pregnancies despite devastating news, and that the option of abortion is definitely offered past the point of 12 weeks. In fact, I am sure that for many women, abortion is strongly recommended in cases like mine, especially if women do not have a strong belief about it originally. As I told you, several references to quality of life were made at the initial meeting with the high-risk physician. And, I firmly believe that had I not been so definitely opposed, the option of abortion may have been the end of my story.

Cheers,

M.G.

The very heart of parental love is that it's unconditional -- you love your child simply because he is your child. This kind of love is under serious threat in the search for the perfect child made according to the parent's specifications, who they hope will fulfill all of their utopian fantasies. M.G.'s story is one of immense unconditional love. It brings us back to the essence of our humanity in the most intimate of our relationships, that with our children to whom we pass on life.

(editor's note: See the followup to this story, "A brief, beautiful life", here.)


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Margaret Somerville. "The shortest life." Ottawa Citizen, (Canada) 5 August 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Margaret Somerville.

photo: by Karen Taylor

THE AUTHOR

Margaret Somerville, AM, FRSC is an Australian/Canadian ethicist and academic. She is the Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Founding Director of the Faculty of Law's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University. She is the author of The Ethical Imagination: CBC Massey Lectures, Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit, and Do We Care?.

Copyright © 2008 Margaret Somerville




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