On September 21st, 1983 my husband and I watched and cried as our newborn twin sons died. Their deaths were unexpected and difficult to live through. Yet we survived. With the love and support of family and many friends, we were able to bear the several years it took to feel whole again.
Our babies were born with renal agenesis. For reasons unknown, their kidneys never formed. Although this condition can be detected before birth, I am thankful that we did not know. At that point in my life I would have chosen to carry the pregnancy to term. Going through the difficulties of having twins is hard enough. But the knowledge that my babies would die soon after their lifelines to me were cut would have made that pregnancy almost unbearable.
The experience of grief forces one into long hours of contemplation. It opens one’s eyes to the realities of the world. Often it is the first time one becomes aware that horrors don’t always happen to other people. Rather, they are a continuous part of everyday life. When I came to the conclusion that life is not always fair, my priorities were given careful analysis and readjusted.
We live in a world where absolutes cannot exist. For one thing, they don’t fit in a society with such a diversity of religions, cultures, experiences, and value systems as ours has.
Further, absolutes imply perfection, and ours is an imperfect world, where suffering, even by the innocent, is commonplace. So we must adjust to situations less than what we consider perfect.
Our politicians are struggling with legislating whether or not abortion should be allowed, and under what circumstances. The pro-life forces are doing their level best, sometimes with less than ethical and compassionate tactics, to stop all abortions. Other radical groups feel abortions should be legal in every situation. Both sides are seeking a single answer. What they don’t realize is that this is an issue that will never be resolved. As long as there are two beings sharing the same body, there cannot be one answer.
A pregnancy creates some of the greatest stresses, both physically and emotionally, that a woman can go through. Some women have few problems with it, others have many. For a mature woman who wants her baby, it is difficult enough to go through the constant aches, varicose veins, stretch marks, insomnia and nausea. If she is supported and the baby loved, the pregnancy can very well be a happy time of anticipation.
But if the mother is herself a child, finds herself suddenly alienated from family and friends, and hates the fetus within her, the nine months may seem like a prison sentence. She is much more likely to abuse her own body, and likewise the baby’s by smoking, drinking, and taking other drugs. That increases the risk to both mother and baby. And it means that this baby, who has spent nine months living in the resulting hostile environment, will be a much more likely candidate for perinatal death or emotional and physical injury.
If the mother does not keep the child, it is placed in a foster home until, and if, someone is willing to adopt another special-needs child. Of course that doesn’t always happen, but it is not uncommon.
I have no problem admitting that a fetus is a human from conception. And I would like to be able to say that no one has the right to take a life. But I no longer believe that to be true. There are times and occasions when killing a human being is justifiable. Emergency response teams are justified in shooting a man holding a knife at a child’s throat. The Allies were justified in killing in order to stop the Nazis in the Second World War. And doctors are justified in removing the beating heart from a brain-dead patient to save the life of another, potentially viable person.
The decision to abort a baby does not come easily to any woman. And it is likely that she will grieve for her baby if she does not keep it. But the grief from an early abortion does not approach the pain of losing a baby at term, whether from death or adoption. As well as losing our sons, my husband and I had several miscarriages. I grieved for every one of those wanted and loved babies. But the loss of them was resolved much more quickly than the death of our twins.
It is so easy for others to tell a woman that she can always give the baby up for adoption, as if it were like selling a loved puppy. Mothers who have given up their babies often spend a lifetime in mourning. It is an unresolved grief because they are always wondering if the child is all right, if it is being loved and cared for, even if it is still alive.
Of course the mother can keep her baby. And if she is mature enough and supported enough maybe she can live through weeks of sleep deprivation without battering or neglecting her child. Parenthood is wonderful in the right circumstances. But when we look in the papers, or watch the news, we are reminded of how often it is not.
In an ideal world, every pregnancy would be planned, loved, and healthy. But as things are, some compromises must be made. Accidents do happen; nature does not always produce a healthy child. Not all families are capable of dealing with the stresses of a severely handicapped child; not all women and girls are capable of coping with an unwanted pregnancy. To force them into living through such conditions is cruel and smacks of society imposing a punishment.
Very early in pregnancy, women should be given unbiased counseling in which they are informed of their choices and what, if any, support services are available. Then, if the woman is adamant about ending the pregnancy, she should have an abortion, quickly if possible, while the conceptus is still an embryo or a very young fetus. The abortion should be considered self-defense. If the abortion is performed for genetic or congenital reasons, it must necessarily be done at a more advanced stage. The procedure then could be considered euthanasia. All abortions should be done humanely and with reverence for the life it was necessary to take.
We all know of cases where it seemed that a woman used abortion as a form of birth control, and did so without a second thought. But if we were able to step inside her body for awhile, we might come away with a very different perspective. What is easy for one may for another be very difficult, if not impossible. What is acceptable for one may be excruciatingly painful for another. In an ideal world we would be able to say that no circumstances warrant the taking of a life. But then, in an ideal world we would have no human misery.
Genetic counselors gave our next baby a 50 per cent chance of having no kidneys. Since renal agenesis is always fatal, we did a lot of soul-searching before accepting the risk. After much time spent in grief, and our fourth miscarriage, we resolved to try one last time. I decided against antenatal screening, feeling I could deal with whatever might come. Had I not had such a supportive husband and family, I might well have made a different choice. As it was, we were lucky and were blessed with a nine-pound five-ounce son; finally, a healthy brother for our seven-year-old son.
As human beings living in society, we have an obligation to try to understand other positions on difficult social and moral problems, even when we profoundly disagree. Unfortunately the abortion debate has polarized opinions so that it seems that one must either be in favor of innocent babies’ lives, or for the rights of women to control their own bodies.
No single formula can resolve the dilemma. Both the pro-life and the pro-choice positions contain important considerations. But every situation must be considered on its own merits.
Let’s not forget that people are individuals in unique situations that need to be looked at in their own terms, with understanding and compassion.
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