Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Part Four: The Gift of Life

Because I have taken the position that women (and especially little girls) should not be forced to have babies against their will, pro-lifers often feel obliged to say charitable things to me like, “You terrible, awful person! Maybe your mother should have aborted you!”

Well, I never claimed to be a saint. As for my mother, that is a very good point, and yes, she probably should have. But she chose not to.

My mother was a perfect candidate to have an abortion. Of course, back when she became pregnant with me in 1962, “elective” abortion, which is done because the woman for whatever reason does not want to be pregnant, was illegal. For those of us who came of age after Roe v. Wade, it is difficult to imagine having no choice as to whether and when to have a baby! But in my mother’s time, at least until the Pill became widely available, it was simply a reality of life; a Good Girl didn’t “do it” and if she did and had the misfortune of becoming pregnant, she either had a very quick wedding to a boy whom she may well have had second thoughts about when she woke up the next day, followed by their very early child, (as my grandmother explained it, “first babies were often born premature”), or else she was sent away to “boarding school” or “abroad” for a time until she delivered her little bastard in secret, which was then put up for adoption, and hopefully nobody back home would learn of her shame. Otherwise, if a girl had money she could go into a back alley somewhere and risk her own life by having an illegal abortion, without anesthesia and possibly with dirty instruments in the hands of an unqualified practitioner, but the girl was willing to endure that because anything, even death, was preferable to carrying the pregnancy to term. However, none of this applies to my mother, who was a Good Girl and waited until marriage like Good Girls were supposed to.

In mom’s case “therapeutic” abortion, which is done when a pregnancy endangers a woman’s health, was legal and certainly would have been an option for her, a type 1 diabetic who had been instructed by the doctors that she must not under any circumstances get pregnant because they could not guarantee that they would be able to keep her alive through the pregnancy. Mom, however, did not listen to the doctors (a lifelong practice which she continued up until her death earlier this year at age 72). She, with my father’s cooperation although probably against his better judgement, went ahead and purposely got pregnant and was absolutely thrilled and pleased with herself for having successfully defied the doctors. Now, I am not a big fan of mainstream medicine by any means (another blog for another time), but sometimes doctors do know what they are talking about or at least, they know when there is good reason to be concerned. When they actually come out and admit that they have doubts about whether or not they will be able to keep you alive, that is in fact a cause for concern. Mom had severe, brittle (meaning it is essentially out of control no matter what you do) type 1 diabetes since age 6 and her health was fragile enough without being pregnant. Pregnancy is risky enough for diabetics even today, but remember this was back in 1962 when the technology was much more primitive.

I don’t know all the details as to what happened to Mom, because I only heard the story from her, and she had very limited medical knowledge. I am sure she had no idea exactly how much trouble she was really in; all we know is that the doctors were quite alarmed about the pregnancy and said that she should not have gone and gotten herself pregnant. I asked her whether the doctors recommended terminating the pregnancy; she replied, “What, you mean, an abortion? Well, no, I don’t think so… I don’t remember… well they might have, but even if they did, I wouldn’t have listened anyway!” “Why?” I asked. Did she feel a sense of womanly duty to have a child? Did she believe the fetus had a right to live even though her own life was in danger? No, none of that! “Because I wanted a baby!” She loved babies, she wanted a baby, and she was determined to have a baby, to hell with the doctors.

She said as the pregnancy went on the doctors told her there were “complications” but she could not remember specifically what those were, but she was determined to carry the pregnancy to term regardless. Finally when she got to 7 months they told her it could not continue, and they would have to take the baby immediately by emergency C-section. Surgery is risky for diabetics but she could not survive natural childbirth so the C-section was the only way. So, I was born at 7 months and had to be put on oxygen in an incubator (“Isolette”) where I stayed for some time, probably at great expense to the taxpayers. My father was an officer in the Air Force and I was born at the Naval Hospital in Maryland where the Presidents and their families go, which is probably the only reason that Mom and I survived. If she had not had access to the top medical care available in the country, I am pretty sure one if not both of us would have died. As it is, we were both in pretty fragile shape, she recovering from surgery and I in the Isolette; she was not even allowed to hold me for a long time.

When I was a child I always wanted a brother or sister, but the doctors pleaded with her, please, for God’s sake do not ever, ever do this again!! I guess that time she finally listened to them, for probably the only time in her life, and I’m glad she did because I can’t imagine growing up without her.

When we talk about “the right to life” in the abstract, it sounds like a reasonable proposition. But when it gets personal and I think about my own life and my own mother, I have to ask myself: Did I really have a right to be born?! Did I have the right to demand that she endanger her own life? It sounds really selfish when you think of it like that. My mother courageously (and some would say, foolishly) endured the discomfort of pregnancy on top of the everyday suffering of diabetes and seriously risked her life to bring me into this world. It was a selfless, Christ-like act on her part. Not all mothers have severe health complications as did my mother, but every woman potentially risks her life in giving birth and certainly even the most healthy, “normal” pregnancy and delivery is no picnic. From what I have heard, it is sheer torture. Ask any woman who has given birth and she will probably be happy to tell you in great detail. All of our mothers endured tremendous suffering to give us the gift of life, and that is what it is: a gift. Not a right.

When we think of our mothers and their Christ-like sacrifice, it really puts things in perspective. Christians of all people should know that life is a gift and not a right. We believe that Christ suffered and died to give us eternal life. It was His free gift to us. Did we have a “right” to eternal life? Did we have a “right” to demand that He suffer and die on our behalf, just because we existed? Of course not! It is humbling to contemplate what He did for us and absurd to think it was somehow our “right.” Our life - both natural and spiritual – is a costly gift, paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of someone who loved us very much and freely gave of themselves so that we might live.

So as I said before, I would not demand that anyone make such a sacrifice against their will. But I do understand the desire of the pro-life movement to save babies. What can be done towards that end, without making abortion illegal? What alternatives can be offered to make abortion less common? Obviously the first solution is to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and the most effective way to do that is to simply not have sex. But celibacy is a vocation that is not for everyone. In the real world people are going to have sex. Personally I would like to see a lot more research put into finding safer, more effective and affordable forms of birth control. It has been said “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” I think that is probably an exaggeration, however, I am quite convinced that if men could get pregnant, a lot more money and energy would be put into contraceptive research. The Pill was a great invention but it is not perfect, it does pose risks and is not appropriate for everyone. There are other options available but none are ideal.

The Catholic Church opposes contraception in principle because contraception promotes the very idea of an “unwanted” pregnancy. Rather, they say, we should foster the idea that “babies are always a blessing.” This kind of sounds nice but in the real world it simply is not true. Babies are not a “blessing” when for example you are a 9-year-old girl pregnant with twins by your step-father, or when you are a 15-year-old girl who is going to drop out of school and go on welfare to have a baby, or when the pregnancy occurred from a rape, or when you are a single mom who cannot afford to feed the children she already has. The Church does acknowledge that there may be “grave reasons” for a couple to limit the number of children, such as finances or the health of the wife, and while artificial contraception (involving hormones, chemicals or barriers) is not permitted, the Church does encourage Natural Family Planning. NFP involves periodic abstinence based on avoiding the fertile part of the woman’s cycle, and unlike its more primitive predecessor, “the rhythm method” (or as I like to call it, “Russian Roulette”), with modern temperature measuring techniques and other improvements, NFP is supposedly very effective. This might be a great method for some couples. The only drawback is that it does require cooperation, discipline and commitment on the part of both spouses and sticking to the very strict schedule. If, for example, your spouse’s birthday, or your anniversary, or some other celebration, or the need to make up after a big fight, happens to occur during the fertile period, you are out of luck. Unfortunately, particularly under the influence of wine and moonlight, a persistent spouse may be able to convince a reluctant partner to let passion override their good judgment, and then the next day when they wake up they may both regret it when they recall the “grave reasons” why they were avoiding fertility.

Every couple must decide for themselves what method will work for them in their particular circumstances, in order to be responsible and avoid creating an unwanted pregnancy, to avoid bringing a child into the world that they are either unable or unwilling to take care of. But, the flesh is weak, contraception is not perfect, and accidents do happen. So what then? Of course the standard pro-life answer is adoption; however, clearly this is not the perfect solution since it still requires the woman to endure the unwanted pregnancy and deliver the baby. What if there was another way? Perhaps there is!

A procedure called “embryo transfer” is being used in animals, particularly horses. This is a procedure in which an embryo which was conceived in one mare is carefully removed from her and implanted in another mare’s uterus! The purpose of this is that one mare might have a great pedigree and be an excellent performer in the racetrack or show ring, but not be a good mother, or else having a foal at that point in time would interrupt her career, while another mare of humble bloodlines and no particular success in the performance arena, might be an excellent surrogate mother. So the embryo is transferred to her and she will give birth to it. This procedure is not “experimental,” it is being used regularly and with great success in animals, including horses, cows, goats, sheep and pigs. Because it is successful in large mammals, there is in theory no particular reason why it could not also be used in humans, and I am very hopeful that this will soon be the case and put an end to the abortion dilemma forever.

Instead of abortion, the unwilling pregnant woman could give her embryo up for adoption – immediately! Embryo transfer would be ideal for a woman who wants to have a baby, whose uterus is healthy but who cannot conceive due to a problem with her ovaries. It would be similar to IVF except the embryo would be conceived naturally by another woman, rather than in a lab, and would give the recipient the desired experience of pregnancy and motherhood. Of course, if a woman was unable to carry a pregnancy due to hysterectomy or some other limitation, she could ask another woman to receive the embryo for her (as surrogate mothers do now using IVF) and she could then adopt the baby after it was born. Either way, the baby lives and everybody wins.

Embryo transfer would also take the pro-life movement to a whole new level. Now, instead of just standing outside of an abortion clinic carrying a sign, an eligible (female) pro-life volunteer could go inside of the embryo transfer clinic, get on the table and have the embryo implanted in her own uterus, and carry the baby to term herself! I’m sure there will be no shortage of volunteers for the awesome privilege of saving a baby by actually giving birth to it. Of course, this privilege at the present time would be reserved for women of childbearing age – the men in the pro-life movement will have to wait until science figures out a way for men to carry a pregnancy. I have read that in theory it could be done by creating an artificial womb and implanting it in a man’s abdomen, with the placenta attached to one of the abdominal blood vessels. This technology is still off in the future, though, so until that time, men, you will not be able to experience the privilege and responsibility of carrying a fetus inside your own body. For the moment you will have to be content to give moral support to your sisters as they volunteer to give the gift of life.

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