This is the generation that will abolish abortion

Response to: Rick Santorum, Meet My Son (I would have aborted him had I known better)

In a recent article on Slate.com a mom talks write to Sen Santorum about how if she knew better about his condition, she would have aborted her son. I ask a nurse friend and advisor to write a response, here it is as she submitted it to us: 

Bryan Kemper, The Youth Outreach Director of Priests for Life asked me to write a response to a mom who expressed a wish that she had known her son had a severe disease prenatally so that she could have an abortion and how that interfaces with Rick Santorum’s argument that prenatal testing be lessened as much/most of it resulted in abortions. I am a nurse who works with families who learn prenatally that their children are very sick and will most likely die at birth. As I need my job, please indulge me in the disclaimer that in this piece, I speak only my opinion and not that of any employer or colleague.

The mother in the article presents us with details that seem to contradict each other…a photo of a smiling baby but a story that his life is nothing but suffering; a reassurance that he is treasured and she loves being his mom but a wish that he had never been born; an insistence that prenatal testing be available but the detail that rigorous testing  didn’t tell her anything useful; information that she was born with a condition severe enough that had her mother know, she might have been aborted and yet she lives a full life. There is too much here to untangle and it is not right for me to argue with how she defines her life, what I want to point out is that a time of family health crisis and the angst it creates is probably not a good time for this family to get too involved in the minutiae of public health policy.
This is a suffering mom who would likely do anything to for her son not to suffer and I honor that, but we need to make public policy based on shared values with calm heads prevailing. I would be more curious about her opinion on her son’s life a few years after he dies; when she has had a chance to process the entirely of her experience with him, not just now.
I freely admit that life and death and sickness and uncertainly are really hard. Even though we know there is purpose in suffering and God is ever present, it is part of our nature to try to avoid suffering for ourselves and those we love. The question is for me…what lengths are we willing to go to in order to avoid suffering and what might we miss in that effort?
I see abortion for a severe fetal condition as “prenatal euthanasia” all the arguments for euthanasia are brought front and center. I oppose prenatal euthanasia for the same reasons I oppose any euthanasia – that it is wrong to kill people just for being sick.  The state of being perfectly well is rare… and even though there are times when treatment options are at and end and natural death ensues, we must not actively end life.
We need to firmly establish and internalize well considered ethical practices for how we deal with sick people at any stage and then when crisis hits, we don’t have to decide what to do, the decision has already been made. I have an unusual vantage point in that I have repeatedly interacted with people very soon after they have received a devastating diagnosis. One dynamic I have seen over and over is that the time immediately following that seems immensely more difficult for women/families who perceive that their next step is to “decide” what to do  – they are in a certain kind of agony I never want to know.
This agony is only compounded by misinformation on the internet that babies who die at birth suffer terribly and carrying them to term is an act of selfishness. Clinically, I will admit that there are a few very rare diseases that would cause a baby to suffer at birth (requiring pain control and symptom management at birth) but the vast majority of conditions that cause death at birth are ones that cause the baby to be born in a state of natural shut-down they live & die peacefully going from shallow breaths and slow heart rate to none so peacefully that it’s hard to even know when the death actually happens.
The families who encounter grave diagnosis with a preexisting attitude of life being valuable will often (despite sadness and pain) quickly find healthy ways to mobilize their resources and find meaning & purpose for themselves in the situation. I have seen dozens of families walk this path…it IS hard, yet what I see in them is a sense of sacrificial love, purpose, appreciation for the time shared and them finding a great sense of accomplishment in having done something so difficult yet knowing they did well.
I once spoke to a dad early on about “doing right by his child” and after parenting valiantly, he echoed those words back at his child’s funeral…but when I heard them from the dad, it was different than when he heard them from me; the words now reflected how he felt about his parenting of this precious person during this precarious time. These families are sad and have grief; they are also amazingly whole and have a fully different outlook about what they can do in life.
I find the worst suffering is with couples who have internalized the societal idea that if you have a problem, you need to DO something about it right now. There is a common societal delusion of “control”…that we can change our circumstances by the force of our will. That might be true for some life challenges but not this one. I’ve seen couples who did NOT want their child to die, but rather than wait to see what came next or enjoy the intrauterine life they could have with them, they chose to abort them because it was the only thing there was to “DO”. We have too often lost our patience and willingness to be with difficulty without immediate reaction…there really are times when the best thing to DO is nothing.
As far as Sen Santorum’s comments, I only saw a sound bite where he said that “we shouldn’t do prenatal testing”…I would guess that he qualified his statement a bit because it’s obvious that unborn babies that might be sick and need treatment from a Perinatologist would obviously require testing. I believe the spirit of his comment was that we need to cut back in the wide testing we have been doing for conditions that have only euthanasia as a treatment option. I agree with him that we need to quit treating Trisomy 13,18 & 21 (Down Syndrome) as if they are fates worse than death that require immediate euthanasia. These kids are part of the human family whether their lives are long or short; frail or healthy.  I am not qualified to actually draw the line on which tests should be encouraged or discouraged, but there are OB & Perinatology physicians out there with well formed consciences.
So what do we do with sick babies (born and unborn)?  I propose that we take good care of them. Good prenatal care, good neonatal care and (if necessary) good palliative care. We can and should care for people in a way that makes abortion (or euthanasia or murder or abandonment) “unwantable”.
It is really important to understand that some lives, treasured and wanted do come to an unavoidably early end. God leads some into the vocations of caring for these special little people and I am honored to be one of them. I have, however, seen way too many articles written by prolifers that (without cause) question the practice and ethics of those of us who have perinatal palliative care as part of our responsibility. It sometimes degrades into abject accusations of wrongdoing even when we have conducted ourselves with absolute propriety. I implore you to understand that those types of accusations bear false witness against your neighbor…the very neighbors who God has tasked with this sacred assignment.

Tammy Ruiz

Perinatal Nurse
Advisor-Stand True Pro-life Outreach

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