Yesterday, someone I was talking to about reproductive choice and abortion sent me to this video — a short documentary piece about a couple who were told while they were expecting their first child that their son had Trisomy 13, a chromosomal disorder that bears similarities to Down’s Syndrome (Trisomy 21) but is usually fatal, and usually within days or weeks of birth. Their son was found during ultrasound to have heart valve and brain defects, as well as a cleft lip. (You can read more about their story here, here, and here.)
No one can imagine what it was like to live through their experience, to make the choice they did to have their son anyway and cherish the time that they had with him. No one, certainly not me, has the right to judge them or question their decisions. But, after listening to people — on Twitter, commenting on videos, blogs, and news articles — talking about abortions and women who have them, describing them as “selfish” and concerned only with the money they save not having another child, or painting them as promiscuous and careless women who used abortion as birth control, there was one thing that felt conspicuously missing from the article and video.
On camera, Deidrea, Thomas’s mother, says, “The only thing he’ll ever know is love.” Both the video and the articles note that he was sent home with morphine, but there’s no mention of whether he was in any pain. The video documents as he stops breathing, then starts again, over and over. Anyone who’s had to struggle to breathe — or has had a heart arrhythmia, or any kind of heart problem — knows that this can be quite painful. But there’s no mention in any of the accounts of whether Thomas was in pain, or how much he might have been suffering. The focus of all of the pieces seems to be how glad his parents were to have even 5 short days with him, and how much he touched the lives of family and friends who got to know him briefly.
Like I said, it’s not for me to judge. I can’t imagine what making that choice was like for them, regardless of how they feel about abortion as an option. The video is only 9 minutes or so long, so it’s hard to tell if it shows all sides of the story, but it seems from what is there that they were concerned mainly with having some time, even just a few days, with their son. I don’t know what they talked about with their doctors or the hospice nurse, and maybe the part where they discussed how much their son would be suffering was left out because it could distort the intended message. Which, to me, seems to be that when doctors tell you that the child you’re expecting has a birth defect that is almost guaranteed to be fatal, probably within days of birth, and suggests that you terminate the pregnancy, saying no means having this beautiful, wonderful — though difficult — time with your child before they die. While that message is never overt, it’s underscored by the way they talk about their choice:
Thomas was meant to be theirs, he told the doctors, and Thomas had a purpose. However brief his life might be, it was a gift.
“My opinion is that God is good and full of grace, and God cherishes life, and he’s glad that we chose to have Thomas,” Deidrea said. “I also think that in this situation, if you choose to terminate, it’s not hell and damnation.”
One of the things I’ve heard over and over from those who oppose abortion is that life begins at conception, and ever life has a purpose. But that statement ignores the fact that as many as 65% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, often before women even know they are pregnant. Do those embryos have a purpose too? If a woman gets pregnant and never knows it, what purpose could possibly be served by creating that “life” in the first place?
Likewise, I have a hard time imagining a loving God creating a child — by anyone’s account, an innocent life — who will probably never know a moment without pain. Is the pain Thomas went through balanced by the impact he had on his parents, family, friends, and those who saw or read his story? It’s probably a question only God, assuming he exists, can answer.
Another very common statement by those who believe abortion is wrong is that abortion is selfish. Some recent comments on the subject from Twitter:
@violetlorien Regardless, abortion stops the life of a child that otherwise would be. It is selfish to deny a child an opportunity at Life (by @oilsfromgod)
Abortion: The most selfish decision a woman could make. (by @heathhollensbe)
16& prego bitches if u dnt wanna take care of a child then fuckin use protection or abortion sheeeesh it’s fuckin annoying u selfish bitches (by @DejaVu_)
Those I’ve talked to at length insist that there is no such thing as a “selfless abortion”, and some even describe terminating a pregnancy that has a significant chance of causing the mother’s death as selfish. One woman told me that true selflessness was risking your own life to bring another life into the world — despite how many other children you might leave without a mother, despite how serious those risks might be.
I happen to disagree. I can think of several situations where abortion is not about selfishness at all. Many people in situations similar to Thomas’s parents chose abortion, and because many serious birth defects and conditions can’t be seen until late in pregnancy, those that chose abortion only had the option of late-term abortion. You can read several stories here, where women faced the challenge of serious birth defects and made a heartbreaking and selfless choice to terminate their pregnancies and save their children a life of suffering. (That site also has a number of stories, listed under “Kansas Stories”, of women and couples who were helped by the late Dr. Tiller when it was too late for an abortion in their state.)
When it comes to the question of abortion, there are few clear-cut answers. The same can be said about the choices people make in the face of tragedy, such as finding out the child you’re expecting has a severe and fatal birth defect. But there are both selfish and selfless choices on both sides, and you can’t define any choice as fitting solely into either category. There are people who believe that a woman’s suffering is irrelevant, and nothing — not significant health risk, or rape, or complications — makes that suffering outweigh the value of the life of the fetus she carries. There are others who believe that abortion at any time between conception and birth should be legal, for any reason, as it is in Canada — even if the child would survive being born.
For me, the reality is somewhere in the middle. First- and second-trimester abortions should be legal for any reason, with the upper gestational age limit being revisited periodically as medical advances warrant. Once a fetus could be reasonably expected to survive outside of the womb, abortion should only be done in cases where there is either a great risk to the mother’s life, or severe birth defects that are highly likely to be fatal soon after birth. I also think those guidelines should be relatively loose and left at least partly up to doctors to determine when it should be an option.
Until abortion is made illegal, if that ever happens in the U.S., those who think they know better than the women and families going through each individual situation need to stop appointing themselves judge and jury. Just like whether Angie Jackson’s health risks were serious enough to justify — not that she needed to — an abortion 4 weeks into the pregnancy is between her and her doctors, whether an abortion is selfish or giving birth to your child is selfless varies from situation to situation and often it’s somewhere in between.
And that’s precisely why we leave reproductive choices up to individuals: only I can make a choice for myself that takes into account all of the factors involved, because only I know what those factors are.