Hard Cases

Warning: this post contains discussion that could upset those who have experienced stillbirth or late-term abortion.

There was a lot of publicity in Ireland this week surrounding the Private Member’s Bill to provide limited access to abortion in the Republic, following a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that makes abortion legal in circumstances where there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother. The bill was defeated by 111 votes to 20, reflecting the views of the Irish population, 89% voting against the legalisation of abortion in an online poll held on behalf of the Irish Labour party. The Republic of Ireland, incidentally boasts one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Whilst it goes without saying that I support the decision of the Dåil, this particular story certainly gave pause for thought and should prove challenging to even the most committed of pro-lifers. Here are four women, not seeking to campaign for abortion on demand, they stress that their stories are not typical of debate, but that they discovered that their unborn children had anomalies incompatible with life and thus felt forced to compelled to seek abortion outside of the republic. They further state that they do not see this issue as a party-political issue but one of human rights. Their stories are compelling, tragic and heart-breaking. They aborted much-wanted pregnancies because they could not withstand the trauma of having to endure another 20 weeks of pregnancy only to have the baby die in utero, shortly after birth, or alternatively go through gruelling courses of medical intervention and surgery with a small chance of success.

It would take a heart of stone not to weep with these women and grieve both for them and their children.

“Having to walk around Birmingham for five hours when you’ve just ended your baby’s life, you’ve had an anaesthetic and are bleeding and cramping . . . I believe in a loving, caring, understanding God and that I won’t be damned for what I did . . . I want to say to people who would judge us – Where is your compassion? Where is love in all this?,” she says, her voice cracking.

For these women, their grief was compounded by their need to travel. No-one should judge women who find themselves in these situations, even though we may objectively be able to disagree with their decision.

This story had an added dimension for me, coming shortly a week after my own 20 week anomaly scan. I know how nerve wracking these scans are and precisely the types of anomaly that are being looked for. The first time I had such a scan was in a London teaching hospital, the baby was in perfect health and in an excellent position, so I was asked if I would allow some students to come in and have a try, whilst the scan was repeated with detailed explanations and precise definitions of what could be seen and what sonographers should be looking out for. In one of my pregnancies, the 20 week scan was delayed due to a problem having been detected in the preceding patient, the couple eventually emerging in floods of tears.

I always opt for the 20 week scan on the grounds that it is better to be prepared for what may follow and in order that, if necessary, any neonatal teams can be on hand, but many are not prepared for the eventuality that their baby may be seriously ill or die. Despite the fact that I could never abort my unborn child for any reason, had I discovered that this baby would be seriously ill and/or die, I would have found it almost impossible to cope in my current situation. I do not blossom in pregnancy, far from it, this one has been the worst yet, for a multitude of reasons and I am having moments of severe self-doubt when I really don’t know whether or not I will be able to cope. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to have to endure 20 weeks of getting bigger and bigger, feeling more and more uncomfortable with all the aches and pains of late pregnancy, feeling your baby kick and move, knowing that you are going to have to go through the ordeal of birth (and yes, it is an an ordeal for many) only to have your baby die. I don’t know how I’d manage to keep going, to explain it to my 8 year old, to explain it to the toddler and then go through the grief and heartbreak.

I would undoubtedly do it, but it would take a lot of strength and courage and therefore no-one can sit in judgement upon those who have taken different decisions. My faith would give me the resources to do it, as would my husband, but no doubt I would be under a lot of pressure, social, medical and environmental to take a different decision. What I think would give me hope is knowing that when my baby died, it would be in its mothers arms, it would hopefully die peacefully surrounded by love and comfort. Unbearable though it would be, I would rather give my child that chance of life, no matter how small and know and feel the comfort of its mother rather than the pain and torture of the abortionist’s instruments. The much-derided Rick Santorum movingly describes how when their son Gabriel was born prematurely, he lived for two hours and for those two hours the baby knew nothing but love. As a mother, I can see no greater act of love or sacrifice; as Christian I can see parallels of Christ. For me there would be no other choice.

Should I deny this “choice” to others? Hard cases make bad law. Were these women wrong, should they be condemned? Whilst I cannot condone their actions, to issue an outright condemnation displays a total lack of empathy and compassion. It is quite one thing talking about the principles and ethics involved, quite another when you consider that there are real humans, real lives and real emotions involved. The problem is with passing laws for these types of situations is that it sends the signal that it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn baby because it may be born severely disabled and/or die. It is not surprising that many disabled people are feeling increasingly uncomfortable living in today’s society that seeks to reject unborn children who are less than perfect.

Even where a baby has a definite incompatibility with life outside of the womb, this seems to give licence to the medical profession to put pressure upon the expectant mother. It’s a very utilitarian attitude – the baby will die anyway, much kinder (and cheaper) now, for all concerned. But is it? The mother still has to live with the grief, but coupled with guilt and defensiveness. Many women will find the experience of giving birth to their child and holding and soothing them helps them to heal and reconcile with their grief.

Society and the medical profession must exercise more compassion and less judgement to enable women to make this decision rather than hasten them to the abortionists. Pro-lifers must equally respect the horrendous circumstances that these women face and offer the appropriate sensitivity. Furthermore, instead of talking the sheer ethics of the matter, we must not neglect the reasons why mothers decide that they would not be able to cope with a disabled baby? It’s one thing saying that disabled babies must not be aborted, it’s quite another voting for any government that takes measures to make life for the sick and disabled infinitely more difficult and services either non-existent or difficult to access. Put simply we must place ourselves in the shoes of the expectant mother, as well as the mother of the child with severe disabilities.

As for having to walk around Birmingham for 5 hours after you’ve ended your baby’s life, bleeding and cramping, or having to travel back home to Ireland in order to deliver a dead infant, there can be no words sufficient for the horror. Where was the love, duty, concern and compassion shown by the abortion clinics on these occasions? How can any establishment that professes to care about women’s welfare, kick a woman out of a clinic who is post-anaesthetic, groggy and bleeding to walk strange streets for 5 hours. I know where my anger would be directed.