Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why abortion feels personal

This is my daughter and me. She’s about a week old in this photo. Still fragile but doing well. She was born at 32 weeks 4 days after a complicated pregnancy and weighing in at 1505 grams. It is thanks to God’s grace and the fabulous talents of my obstetrician and the wonderful paediatrician attending her birth that she has suffered no significant complications due to her early start.

But things could have gone very differently. As my obstetrician carefully tracked her progress inside my womb, he had to judge how long she could continue to grow within to maximise her lung development while my placenta was showing signs that it would not last the distance. Aiding him in this decision was Professor Lachlan de Crespigny. It was Prof de Crespigny who oversaw our many ultrasounds in the weeks and days leading up to her birth. And it was he who spoke to our obstetrician by phone on the on the day of her birth to give the final verdict that would lead to an emergency caesarean.

A few years later, I found out Prof de Crespigny was also one of the most ardent supporters of the legalisation of late-term abortions in Victoria. In 2004, Prof de Crespigny was part of a team at the Royal Women’s Hospital who conducted an abortion 32 weeks into a pregnancy. At the time, the legislation that now makes this a straightforward procedure was not in place. There were serious ramifications for Prof De Crespigny.

That pregnancy and mine both involved baby girls and both of them were 32 weeks old at the end of their mother’s pregnancies. This is why the discussion of late-term abortions always feels a little personal to me. People are talking about ending the life of a foetus/child/baby/collection of human cells that are at the same developmental stage that my first child was on the day we first held her. While I don’t agree, I can understand why someone could think about a 6-week pregnancy and conclude that it’s merely a jumble of cells and not a “person”. But it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would think what I delivered at 32 weeks was anything other than a baby. I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that while my child received every possible ounce of medical care because we wanted her, another life – at the same age and the same stage, with all of the same capacities for survival - could be legally ended if their mother didn’t feel the same way about them.

However, there are obviously significant differences between my pregnancy and the abortion at the RWH. In our baby there were no known defects, while in the other case a 20-week ultrasound had picked up irregularities indicating dwarfism. The mother, in deep distress, arrived at the Royal Women’s Hospital insisting she would kill herself if the baby was not aborted. Many treatment options were sought including referral to an ultrasonologist, a geneticist, a genetic counsellor, an obstetrician, a psychiatrist and the possibility of adoption for the child. Only after these avenues had been exhausted, and all of the consulting doctors confirmed that the woman was acutely suicidal, did the doctors conclude that their only hope of saving her life was to abort the baby.

And this is when abortion again becomes personal – not personal to me as an individual, but as an issue that cannot be entirely extracted from the very personal stories in which it plays a role. No one would deny that not all pregnancies arise in ideal circumstances. And for some women, the circumstances are horrendous – incest or rape for example. Additionally, the life changes that motherhood brings with it can bring extreme burdens upon some women and families. When you don’t intend to get pregnant, have no means of supporting the child, live in violent or dangerous circumstances, have serious health or mental issues, are at the end of your rope caring for the children you already have, or face a lifetime of caring for a child with severe disabilities then continuing with a pregnancy can seem like a nightmare.
There is no way I would want to belittle the reasons why women seek abortions or add to the distress of women in those situations. For most women, I am sure it is a choice they would rather not have to face. I certainly don’t want to see women suffer and I don’t want to see backyard abortions and dangerous practices employed because women don’t feel they have any other options.
However, for me this is where the conversation turns from personal to personhood. For if there is only one person present in a pregnancy, then whatever that person needs or wants should be paramount. Under those circumstances, I wouldn’t have a problem with abortion. But what if there are two? If there are two people – mother and child – then we must decide if each person is deserving of the sort of moral protection we usually give to another human being. I think that each human being, regardless of colour, creed or abilities, has a special unique status on the basis of their shared humanity. You don’t have to be a Christian either to believe that what grows in a mother’s womb is uniquely human. Atheist Christopher Hitchens writes:
Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be?  From here.
I can respect a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body. But what if there is another person within? What rights do we owe to them as fellow human beings? Surely the most basic right any human being has is to live and not be killed. If we say that they are not fully human or not fully persons, what new definition of personhood are we writing into law? What is it about newborns that is so different from children at 39 weeks that they are now persons with all the associated rights involved? If there is no difference, why not allow infanticide after birth if the mother is no longer happy with the child? And for how long does the baby stay in this kind of un-person limbo? Three months? A year? Three? Six? How will we now define personhood and will those who are disabled or elderly loose the right to be defined as a human person?

Victoria’s abortion laws are particularly strong – abortion is allowed up to birth and for a wide variety of reasons including those which are psychosocial relating only to the mother and not to any medical problem with the pregnancy itself. A number of amendments were rejected including an amendment requiring the provision of an anaesthetic to the unborn child being aborted. That’s required for animal testing but not abortion. Also rejected was an amendment requiring medical staff to protect the life of a child if it happened to be born alive after an abortion. There is no obligation to render a living baby any assistance.
Abortion is intensely personal but there’s also a much bigger picture going on. The personal stories of women in desperate situations ought to weigh heavily on our minds but they cannot be the only factor in the discussion. We must ask, are we prepared to live with a new definition of human value, one that is dependent on whether you are seen as useful, wanted or without defect? What are the ramifications for the disability community living within a society which views disability as burden incompatible with a meaningful life?
During one of our visits to see Prof de Crespigny we asked him to verify if we were having a boy or a girl. Another sonographer had told us it was a girl only a few minutes beforehand but I was so convinced we were having a boy (because of all that kicking!) that I asked a second time to be sure. He whisked the probe around and said, “I would expect you to have a daughter.”
His gracious choice of phrase is something that I think back on when I hear his name connected with the abortion debate. Why did he say “a daughter” instead of a girl or female? It seems so personal. Perhaps he was simply reflecting back our obvious parental affection towards the shadowy figure wriggling about on the monitor above. But now I wonder: when does a pregnancy become a daughter?


Karen said...

Great post, Deb. Thank you.

simone r said...

Just so you know... i posted this on my fb page and heaps of people haved liked it. As I do. 'Daughter' is such beautiful, personal word.

Meredith said...

Thanks for writing this. I imagine it was hard to write and that it took a long time. It's an amazing, beautiful post. Very personal and very important.

megsamanda said...

Thanks for writing the post....and she is a beautiful girl at that...

Deb said...

Thanks for your kind encouragement, megsamanda, Meredith, Simone and Karen! Much appreciated.

Sarah said...

Beautiful post. x

Anonymous said...

I feel the same when I look at my adorable little man and when I bump into the other NICU mums whose babies were born at 25/26/28/30 weeks and bringing their parents such joy. Thanks for posting. xxxx J

Fiona said...

It is a difficult issue. I have been further looking at the world of IVF - and am intrigued by the clash with the abortion world. In IVF, the successful production of an egg is a joy, the fertilization and development to blastocyst - at only 24 cells is celebrated. Many couples pay thousands to continously store their embryos, because they cannot bear to discard that 'potential life'. And donation of a fertilized egg is the legal equivalent of adoption. To donate a fertilized egg, you must go so the same legale process as if you were adopting out an independant child. Yet abortion can 'kill' that 'potential'.
I am pro-choice, but I find the dichotemy of these paralell universes, where the same entity is treated diversely as a nothing, or a person, very difficult to get my head around.

Deb said...

Yeah, it's a strange old world all right! It's funny how technological improvements, for which I am often so very grateful, "solve" some problems and then create brand new dilemmas.

I didn't know that about donating a fertilized egg! That's really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Deb - a wonderful piece which I am trying to circulate as widely as possible! We were camping recently and on one of the many trips to the 'facilities' I came across this beautiful girl. She was simply radiant - she was a small, blond-haired child, beautifully formed, she just glowed with life and vitality. But there was something different about her which I couldn't immediately fathom. When I saw her a second time with her mother and sister, I realised she was a 'little person.' Every time I saw her, I gave praise to God for giving her life. I also thought how we don't see many people like her around these days, as most of are aborted. If only we could see these people as God sees them - beautiful, precious, priceless treasures worthy of His love and deserving to be given a chance to live life like anyone else. Fleur

Deb said...

Thanks, Fleur!