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When a baby’s diagnosis is grim, there is a path of hope



Michael Wee - published on 03/17/17

Pro-Life means providing realistic choices for life

“I think it is, or ought to be at least, a principle of practical moral theology that whenever the Christian Church or the Christian community state publicly that a particular kind of action or behavior is wrong, we must immediately say: and here is a better way… here is an alternative course that is realistic, practical, compassionate and morally compelling.”  

Those words, which have the unusual achievement of being both lofty and down-to-earth, could apply to many issues indeed, particularly those where the Catholic faith finds itself at odds with the modern world.

Last month, though, when I heard those words spoken by John Wyatt, emeritus professor of pediatrics at University College London, the specific context was abortion following a diagnosis of a life-limiting fetal condition.

The occasion was a conference hosted by my institute, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, on Abortion, Disability and the Law, and the “morally compelling” alternative being proposed by Wyatt was the practice of neonatal palliative care.

Neonatal palliative care, sometimes called perinatal hospice care (though it need not take place in a hospice or a hospital), involves a holistic approach to caring for babies expected to die soon after birth. Besides medical care to alleviate any suffering caused by the baby’s life-limiting condition, an integral part of this approach is also the opportunity for parents and other family members to meet and bond with the baby, as well as social care provided for the bereavement process following the baby’s death.

More to read: Loving Luke: A Life Counted in Minutes Has Changed Us Forever

For me, it was particularly heartwarming to hear Professor Wyatt recount how the experience of being able to meet, name, and properly bid farewell to their infants has left a profound, lifelong mark on parents who have opted for neonatal palliative care over an abortion.

That there is grief in such circumstances is unavoidable, but there is something so clearly humane about this approach to preparing for and responding to the expected loss of life. The value of an irreplaceable individual life has been affirmed, not just by the absence of an abortion, but by the presence of a supportive community.

Pro-Life means providing realistic choices for life

In short, neonatal palliative care transforms the choice women have when facing the prospect of a severely ill infant who may not have long to live. It makes the choice to keep the baby, rather than to abort, so much more hope-filled, and so much less daunting.

It has become fashionable to criticize pro-lifers for not extending the care they have for the unborn to the already-born – refugees, for example. Perhaps there is some truth in such a criticism for certain individuals who identify as pro-life, but it is not a valid criticism of the pro-life position.

Thankfully, most pro-lifers I have met believe in a consistent ethic of equal respect for the dignity of all, born or unborn. Hence it is always particularly welcome to hear what concrete options exist that help support and care for life after birth, especially the lives of those most at risk of rejection inside or outside the womb. If you are pro-life, you have to be pro-life until death — not birth.

Fighting eugenics with concrete affirmation

That is perhaps why the issue of disability-based abortion has stirred so much interest of late — because the connection between what we do for the disabled after birth and for the disabled before birth is easy to see.

This was emphasized by other speakers at the conference, such as Jane Jessop, the founder of a theatre company that provides opportunities for those with disabilities, and whose son, Tommy Jessop, is an actor who has Down syndrome. In her view, if we talk about women having a “choice” with regard to pregnancy and disability, that should at least mean making available accurate information about the opportunities that exist for disabled people today and their many achievements.

But while for many, the laws that permit abortion for disability — in Britain this is legal up to birth — are simply eugenic and discriminatory, for many others, abortion for disability, in particular for severe and life-limiting conditions, is an archetypal “hard case,” which could be justified by altruism, or is at least one reason why any general ban on abortion should have exceptions.

Yet the real-life experiences of those who have opted for neonatal palliative care, or who have chosen to raise children with disabilities and do their best to provide them with better opportunities, prove that receiving one’s child is the truly altruistic option, whereas direct killing of the unborn, even to avoid suffering, can never be.

Sadly, the provision of neonatal palliative care even in developed countries is patchy, but it should strike those who are pro-life as a worthwhile cause to take up and help extend.

As one of the other conference speakers, the Irish lawyer Caroline Simons, pointed out, “You can’t be on this side of the discussion without engaging in practical issues.”

Life-limiting fetal conditions can be among the most difficult situations pregnant women may face, but it is important to remember that “life-limiting” — that is, lifespan-limiting — does not mean limiting the intrinsic value of life. But it is up to us to make sure our inaction does not limit the availability of practical options for those who want to affirm that value.

More to read: Mary’s tears are seeds of hope

For more information:

Every Life Counts

One Day More

Anencephaly Information

Perinatal Hospice

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