Recently a reader wrote me to say, “I read a story on the internet about a Catholic couple whose new baby was diagnosed with spina bifida and anencephaly (no brain). They chose to abort it. How on earth would you deal pastorally with such a horrible situation?”
Such questions involve several parts. What does God think? What would I do? What should I make of those people over there? We feel torn between obeying God’s commands “Don’t kill” and “Don’t judge.” And in our culture, “Don’t judge” has much the louder voice because of the great terror of “imposing our values”.
Let’s start with the loudest voice: “Don’t judge”. We are bound to obey that, but we are also bound to understand what it means. It does not mean, as our culture takes it to mean, “Abandon the possibility of knowing right from wrong.” It means “Don’t play God. Don’t imagine you know the souls of others and what motivated their choices, how culpable they are, etc.” (The funny thing is our culture is ready to play God all the time, while remaining unable to say if there is such a thing as right and wrong.) So let’s set aside the people in the story, whom it is not ours to judge, and simply consider the act in abstract: Is it always wrong to take innocent human life?
Yes. Always. That’s what “You shall not kill” means. That’s the other command we have to deal with here. And I think the best thing we can do with this situation is not adjudicate the souls of people we don’t know anything about concerning a choice they have already made (since that is way too much of a temptation to judge them, especially in cyberspace where judgment and condemnation flow like wine), but to first ask ourselves how we might respond rightly in a similar situation.
In talking to my wife Janet, (the actual baby carrier in this family), she points out the following:
First, ultrasounds have been wrong.
Second, miracles happen sometimes.
Third, and most salient here: every baby she has had is dying. The question is simply, when? Most of them, God willing, will die in 50 to 70 years. But they could die in five minutes.
When we put it that way, we suddenly realize: Knowing that the baby is going to die sooner rather than later is no reason to kill the baby. It is, says Janet, a reason to love the baby for as long as you can while it’s here. That’s very painful, but that is the risk we take every time we choose to love because everything we love in this world is mortal. It may be objected that an anencephalic baby cannot appreciate our love. I would reply that a healthy baby does not appreciate our love either, because a healthy baby has no more mind than a baby born without a brain. The whole point of parenthood, especially in its earliest stages, is radical self-giving (like Christ) to a being who is wholly incapable of giving anything back besides a sucking reflex. It’s an analogy of the grace of God, the great wake-up call, enfleshed, that It’s Not About Me and What I Get From It. A short course in the life of the Blessed Trinity.
In contrast, the unspoken contract, it seems to me, of much of our culture is that the baby is there for the sake of the parents and if the baby is not Perfect, then the parents have the right to break the deal. Speaking of playing God….
Finally, as a Catholic I would note that, if aborted, a baby has no access to the sacrament of Baptism. We can, of course, still entrust unbaptized babies to the mercy and love of God, but I would not be able to look God in the eye and tell him I denied my baby the sacrament because my feelings were more important than his eternal welfare.
These are all things I would say to myself if I were weighing the matter. They are also things I would say to a friend, one whom I knew well enough that he would understand I was aiming to speak the truth, not to condemn.
I would say such things because I prefer it when people level with me and don’t just affirm me in my okayness, especially during times of crisis. I would say such things because I believe them to reflect, not just the truth of my frightened and painful feelings as a parent in such a situation, but the truth of the Cosmos as well. The feelings of parents are certainly part of the equation, but they cannot be the whole.
Some people would undoubtedly say, “You don’t know what it’s like.” I disagree. True, I’ve never had an anencephalic baby. But we’ve had four sons and in every case, you wonder—all parents wonder—“What if there’s something wrong?” It is a variation on the question: “How much do we risk to love another?”
The answer of Christ to that question is the Cross–and the Empty Tomb. That’s what love costs us in this world and that’s what the choice to love gains us. And there’s no escaping that, because of the sort of creatures we are. To abort one’s baby is not to avoid the Cross. It is to choose a different and heavier one. In the meantime, it seems to me that, now that Christ has been crucified again in this terrible situation, our task is not to sit in judgment of people faced with this dreadful predicament (often without any of the resources and help the Faith provides), but to make the choice of Christ crucified to love and pray for them, in the hope that they will find grace, life and peace in Him. Because, of course, his mercy and love for them are undimmed and he still desires them to be with him.