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A look at fetal testing issues

This morning, NY Times magazine posted an article that invites God-talk into the open spaces – mostly because of what’s missing.

In A Wrongful Birth? – which explores the issues surrounding fetal testing – Elizabeth Weil asks a basic question: how much control should we have over the babies we give birth to?

She begins by examining why our society seems to believe “we should have a right to choose which babies come into the world”:

“The first is the assumption that if we choose to take advantage of contemporary technology, major flaws in our fetus's health will be detected before birth. The second assumption, more controversial, is that we will be able to do something — namely, end the pregnancy — if those flaws suggest a parenting project we would rather not undertake.”
But, Weil asks, should we exercise that control? For Weil, the dilemma boils down to a moral quandary which “pits the ideal of unconditional love of a child against the reality that most of us would prefer not to have that unconditional-love relationship with a certain subset of kids.”

Weil lists and examines a variety of opinions surrounding that quandary, like:

Some argue that our desire not to raise impaired children is based on prejudice. Others claim that a choosy attitude toward fetuses brings a consumerist attitude toward childbearing and undermines the moral stature of the family. Still others maintain that the act of terminating impaired children drags us into a moral abyss — or its opposite, that raising children with impairments increases our humanity. . . .Opposing this, of course, is the plain fact that a healthy newborn is the best outcome — what every parent wants. No reasonable person would choose sickness over health, and we seem to have the ability to choose.
Of note is Weil’s willingness to expose her personal experience with the issue:

I had to face these very questions in my own pregnancy two years ago. I was 23 weeks pregnant with our second child when my husband and I were told that our unborn son had contracted cytyomegalovirius, or CMV, a virus that if contracted by the mother for the first time while she is pregnant and is passed along to her fetus can lead to serious birth defects. Most likely our child would be deaf, blind and have serious mental retardation — a doctor friend told me that this prognosis could make a child with Down look like a walk in the park — but no one could tell us for sure what our unborn son's health would be like. What is more, no good studies existed because most of the women in the samples terminated before birth. The uncertainty was awful: weren't we supposed to be given solid information on which to base a decision? In lieu of that, we were offered a sonogram riddled with anomalies, a 20-something genetics counselor and terrible odds. We tried to take solace in the fact that our older daughter had never picked up on the fact that there was a baby in her mother's belly. We did what seemed right at the time: we aborted.
Weil significantly lays her own story beside that of a young couple who found out their child would suffer severe physical and mental disabilities too late in the pregnancy to terminate it. While they filed a case against their doctors, Weil poignantly portrays the tender and unconditional love the parents feel towards their child.

In the end, while Weil doesn’t directly answer her original question, she leaves the reader with the need to slow down and examine the issues more closely.

What’s missing

What is most interesting about the article, however, is what’s missing. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum - and that void yanks God-talk into the open spaces:

First, the question of where we get our moral views – our sense of right and wrong – is entirely absent from Weil’s reflections. Religion is mentioned only once, in relation to one set of parents' nominal involvement with the Catholic Church. Taking God out of the equation makes questions like these almost impossible to answer. Putting God back in raises some foundational questions we need to answer before we proceed.

Second, Weil indicates that “when faced with a fetus that will become severely handicapped, all choices are bad.” We will suffer no matter what choice we make. And that puts more God-talk on the table: How we view God – if we think of him at all – will determine how we view suffering. Is God distant or personal? Is he loving or impartial? Is he good? Can he really raise good out of suffering? And what kind of good does he mean?

And finally, I think this article brings some questions into the open space between believers who hold to the value of every life. If we advocate the birth of severely handicapped children, what are the implications for the church? What are we doing – and not doing – to support these families? Financially? Emotionally? Day-to-day? These are important questions that we all-too often sweep under the table. If our actions don’t support our beliefs, then our beliefs don’t carry much weight with the rest of our culture.

Weil’s article gives us a good insight into how people in our culture are dealing with hard issues. It also gives us an opportunity to bring God-talk into the open spaces. Let’s use it.

(Image by swearinglibrarian)