My 25 year old niece recently ended a pregnancy at the beginning of her third trimester that illustrate the difficulty of legislating a single correct action in all cases. To this day I don’t know what the “right” decision would have been.
“Tracy” is a highly responsible young woman whose ability to make discerning adult decisions about her life showed up while she was still an early teenager. Last year she and her long-time boyfriend became pregnant. Though this was unplanned the two young people were decided to join together to make a family for the upcoming baby and for her boyfriend’s young son. Midway through her pregnancy Tracy was informed that the child suffered from a severe case of hydranencephaly. She was advised that there was a good chance the child would die quickly and an almost certain probability of severe disability.
Tracy has lived for several years with her best friend “Dani” and her children, one of whom is a severely disabled teenager. She knows first hand the dedication, probable poverty, and marriage strain caring for such a child involves. Tracy and I talked often about the ethical implications of the options open to her, especially given how much was unknowable until after the child’s birth. Tracey decided she was able and willing to bring her girl-child into the world and raise her, even if she was severely disabled. She also wanted the responsibility for deciding what kind of treatment was right for her daughter and whether or not withholding treatment and letting her die in peace was the best that could be done for her, perhaps allowing her organs to be donated so some other child could live.
Tracy’s doctors told her that once her daughter was born it was likely that her desires about treatments would be second guessed, and perhaps bypassed, if she wanted to allow her daughter to die. Tracy had great freedom before her daughter’s birth and much less afterward. It was the prospect of being constrained to make decisions that might cause her daughter needless pain that finally led Tracy to choose an abortion – one of the dreadfully named “partial birth” variety that are the best option because diagnosis of hydranencephaly happens late in a pregnancy.
I’ll be the first to say that Tracy’s level of maturity and responsibility is rare and few people I trust so much to do the right thing. He mother is an alcoholic. She is a practical mother figure to her younger brother and sister and to her boyfriend’s young son. She worked her way to a responsible job and has nearly completed her BA by take a class each term. She is as gutsy and ethical as anyone I know.
On the day of the procedure I found myself praying for the baby girl with sorrow and grief. I wanted the outcome to be different. Yet I could not ask her mother to make a different choice. If Tracy had been able to carry on using her own judgment I trust her to make courageous and ethical decisions. Her poise through the whole process awed me, as it did all the medical staff who worked with her.
For background sake, I am a prolife, democrat, life-long Episcopalian. I've been a Benedicting Oblate for 20 years, and hung out with a remarkable Evangelical baptist congregation for the last five years, as Episcopal churches are rare in outstate Minnesota. Tracy has no religious practice, but talks with me often about the ethics. She is a living example that a person without religious faith or practice can have the very highest ethics. I am against banning abortion because the only thing worse than an abortion are the awful ways that women harm themselves when they are desperate and prohibited from ending a pregnancy. In the ideal situation they would be rare because we discourage unwanted pregancy in every way possible. Tracy's pregnancy was the first time I was up close and personal with an abortion, and I felt more sorrow and grief than I realized I would. I felt attached to this little girl. I greived her death, even though I could not bring myself to pressure Tracy to do something different. I trust her enough that I know she did the very best that anyone could. If the young woman involved had been a heedless young person I would have encouraged her to straighten up and do the adult thing by making a commitment to the coming baby and to her boyfriend.
My wish would be that this story would help illustrate these principles.1. that it not be undertaken lightly or without thought.2. That it is OK and appropriate to grieve the child that was lost.3. That the burden in a complex situation is too complicated to make easy judgements about.4. That the ways we decide about ending a pregnancy are related to the ways we decide about the end of life for after birth.5. That we encourage young people to avoid an abortion if at all possible.6. That the consequences of banning abortion are too high to bear in terms of women who die from badly performed procedures.
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