Guest post from a Perinatal Hospice Nurse
About a year ago, a well known Protestant pastor had a question posed to him on a radio show. A young mother called in with a heartbreaking problem – her twins were conjoined and she wanted to know if she could end the pregnancy because even if she continued, the babies would likely both die. She wanted to know if abortion (essentially prenatal euthanasia) could be justified for Christians based on life expectancy and possible suffering. The Pastor told her to go ahead and consider the abortion acceptable because the babies’ life expectancy was bleak.
This is my response.
I am a nurse with a specialty in Perinatal Bereavement and Perinatal Hospice; I care for women experiencing pregnancy loss, infant death, and pregnancies where the baby’s life is expected to be brief. To me, there were gaps in this discussion and I would like to fill-in a few of them.
There was a time not long ago when expectant parents who were given grave prenatal diagnosis had to abort or struggle with their challenge alone, completely unsupported by the medical community. Nursing textbooks from the 50’s told nurses to not let parents even see the “monstrosities”. In the last decade, a new model of care has evolved in Medicine & Nursing – that of Perinatal Hospice and Palliative Care. There are professionals prepared to interact with parents from the moment that an adverse diagnosis is made. This model of care is not available everywhere but there are websites and organizations who do long-distance mentoring to people who don’t have a program available locally.
To me, the most alarming thing spoken between the caller and the Pastor was the statement that abortion was acceptable because the baby’s “life expectancy is bleak”. If we believe that God is sovereign in all things, why do we act as if He is absent in this? Rationalizing that abortion is acceptable in these situations reveals our fear of death and the unknown, and doesn’t give God the chance to shine His light into the darkness of the situation. I’ve experience that God does indeed do this.
When I worked for a hospice that cared for adults, I went into that job thinking that the biggest change I would see was the transition of the patient from life to death. After watching the dynamics of a few families over the course of the illness and death, I discovered that the biggest change was in the caregivers. The family members tasked with the minute to minute care of the dying person often went into it saying things like “I can’t give them medicine, I can’t do that dressing change, I can’t watch them die, I can’t talk to them about thier death, I can’t deal with them not eating…” But, little by little they learn to do things they never thought they could do.
Of course on the day of the death, the grief of the fresh loss is the most compelling concern, but right behind that I saw the caregivers become aware of an amazing sense of accomplishment. They did something bigger than they ever thought that they could do; and I believe this accomplishment goes with them into all the future things they do in life. This is one of the reasons I do not believe in euthanasia. What if the response to, “I can’t___” is “You are right, you can’t, let’s off grandma.” We would cheat that person out of probably the most influential event of their lives and leave them fully convinced that they “can’t”.
I have mentored many parents through a pregnancy where we know the baby will not survive long. This is a difficult yet transformative experience. I have seen powerful, loving, meaningful, sacred parenting done in a few minutes of life. The fact that a life will be very short does not mean it is less important, I argue that each of those minutes becomes then more precious.
Part of what I do is to pull off the dark cloak of fear and unknown and ask parents what most frightens them about the pregnancy and delivery.
“I am afraid of who I will become.” You will become an amazing person.
“Will the baby suffer?” The disease processes that end life at birth are most often not painful but in the event that pain is a possibility, there is medication.
“Who will be there with me?” I will, and whomever else you want.
“How will we know what the baby needs?” The baby will tell us, we just need to learn what they are teaching.
“How will I tell my other children?” Tell them the whole truth and then let them nurture you, they are wiser than you think they are.
“My friends and family are so freaked out they wont even speak of it.” Give them time, God will put other people into your path for now.
This video is made by the author. Her contact information is at the end, and she welcomes questions from anyone interested in more information. It is her sincere prayer that more people realize the need for this kind of care and join her to make it a reality. Why isn’t this obvious?