Words Written in Trembling

A reader recently sent me the following:

Somebody I know wrote:

This following is about abortion, but not “is it right or wrong” or “what does the Church teach,” but “How on earth would you deal with this pastorally?”

 

A friend of mine has a married cousin. She and her husband had a healthy child and a few years later, she got pregnant again. They very much wanted this child, but at the three month point or so, the ultrasound revealed that the fetus had not only spinal bifida, but no head. She had an abortion.

This was one of the worst things I’d ever heard about. Personally, I don’t condemn the abortion since the idea of having that sort of . . . I don’t know . . . growing inside you for another six months, then giving birth to it and watching it die in a matter of hours is beyond nightmarish. But in a pastoral situation, what on earth could you do? What on earth could you say?

I’m put off by her description of the baby as a “sort of . . . I don’t know . . .” instead of a person who might have a soul, but it’s so hard! I mean, recalling my priest’s (? I think?) homily with the whole demolishing a building analogy (if you’re not sure someone’s inside, you shouldn’t risk bombing the place), we can’t be sure that baby didn’t have a soul, but we can be sure that baby would not live to take its first breath. I can only imagine the parents’ heartbreak when faced with the terrible choice of aborting their baby or going through the whole painful pregnancy and labor to give birth to something already dead . . . . To echo the original poster’s question, what on earth could you do?

Part of the difficulty here is that such questions usually involve several parts. What does God think? What would I do? What should I make of what those people over there did? And then we start feeling torn between obeying God when He says “Don’t kill” and obeying God when He says “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 command of Our Lord, but we are also bound to understand what it means. It does not mean, as our culture takes it to mean, “Remain agnostic about the possibility of ever knowing what is right and 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: the deliberate taking of innocent human life. Is it wrong always?

The answer is: Yes. Always. That’s what “You shall not murder” means.

That’s the other command we have to deal with here. I think, pastorally speaking, 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 (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?

When we put it that way, we suddenly realize something: Knowing that the baby is going to die sooner rather than later is no reason to kill the baby. It is, says my wife, 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 a headless baby cannot appreciate our love. I would reply that a healthy baby cannot appreciate our love either, because a healthy baby has no more mind than a headless one. 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 and a poopy diaper. 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 to this Christian vision of unearned and earnable love, the unspoken contract of much of our culture is that the baby is there for the sake of the parents. This is the basic idea behind parents who treat babies not as a gift, but as a civil right and a consumer commodity, who do in vitro fertilization or rent-a-womb surrogate parenting. And, of course, one of the corollaries of this mentality is that 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 the victim of abortion to the love of God; but I, at any rate, 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 my child’s eternal welfare. So, were it me, I would rather go through the temporary pain of his short life and see him in heaven, eternally happy.

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 I was trying to level with, one I knew well enough that he would understand I was aiming to speak the truth, not to condemn.

I would say such things because, at least in my own case, 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 this view 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 equation. Some people would undoubtedly say, “You don’t know what it’s like.” But I’m not sure they are right. True, I’ve never had an acephalic baby. But we’ve had four sons, and in every case, you wonder — all parents wonder — “What if there’s something wrong?” Because it’s the risk you take every time you choose to love a mortal thing.

The answer of Christ to the question “What is the risk you take to love a mortal thing?” is the cross — and the empty tomb. That’s what love costs 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 the young couple who made this dreadful choice, but to make the choice of Christ crucified to love and pray for them. Because, of course, His mercy and love for them are undimmed, and He still desires them — and their baby — to be with Him. May it be so through the prayers of the Holy Family and the Holy Innocents.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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