On the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, in the novena of St. Anne, Grace Catherine Burleigh, age five months, had the first of two difficult heart surgeries.
As grandparents, we planned, with our son and daughter-in-law, for this surgery to correct tricuspid atresia and hypoplastic right ventricle, a procedure scarcely nine years old. A decade ago little patients born with this malformation went home to die. Blessedly, however, our pretty, endearing baby Grace anticipates a happy future, thanks to the progress of medical science and a team of extraordinary pediatric cardiologists at an extraordinary hospital, Cincinnati Children’s.
A year ago, when David and Chris learned they were expecting twins, they named their babies in the womb—Peter David and Grace Catherine. Peter, named for his father David and for St. Peter, was to be the rock. His name is appropriate for this large, jovial baby with dimpled grin, known to his older brothers, John Paul and William Joseph, as “Big Old Petey” They have already assumed that, at half a year old, he joins them as a band of brothers.
Gracie, though, is, to John Paul and Willie, a charming, feminine other, a lovely little girly-girl to whom they respond with delight, affection, and brotherly protection.
“Now, Gracie,” says three-year old John Paul, “when there is lightning and thunder, you close your eyes tight, but I’ll keep mine open and watch, and when it’s over, I’ll tell you to open your eyes.”
“Hey, Gwacie!” shouts two-year- old Willie, thrusting a plastic alligator under Grace’s nose, “Wanna see my alligatah?”
David and Chris knew two months before the birth of their twins that Grace had a difficult heart problem. Yet Grace, whose full name means grace, “gift, or favor,” and Catherine, “pure,” was, from her earliest weeks in the womb, consecrated to Mary. “Grace is Mary’s girl,” Chris said.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” was our constant prayer, reminding us all that Mary carries Grace fully in her arms, gathered close to her heart.
In the month before Grace’s surgery, I kept thinking of an image. I could see Mary, with baby Grace in her arms, walking forward to present Grace to Christ in the monstrance. Walking next to Mary, with her arm linked through Mary’s, was another “Pure Grace” our daughter Catherine Anne (Anne means “grace”), now Sr. Anne Catherine, in the snowy white bridal habit of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Freshly graduated from postulancy to novitiate, Sr. Anne Catherine, like the baby named for her, was being presented by Mary to Christ. Behind this trio of Mary, baby Grace, and Sr. Anne Catherine walked David and Chris, carrying Peter and holding John Paul and William by the hand; Bill and I; our daughter Margaret; Grace’s Vanderslice grandparents; and all the extended family.
Chris and David have never doubted Mary’s protection of Grace and Petey, J.P., and Willie. Even though they discovered Grace’s condition before birth, the very thought of abortion would have been a horror to them. Neither, incredibly in our age, did it enter the minds of the doctors, who often meet their patients in utero and think only of saving them. Every instinct, every nerve, every effort of the doctors and staff at Children’s Hospital strains toward healing the seriously ill young patients who stream in from every part of the country. The culture of death stops at their door. Their aim is to heal, and their ability to do it has plunged ahead with astonishing speed. Pediatric cardiology, for example, has advanced so rapidly that a surgery expected a year from now will have been revised and improved by the time the surgery actually occurs. Medicine in general is one of the disciplines whose progress defies the decline that has taken place in the humanities and in politics. It is almost as if the more the culture of death clutches society by the throat, the more the Holy Spirit infuses the medical profession with the competence to heal.
Yet, in a frightening irony, at the same time that medical science races to save babies like Grace, the phenomenon that we thought would be merely science fiction is already grisly fact. Scientists are now capable of cloning human embryos, and apparently have been doing so for nearly a year, both in Britain and in the U.S. According to a BBC report in June, a British lord called the cloning in Britain “totally ethical.” For those who believe in the sanctity of the human person, who is created by God from two parents, to clone a human is depraved in the extreme. The issue takes an even more demonic cast when we realize that the object of most cloning is not to allow a human embryo to grow into adulthood, but instead to kill the embryo in order to harvest its brain cells for treatment of other people’s diseases.
What can we not expect, however, when we relinquish the first principle of the sacredness of human life and the unrepeatable relationship with the Father that is meant for us from all eternity? For therapeutic ends that appear good and humane—the treatment of disease, infertility, release from the suffering of chronic illness and old age—we have traveled down impossible roads from which, once entered, it is difficult to retreat. The moral quick sands into which we have sunk through human embryo experimentation, freezing, harvesting, cloning, and disposal, do not occur when we respect what the Church so precisely explains must be the integrity of human life in its stages.
All other ways, no matter how well intended, lead to Frankenstein. The normal, healing way in which medical science has treated baby Grace is full of grace.