Yesterday we learned that the proud mother of octuplets, born last Monday in California, is an unmarried mother who receives public assistance and already has six children under the age of eight. From the welfare of each of her 14 children to concerns about a planet plagued with overpopulation, the ethical questions surrounding this event boggle the mind.
But let’s pull one strand of thought out of this fiasco and see where it leads us—the question of abortion.
In discussions about abortion, most Americans tend to think of certain common scenarios: for example, a teenager afraid to tell her parents about a pregnancy or a woman unwilling to interrupt her career to have a baby. Many think of abortion as a selfish act by a woman who was irresponsible in getting pregnant in the first place.
The reality—and the megabirth in California is a prime of example of this—is that questions of whether pregnancy should be brought to term can be much, much more complicated than that.
As a counselor, I have been privy to the agonies of two women who had to choose whether to abort a child. One of these women was dying of cancer and had, at best, a few months to live; the other had just learned that she was HIV positive. The woman with cancer had three choices: she could take drugs that would likely damage her fetus but allow her a few more months with her two young sons; she could abort the fetus and take the drugs; or she could let the cancer run its course without treatment, unsure of what that might do to the unborn child. As to the woman who was HIV positive (due to her partner’s infidelity), doctors could only tell her that her child, if born, would have a 50-50 chance of being born with HIV.
Who among us would choose for either of those women? I think most of us would agree the burden of choice should be theirs and theirs alone.
You see, the question of abortion is not really a question of whether pregnancies should be terminated or not—it’s about who should make the choices. It’s not about whether abortion is right or wrong—it’s never “right” but, at best, the lesser of two evils. Rather, it’s about whether the blunt hatchet of legislation is the best tool for dealing with delicate and very personal moral dilemmas. And it’s also about the fact that legislation—like prohibition—has been tried in this country and failed.
Those of us who are pro-choice are pro-choice, not “pro-abortion.” Most of us support the work of family planning organizations at home and abroad—in part, because they make alternatives available to women before conception (thus helping to reduce the number of abortions).
No one is happier than I am to see a healthy baby born to a healthy mother who is able and willing to care for it. But let’s face it—not every birth is cause for celebration. This is especially true in underdeveloped countries where, without family planning information and services, entire families may be in jeopardy from starvation. It’s true in disease-ravaged areas, where babies born to dying mothers may be doomed to a slow, agonizing death from unintentional neglect.
In affluent nations, advances in technology have made it possible for infants to be born who, without medical intervention, would have been naturally aborted. This includes multiple pregnancies involving unnatural numbers of children (all of whom, if they survive, have much higher-than-normal risk of lifelong illness), as well as babies who are severely deformed and disabled.
I once knew a family with several children, the youngest of whom was hardly recognizable as a human being. This female child, who died after a decade of misery, was grotesquely deformed and entirely unable to communicate. She was constantly being hospitalized for a wide range of problems, causing untold stress and anxiety for her entire family. The financial, psychological, and physical toll on everyone concerned was enormous, and keeping the child alive as long as possible (the only morally right course of action once she had been born) required the resources of an entire community.
The implications of medical intervention to create, preserve, or terminate pregnancies are very broad indeed. It’s time we got over the ridiculous obsession many people have with Roe v. Wade and take a broader, more informed look at the wide range of public policies that affect children and families, both in the U.S. and abroad.