Life's Little Day
A tale of two tragedies
Housekeeping: Quite a few of you have just recently signed up as free subscribers. Welcome! I’m not sure exactly where you all came from, but I hope you like what you see! Some free content is coming soon, but in the meantime, you’re receiving a free preview of a paid subscriber-exclusive post. In this piece, I offer a careful reflection on the painful topic of disability abortion, apropos of a recent Florida case making the news rounds. I will be looking at a resource I’d like to highlight for free and paid subscribers alike, so here’s a plug upfront for Loving Samuel, by Aaron Cobb. This short work is one of the best memoirs of loss that I’ve ever read, from the perspective of a father whose baby son lived only five hours outside the womb. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone even if Aaron didn’t happen to be one of my dad’s old philosophy students. He’s gone on to a fruitful academic career as a Catholic ethicist, with a special focus on perinatal hospice. I’d like to think his writing will touch someone new thanks to my recommendation here.
As always, thanks for reading.
In a post-Roe world, the human tragedy of painful pregnancies has inevitably been exploited for political ends. This will only worsen as we head into an election year, with a particular focus on Ron DeSantis and Florida’s abortion law. As of last year, the state has imposed a ban on all abortions past fifteen weeks, with a carve-out for lethal fetal disability. However, despite this carve-out, the penalties for breaking the law are harsh enough that even in these cases, there is an incentive to err on the side of denying abortion.
This is what has happened in the sad case of Lee and Deborah Dorbert, as they prepare to deliver a baby with Potter syndrome. The rare condition was first detected on a 23-week scan. It arrests kidney growth, which in turn drastically reduces the amount of amniotic fluid around the baby. There is no hope of cure or survival. On paper, abortion seemed to be an option for them under the current law. But for whatever reason, they were unable to obtain the required two doctors’ signatures that would allow them to proceed with a premature induction.
The angle of this story is clear, as told in outlets like The Guardian and the Washington Post. The Dorberts themselves mince no words in expressing their anger at a new cultural climate where the option of abortion is no longer universally guaranteed. Deborah says, “You say we live in the land of freedom and making choices for ourselves, but yet…right now I can’t make a choice for what’s best for me, this baby, my family.” Now, as she goes about her day and navigates the stinging pain of people’s innocent questions, she is unsure how to answer them. “It’s ‘Yes, I’m pregnant,’ but ‘No’ at the same time.” Meanwhile, they haven’t been able to bring themselves to explain the tragedy to their 4-year-old son, who’s still excited at the prospect of becoming a big brother.
I felt deep sadness for the Dorberts as I read their story. Speaking as a pro-lifer, I do recognize some ethical space between a premature delivery and the kind of “termination” that is more accurately described as “attacking and dismembering.” Then again, I allow that space in my mind partly because even some disabled premature babies have some chance of survival, especially in the 28-32-week window that would have been offered to the Dorberts. Of course, in their case, there’s no point in discussing survival chances. Death will inevitably follow delivery. So there remains some sense in which the choice to deliver is a choice to kill, if a less active sense than direct assault.
However, such nuances are not really the point in how the Dorberts’ story has been framed, and I suspect they themselves would agree. The clear overarching message is that parents should have the full range of “termination” options, and whatever an individual couple decides should be entirely up to their judgment. The very notion of any kind of ban, any kind of limitation on parental autonomy, makes Deborah “angry.”
Even Deborah’s Catholic parents, despite their pro-life instincts, are increasingly inclined to sympathize with their daughter. The Post story provides an especially poignant, vivid picture of her father. He is torn, on one hand full of protective love for his grandchild, on the other hand distressed as he watches his daughter’s descent into ever deeper mental anguish through the pregnancy. He asks her permission to feel “the life” moving inside her, wistful and sorrowful at the thought that soon, “there won’t be any life.” Nevertheless, he continues to pray for the impossible. The baby’s sex has been difficult to determine, but two possible names have been chosen, both beginning with an “M.” In his mind, he still hopes that “M” will stand for “miracle.” Whatever happens, he will be there to see it.
The steady drumbeat throughout these reports is the sense that all of this, this waiting, is fundamentally pointless. It’s an agony prolonged for no reason. Lee and Deborah aren’t even preparing for a child who may live on with profound disability (though presumably they believe it wouldn’t be any of the government’s business if a couple chose to abort in that case too). They’re preparing for a child whose disability has marked him for death from the moment of his birth. So why delay it? Why wait for death to come knocking when you can make an appointment with him? Why wait for the end, when you can end it all now?