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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?
This is probably what the physicians were quietly thinking when they asked Catholic ethicist Aaron Cobb and his wife Alisha if they would consider “interrupting” their pregnancy—initially based just on the detection of chromosomal abnormality, then based on more clearly visible severe defects. Each time, the couple said “No.” They would keep regular pre-natal appointments. Every week, they would listen for a heartbeat. Every week, they would get a fresh ultrasound to mark the progress of their son, whom they had named Samuel. They would think of it as their time together with him. Their little span. Their little day.
Just like Deborah, Alisha endured the day-to-day anguish of being in public as her baby bump grew, having to answer the same innocently painful questions over and over. She endured the same relentless anxiety, the same sense of never really being able to rest because you never knew when It was going to happen. She also endured the burden of having to mother a healthy, inquisitive 4-year-old boy through it all. Except unlike Lee and Deborah, Aaron and Alisha chose to explain the sad news to their son.
“It’s all very well for them,” Lee and Deborah might say bitterly, if they heard this story. “They could tell their son about this because they could also tell him he’ll get to see his baby brother again someday. They got to turn their suffering into a story, a story where none of this matters in the end anyway because they’re all going to heaven. The rest of us just have to suffer.”
There would be some truth in that. In Aaron’s memory, his family’s suffering is part of a Story. He considers his wife’s particular suffering in the light of the Virgin Mary’s suffering, her annunciation in the light of the great Annunciation. As Mary cared to the end for the one entrusted to her, letting him go as willingly as she had accepted him, so would Alisha. She would surrender all of herself. She would lay her life down for one who was dying.
And when Samuel is finally born, their priest stands ready to imbue this dying with meaning—blessing, baptizing, anointing. After almost five hours, when the nurse gently calls the moment of death, he seals it with this promise of resurrection:
Deliver your servant, Samuel, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, forever and ever. Amen. Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
It is a grave mistake, though, and a sadly common one, to suggest that for Christians this promise of life in the future somehow renders trivial our suffering in the now. Nobody could come away from Aaron’s memoir thinking that his family’s suffering was trivial. In fact, Aaron deals rather severely with misguided attempts to minimize that suffering. He writes a letter for his son to read later, where he explains that people will mean well when they say suffering is “part of God’s plan for his life,” or that God is “just teaching him to have more faith.” But like the blind man, his son is not going through this for his lack of faith, or his parents’ lack of faith. This is not “part of the plan,” if by this we mean part of the original “plan.” It’s the inexorable outworking of our vulnerability in a world broken by sin and death. A world into which even Jesus came, and even Jesus was broken.
Aaron recalls a story from a mentor, another priest. In the course of his ministry, he was especially distressed by the death of one premature child, born sick and shriveled and no bigger than his hand. She was given the name Tamika. In his grief, he bitterly asked Tamika’s nurse, a friend, “What did Tamika ever have?” The friend answered, “She had the power to call out love from me.”
It is here that Aaron finds meaning: in love, given and received.
Alisha and I believed that God was redeeming our suffering. We believed that God was already working to bring good and light from the darkness and weightiness of our suffering. More than this, we believed that Sam’s life, no matter how small or fragile, was meaningful. And our relationship with him was (and is) meaningful. And our time with him and with each other as we held him was meaningful. And the time we spent talking through our suffering and discussing his life remains meaningful. This experience was not futile, or senseless, or pointless. The meaning was in the love we shared with a child who was created in God’s image and whose vulnerability brought his life to a quick close even as it began.
One night, as we talked, Alisha said to me, “I wouldn’t wish this experience for anyone, but I would not undo what we’ve done.” The grief and suffering we lived with as we anticipated Sam’s eventual death was not, in itself, good or meaningful. And it was not meaningful because of any good that was intended or would result from our experience. There was no good that could compensate for what we were losing. No, the meaning of this experience was in bearing and in holding our son. By loving, we could destroy the notion that our love was wasted or futile.
Aaron and Alisha chose to let Sam die naturally, with only basic care and palliative measures to ease his pain. Yet even in death, he had the will to live:
I remember holding him in the hospital, looking at him and his fragile body. I remember looking at his eyes, his ears, his lips, his fingers and trying to trace his features. And as I studied him, I recall seeing something deeper about me in this weak and determined little life. Each limitation, each defect, each scar, each soft and labored breath—each of these were my own. They were my own limitations, my own deficiencies, my own scars, my own breaths. Isn’t this image an image of each human life? ….
In his living, in the determined way he labored to live even while he was dying, I saw what could be my own life. Will this be the witness of my life? Will I continue to breathe when my weakness makes breathing labored? Will I be comforted while I cry? Will I live even while I am dying?
The memoir could have ended with Sam’s death. But Aaron chooses to chronicle the time after as honestly as he chronicles the time before. As months slowly melt into years, at no point does their faith function as a “get out of grief free” card. Faith does not dilute the grief. It makes the grief meaningful.
Even now, he wonders, did their love accomplish anything? Does it go on accomplishing anything? He couldn’t say for sure. “How love completes its work is a mystery,” he admits. But he knows it does not fail.
Loss is now coming for the Dorberts, as it came for the Cobbs—inexorably, and agonizingly, and not at a time of their choosing. It will come without a priest to mark or bless it. It will come without any sure sense that it is meaningful. Even so, even then, it is my hope that they will know something of this love. Love called out from them. Love hovering over them. Love abiding with them.