I Choose Choice

Rachel MacNair, in "My Personal Journey on the Abortion Issue" (FJ Feb.), has written a moving statement about her personal journey to a position of opposition to abortion. Her politics have clearly been shaped by her strong personal desire to experience pregnancy and single motherhood. She will not choose abortion. But personal journeys differ; and it can be dangerous to extrapolate from one person to all women. Being pregnant does unexpected things to women and brings unexpected insights. The one option that no pregnant woman enjoys is doing nothing about her condition. She must wrestle with unique circumstances. No two pregnancies are ever alike. Here I describe another actual pregnancy, names changed, for another perspective on choice.

Elizabeth, a healthy mother in her mid-30s, was married to John, her high school sweetheart who, with her, had matured as a caring and responsible individual. As their son David turned four, Elizabeth and John joyfully planned for a second child. To their delight, they had no problem conceiving. All three family members were eagerly awaiting the newcomer. Then, during a routine visit to her obstetrician, Elizabeth learned that the skull of her unborn child was open and was not going to close. In effect, her daughter would be born without the back of her head, without a brain. As Elizabeth and John pondered the bad news, John (who is Catholic) came to believe that the best choice would be abortion, after which they would plan another pregnancy. To Elizabeth’s surprise, she found that her loving bond to her gestating daughter was stronger than her desire to get on with her life. She wanted that particular pregnancy and that particular birth, even as she resigned herself to the fact that she would not bring her daughter home from the hospital. An ameliorating factor was the hope that some of her daughter’s organs might live on and save other lives.

With grace and heavy hearts, Elizabeth and John together saw the pregnancy to term. Finally their daughter Rose—with beautiful face, chubby hands, and cute feet—was born and breathed for a short time. All three family members were able to hold and love her before she gave up her life and was whisked away. A year later, their son Timmy was born. A photo of Rose’s hand, laid across those of Elizabeth and John, sits in their living room alongside the happy parade of pictures of David and Timmy. While their choices might seem macabre to some, Elizabeth is adamant in bridging no regrets about her decision to continue her pregnancy with her daughter. She loves each of her three children and believes that each one has been a transforming gift.

Indeed, anyone who has known Elizabeth and John over the years can mark a ripening spirituality. It is a privilege to be in their home and to hear Elizabeth, John, David, and Timmy speak of their daughter and sister Rose. Elizabeth is fortunate in the family that has been given to her and which she has accepted and shaped. Choice is a key part of her experience of motherhood. Had she been forced to complete her middle pregnancy, the entire family would be poorer for the state having injected itself into the intimacy of this family. Just as no one else in the world will ever duplicate the precise situation that Rachel MacNair lived, no one else in the world will ever face the exact constellation of emotional, social, and medical circumstances that Elizabeth experienced.

Choice is part of what makes us human. For good and bad, we live, learn, and grow by the choices we make. While we indisputably give up certain choices in exchange for the security of living in a society of laws, we tend to resent arbitrary intrusion into our personal morality. For good reason. But sometimes the line between personal and social choice is fuzzy. Where does social restriction appropriately impinge on individual freedom? Aside from the question of abortion, our society as a whole makes many life-or-death decisions each day. When the interstate speed limit is raised to 70 miles per hour, we trade traffic deaths for the speed and convenience of motorists. Our choice of a capitalist economy and world dominance brings death to people around the world. Many medical decisions weigh quality of life against length of life. Until recently, we tolerated a situation where pregnant women and their infants were denied routine care, sacrificing some of them in the process. We continue to tolerate withholding medical care to undocumented individuals among us.

The list of state-mandated tradeoffs of death for the sake of convenience or comfort is long. The question is not whether or not these life-or-death decisions will continue to be made. They are part of the human condition. The question is, rather, whether a woman will be trusted with decisions about her own body and the life within it. Love cannot be forced. It happens or not within human hearts, enabled or not by an enveloping spirituality. Forced intimacy is an abomination. Only if we have the right to say "no" does our "yes" have any meaning. This is a place where the state should protect individual freedom and then stand aside. Human connection is critical to human life. No one, young or old, survives as an island. Let us not deny or neglect our part of the human web. But let us bring new life forth with love and will. Otherwise not.