This year’s March for Life theme of “Love Saves Lives” hits close to home. As a heart surgeon for infants and children, I know it to be true.
I have witnessed the loving choice to carry a critically ill unborn child to term, and how these unborn children often fought dire predictions to survive and thrive. I’ve also seen how the love in the hearts of mothers who carry these children, even through their fear of a prenatal diagnosis, generates greater love and joy in the mother’s lives, too.
When I first began my career as a heart surgeon, I thought that my work would be about as far from the question of abortion as any doctor’s could possibly be. I was wrong. Our ability to identify heart problems before a baby is born has progressed rapidly over the past generation, leading to new information and the prospect of difficult choices for parents confronted with a prenatal diagnosis.
At the same time, the knowledge gained through ultrasound testing can make the path smoother for parents with a critically ill newborn. Finding problems early allows parents and doctors to plan accordingly: arrangements can be made, for example, to have the baby born in a hospital that has the capacity to care for that critically ill baby, and to do open heart surgery right away if necessary. I have occasionally even seen babies put on the waiting list to receive heart transplants before birth!
Prenatal diagnosis of heart disease (and other problems) can make things less risky for the baby, and also gives the parents time to reflect, and to ask questions calmly, rather than face a life-threatening emergency minutes after the baby is born.
Yet hearing such a potentially scary diagnosis also leaves some expectant parents wondering if they can parent at all. All too often, in the name of giving parents “their best options,” doctors reviewing prenatal tests encourage mothers to abort.
In my practice, I’ve met many mothers who defied this advice. One child given a dire prenatal diagnosis was about three years old when she came into my office to be prepared for surgery. Like many children with heart problems, she was small for her age, and she wore glasses. She was a delightful child, laughing and running around the office as I visited with her mother.
The mother volunteered to me that she was (still, more than three years later) very angry with the doctors who had “pushed” her (her word) to abort this baby. They had told her that between the child’s severe heart problem and genetic abnormalities, she would not survive. The mother resisted abortion, even though she believed the doctors’ predictions. But she was even angrier later—perhaps out of fear for what might have happened—when she learned that her daughter’s problems were not so serious after all. The heart defect was simple to repair, and the little girl was otherwise pretty healthy.
For many women facing the birth of a child with an abnormality, the hardest part is the fear of what might happen. So often things do not turn out as horribly as we fear! My experience is also borne out in research studies: Parents of children born with medical problems rate their child’s quality of life much higher than doctors do, and in cases where the children are able to report their own quality of life, they rate it even higher!
Yet faced with an unexpected, potentially serious problem in an unborn child, many parents see abortion as the easiest or even only solution. In my own practice, I have seen first-hand how women are so often stronger than we think we are, how parents (and grandparents too!) can find within themselves the strength to give themselves to others, and thereafter grow and mature in the face of difficulties.
I recall one young, single mother who anxiously came to me in her second trimester to talk about plans for the surgery to be done after the baby’s birth. Over the succeeding three years as I cared for her child, I watched her mature from a nervous, pregnant teenager to a mature and wonderful mother.
I have another very memorable patient: a newborn baby who was born with a severe heart problem and a genetic condition associated with developmental disability, whose mother was so upset that she did not come in when the baby had surgery. For about two weeks, only the father came to visit. One day the mother finally came in, and as she sat by the little girl’s bed in intensive care, I went to talk to her. She told me she had stayed away because she could not face the idea that her child might be “mentally retarded” – her words. She said she was afraid she could not love such a child. I reminded her that when she got pregnant, she had no idea what the baby would be — boy or girl, a piano player or tone deaf, a basketball star or an actor — and that she did not know whether the baby would be smart or not. Then I said that the baby would be her child, and she would love her. After a brief pause to consider that, she told me that I was right. The fact is, given the opportunity, we tend to love our children no matter what.
Over and over again, in my practice, unborn children deemed “incompatible” with “a high quality of life” end up proving everyone wrong. It is a loss that so many of these children never have that opportunity, and it is also a loss for their parents, who miss out on love for and from their children.
Love does save lives, and love should be given a chance.
Kathleen Fenton, MD, is a pediatric-certified thoracic and cardiac surgeon working with children and adults. She is a member of Women Speak for Themselves.
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