When Rose and I began planning our family, Rose became pregnant easily. I was finishing seminary and had a position lined up and everything seemed to be going well. Then one weekend night, Rose woke me up to tell me something was wrong. She had severe cramping. Then when she went into the bathroom, she discharged a significant amount of blood. We hurriedly dressed and raced into Flint to the hospital.
Our time in the Emergency Room was confusing and, in the light of day, pretty shocking. We were 12 weeks along and nearly out of the “danger zone,” but now fearing the worst. We were doing a great deal of waiting in a private room until Rose had to use the bathroom again. She knew it was over. She came out of the bathroom crying and telling me that what had begun in the bathroom at home continued here. It is really grim to think of what is really happening: that hoped-for baby wasn’t anymore. Tissue and blood remained in the toilet and we didn’t know what to do. The grief playing its grim fascination with what is floating there.
Shortly, we were greeted with the following response from the doctor who was on call. He asked if we were sure she had been pregnant.
“Yes!” we said forcefully.
We were there for hours and later on, the same doctor demonstrated the same level of distrust to us, both to our faces and to the resident as he came into the room.
“They say they were pregnant, but we have no confirmation.”
Aside from our coming to the hospital, Jackass!
Shortly before we were to leave, a social worker came down to visit with us. She explained that this is not only normal, but so common, we don’t realize it. She said that nearly 70% of sexually-active women have miscarried. What we chalk up to a late period is often actually a non-viable fetus being rejected by the body.
This is the reason I find personhood amendments repulsive. To place the burden of being fully, viably human on a tenuous, liminal moment as conception, rather than at birth, is incredibly obtuse. I am not interested in the gamesmanship or the arguments themselves; the politics. I know that when two loving parents-to-be plan to have a child, make love, and nurture that developing person in the womb for months, they believe that this fetus is a person. We did it three times. We planned for school and sports. We bought stuffed animals and accessories. We worked on what name that small nearly-born creature was to have. We did all of this with love and full belief that this was a developing person. And when we lost our first, we grieved his passing.
But he wasn’t fully a person. Not enough of a person. It is not that he didn’t count as a person, but he wasn’t supposed to make it. Clearly there was something wrong and my wife’s body rejected him.
If we think about the process as simply fertilizing an egg, some internal voodoo, bake it in the human oven for 40 weeks, and voila! Baby! If we do that, we’re shortchanging ourselves. We are ignoring what is amazing about human life: what is so incredibly challenging and against-the-odds about childbirth. Because, even after sex, a woman’s body has thousands, millions, of opportunities to reject that spark from developing into a fetus and then, eventually, a baby. So if we define personhood at conception, then we consider a woman’s natural function to be murderous to many, many more babies than are terminated by physicians. What is natural, careful, thoughtful, and intentional about birth—the natural termination of a nonviable pregnancy—is changed into something else. There really is no other way to see it. Even exemptions made for miscarriage defy the fundamental principle behind these personhood amendments: that humanity begins even before we are viable, let alone born.
We must take it as given, therefore, that this stage in development must be challenging for the fetus and that many, many of them are just not viable. They aren’t going to make it, regardless of how broad and generous you intend your understanding of “life” to be. That some children are born with such serious medical conditions should lead even the casual thinker to wonder how much more challenged, deformed must a nonviable fetus be to be so rejected? Shall we not see the grace and wisdom in such an amazing platform as the woman’s body, to sense for itself what is good and right from what is bad and wrong? Shall we, in hopes of preventing a defiance of G-d, claim an even greater rejection of G-d’s very understanding of childbirth? That people are born, not conceived?
For those of us that are Christian, it isn’t easy to deal with the ambiguity of what life actually means and what it would imply for us to protect all life. But it is far more dangerous for our own theological grounding to stray from what we can protect, which are healthy babies born into a dangerous world. To manufacture debate about what constitutes life that can be protected, is to invite in a theology irreconcilable with our mission or Scripture. We are told to feed G-d’s sheep, not force an egg to become fertilized, maintain its viability, and then get born many months later. This removes us from our mandate so that we can obsess about process. Hello, Pharisees!
It may be awkward to describe what that little zygote is because we are planning for its arrival as a viable and healthy person. But it isn’t yet. To make it legally so doesn’t make it really so.
My own experience tells me that this time between conception and birth is a sacred time of anticipating and waiting. It is our Advent. It is not the time to micromanage other people’s sexuality, but a time of hoping and dreaming for what is to come. Accepting that what G-d is bringing forth is something so amazing, so earth-shattering, that our lives will be transformed forever.
There is nothing greater than parenthood, in all of its flavors. But until he is born, it is only anticipation.