What if someone tells you that abortion allowed her to be a mother? Since this seems counter-intuitive, you’d likely want to find out how this could be. My reaction was the same. Though any article on abortion piques my interest, I was particularly intrigued by Paola Dragnic’s recent piece on BuzzFeed, entitled “The Abortion That Let Me Be a Mother.” How is it possible, I wondered, that terminating a pregnancy results in maternity?
Enter one Chilean journalist’s harrowing tale.
At age 36, Paola Dragnic became pregnant and, shortly after celebrating the conception of her child with her partner, began experiencing extreme nausea, vomiting, weight gain, water retention, followed by heavy bleeding. “My pregnancy,” she writes, “which was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of my life, slowly began taking over my body and soul, and soon became a nightmare.” Unbelievably, these concerns were dismissed, leaving her on her own to research symptoms online.
“Our bodies speak to us,” Paola explains, so she “knew something was dreadfully wrong.” During a doctor’s appointment, she requested a nuchal translucency screening, which measures the fold and fluid at the back of the fetus’ neck to check for genetic abnormalities. The doctor replied: “You’re not planning to abort if there’s something wrong, are you?”
Although this response no doubt lacked tact as well as concern for the mother, it was not unfounded. Studies have long shown that when prenatal testing indicates that the child has a common trisomy (13, 18, or 21—also known as Down syndrome), over 90% of women opt to abort. Additionally, the New York Post ran an article in 2011 called “The end of Down syndrome” which discussed various means of detection to allow for even earlier abortions. Is it any wonder then that physicians who value all human life become leery of using a screening tool that can be beneficial but often leads to destroying those who are considered imperfect?
Upon Paola’s request, the test was done but the results were “abysmal.” A normal measurement at 13 weeks and six days is up to 2.8 millimeters. Her baby’s measurement around 14 weeks of pregnancy was 9 millimeters! For further genetic testing, material was extracted from the placenta. When the results came back, they confirmed what had been feared: a diagnosis of triploidy.
Healthy human beings are considered diploid, which means we have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making for 46 chromosomes in total. Individuals with triploid syndrome, however, have 23 triplets of chromosomes, making for a total of 69 chromosomes. This affects their mental and physical development and sadly, most children with triploidy die during the first few months of pregnancy. Others are born prematurely and die shortly after birth, while in very rare cases they may live several months post-birth.
(Note that children with mosaic triploidy can become much older since they have two cell lines: some of their cells have 46 chromosomes while cells affected by triploidy have 69. A Facebook group to raise awareness about mosaic triploidy features children and adults with this condition.)
Triploid syndrome has an effect on the pregnant woman as well. She may experience extremely high blood pressure, swelling, and preeclampsia. The disorder can also cause the growth of partial hydatidiform moles: masses of tissue in the uterus that may become cancerous and leave little room for the developing child. This, precisely, is what Paola Dragnic experienced. With tumors as big as grapes and dangerously spiking hormone levels, something had to be done.
But Chile, you see, is one of only a few countries worldwide where abortion is forbidden under any circumstance. Dragnic recounts,
Every two days I underwent an ultrasound to check the degree of invasion of the tumors and the condition of the fetus. It was almost crushed, but still alive. What were the doctors waiting for? For the fetus to die so they would not have legal trouble. For me to travel overseas. Or for my life to be at absolutely at risk, so they would have an indisputable reason to ‘save me.’ The Chilean government was torturing me. It was risking my life by denying my right to an emergency health procedure.
Having had healthy pregnancies so far, I can only imagine such distress. To know that your child is disabled and surrounded by tumors while your own body feels completely out of control would be terrifying, to say the least. That’s why I appreciate Paola’s desire to save others from going through a similar ordeal. The question is this: is her claim correct? Is it true that abortion is sometimes necessary in order to save the mother’s life?
Abortion advocates seem to think so. Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams wroteabout Paola Dragnic’s experience to make the case that abortion truly is life-saving at times. The same was done after the tragic deaths of Savita Halappanavar and her pre-born daughter Prasa, even though abortion, some research revealed, wouldn’t have addressed the underlying medical condition Savita suffered from.
The situation of a woman’s life being in danger, though rare, is definitely serious. To be clear, for those who support abortion, there really is no moral dilemma. If abortion seems like a good solution when the circumstances of a pregnancy are challenging, it certainly would be justified when the woman’s life is in jeopardy. And if you believe that the pre-born unjustly use a woman’s body, unless given consent, you need not think twice about killing the embryonic or fetal “intruder” actually endangering the mother’s life.
However, for those who hold that pre-born human beings (at least at some point during the pregnancy) have human rights, it’s a different issue altogether. So how do we respond when two lives are at stake?
First, we must be guided by a basic moral principle: we may not commit a wrong action to bring about a good effect. This is referred to when we use the expression “the ends do not justify the means.” If my five-year old son were to need a liver transplant, for instance, I would not be justified in killing another child and taking his liver to address my son’s medical condition, even if it saved his life. Clearly, even when the effect or outcome is good, our actions have to be good as well.
Thus, when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, we may not kill the pre-born child in order to save his or her mother’s life. Since both the woman and her child are human beings of equal value, we must strive to protect both, but that doesn’t mean we do nothing.
That’s why, secondly, we must do everything in our power to address the medical problem in order to save both lives, all the while using moral means. And if we can’t save two, we try to save at least one.
Imagine, for example, that you are enjoying a beautiful summer day on a quiet, unsupervised beach. From a distance you notice a woman and her child going for a swim. When looking up from your book a little later, you notice they are frantically waving their arms. It seems they are in distress. You jump into the water and swim towards one, bringing her safely to the shore. When you run back to look for the other, you realize it’s too late. Is it your fault that the second person drowned?
We would all agree that this is not the case. For one, the person died as a result of drowning, not due to your actions. If you could have saved her you would have, but you simply couldn’t reach her. In this way, she didn’t die because you killed her but because you were incapable of saving. At most, the death is an unintended side effect of a good action that sought to bring about a good effect. But what if, in order to save the one, you push the other under water? Would it be your fault then? The answer is yes. Her death would be as a result of a bad action, even if the intent was good.
Applying the same principles to the moral dilemma at hand, we must save the woman’s life by targeting the medical condition, even though the child will likely still die. This death, however, would be a side effect of a good or neutral action that sought to bring about a good effect.
That’s completely different from abortion, the action that directly and intentionally targets the small bodies of our offspring. Beforehand, the pre-born are growing, which means they are alive. They are human because their parents are human. And because of that, they are deserving of human rights. Afterward, they are dead: suctioned, scraped, or torn out of the uterus. How does it make sense to do that to a child in order to save a woman’s life? How does violently ending a child’s life heal a medical condition?
I don’t deny that abortion can sometimes resolve a medical problem, but just because it can resolve, doesn’t mean it’s an ethical course of action. During a tubal ectopic pregnancy, for instance, scraping the child out of the fallopian tube would remove the risk of a rupture possibly resulting in the mother hemorrhaging to death. When experiencing preeclampsia, suctioning the fetus out of the uterus would end the pregnancy, the woman’s blood pressure levels would stabilize, and she would be out of danger. But should that be our course of action?
We’ve already discussed that it’s immoral to kill one in order to save another (and more on that here) so what about medical necessity? In the case of a tubal ectopic pregnancy, a salpingectomy would target the pathological organ by removing the affected piece of the fallopian tube and thereby address the medical problem: the mother’s life is saved. If technology allowed us, we would support the embryo’s life in the same way that we do now with a fetus born at 24 weeks of gestation. But while we can’t, the child will die as an unintended side effect of a good action.
When experiencing symptoms of preeclampsia or the HELLP syndrome that are life-threatening and cannot be dealt with through expectant management, delivery of the baby would end the condition. A C-section or induction would address the medical problem without directly killing the child. We would, if possible, sustain the child’s life but while technology is not advanced enough yet, she will die as a result of not being old enough to survive outside the womb, not due to an abortion that shredded her tiny body.
These are just some examples, but health care professionals have confirmed on multiple occasions that abortion is not needed to treat the medical conditions women may experience during pregnancy. In 2012, over 140 medical professionals released a document along with papers on maternal health issues, explaining that abortion is “absolutely never medically necessary.”
So what about Paola Dragnic and women like her? I was struck by how she described herself after receiving the diagnosis of her child’s triploidy: “In a matter of seconds, I stopped being a cute, chubby pregnant woman and became a kind of walking coffin for a half-dead unborn child who was killing me.”
With all due respect to women who’ve had such a difficult experience, important questions remain. When the mother’s life is in danger during pregnancy, is it not the condition rather than the child that is jeopardizing the woman’s life? Were the in-utero growths not a result of the excess genetic material due to triploidy, after all? And was the child not alive, in the same danger as the mother even, due to the same cause—triploid syndrome—until he or she was aborted?
If Paola and her partner didn’t receive the care they deserved in an impossibly difficult situation, that’s a shame. That doesn’t mean she required or should have received an abortion. I realize that a response according to the moral principles outlined above may have resulted in an inability to have another child, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When respecting the life of your child means giving up on your dream to conceive again, it would take enormous courage to do what is right. Sometimes the right path is also the hardest one.
Paola makes it clear in the rest of her essay that she didn’t want to give birth, nor have her uterus removed through a hysterectomy. Though emotionally very difficult, either course of action would have targeted the medical problem while respecting the life of the child. These would be good and moral means in order to arrive at a good outcome.
Of course, the case for such a response falls or stands with whether the pre-born are human beings like you or me. Scientifically, there’s no discussion about the fact that human life begins at fertilization. Paola Dragnic recognizes this in calling her offspring her child, yet doesn’t think she became a mother during this pregnancy. Whose child was it, then?
It would be extremely hard to come to terms with having been the parent of a child whose disorder almost took your life and his or her own. But denying this truth doesn’t make it go away. Once our children come into existence, the very fact that we have offspring makes us parents. Abortion doesn’t change that either. That’s why Paola’s first child, afflicted by triploidy and encroached upon by tumors, had a mom and a dad: the two people who wanted him or her so much in the first place.
Today, Paola is a mother of three children, one of them deceased but no less valuable than his or her siblings. The abortion that ended the first child’s life may well have allowed Paola to be a mother again. We don’t know this for certain, nor can we change the past, but we can learn from it today and create a better future.
That’s why I’m grateful for Paola Dragnic’s decision to tell her story and for the opportunity to respond to it, with the hope that no more women will lack the support she needed and no more children will be killed in order to save their mother’s lives. Not only is it cruel and unjust, it is also completely unnecessary.