[Warning: This story talks about stillbirth.]
I was in a rush to get home from the hospital on the day of the 20-week scan. I’d been teaching all morning and if I didn’t get out of the city quickly, I would be late to collect Hannah and Emilia from school. It was a third pregnancy and although this was a much longed-for child, seeing images on the screen had definitely lost its mystique.
I kept looking at my watch as the ultrasound technician seemed to take an age. When he left the room to fetch a second technician to repeat the entire procedure, I had to restrain myself from wiping the cold jelly off my stomach and leaving there and then.
But the nurse put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry, Mrs Williams. There is something wrong with the baby. We need to fetch the consultant.” My entire body went as cold as the jelly.
“A lethal-skeletal dysplasia.” The consultant explained having settled me into a side-room. “When the baby is born it will not be able to breathe.”
He must have read the shock in my face. “Come back in the morning for another scan and bring your husband. We can talk further about what you’ve decided to do.” It took me a while to understand what he meant. Deciding what to do actually meant scheduling a termination.
As I left the hospital that night I faced a dreadful choice. I had been brought up in a Christian family knowing the “right answer” to the ethical question of abortion. But, as I faced the decision, the only thing I wanted was to get the foetus out of my body as quickly as possible. In the shock, a distancing mechanism kicked in: This isn’t a normal case, I told myself. The normal principles don’t apply. This is a medical act, in a medical crisis.
I remember the grief in my husband’s face when he suggested that we pray. As Paul and I prayed, God spoke a message to our hearts so clearly that we knew He was sitting on the sofa with us.
Here is a sick and dying child, will you love her for me?
With these words, God gave us a glimpse of His heart and with that glimpse, the entire question changed. It was no longer primarily an ethical principle or a medical problem. Instead, what mattered most was God’s love for a defenseless person whom He had entrusted into our care.
The peace I felt as I went to bed that night didn’t go away when we returned to the hospital the next morning. The consultant didn’t hide his surprise when we told him we wished to carry our daughter to term.
“But it will not live,” he said over and over again as we listened to her heartbeat and saw her body moving on the screen. I heard the psalm in my head, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . . my frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:13–16).
What if God’s purposes for my child didn’t include a birthday? Did it make these days in the womb any less precious to Him?
I carried our daughter for the next 16 weeks and just as she was dependent on me to sustain her life, so I was dependent on God for the grace to live through each day. Those weeks turned my life upside down.
What I did not anticipate in making the decision to carry a sick baby to term was the anger that it would provoke in some. I discovered very quickly that we live in a society in which the decision not to abort an abnormal foetus requires an explanation—in fact—it requires a defence.
As a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Oxford, I was used to the cut and thrust of debate, but I found myself overwhelmed by arguments: “What if, against all the odds, this baby lives but is severely mentally and physically handicapped. It could ruin your career. You owe it to your other children and to yourself to exercise your right to choose.”
Another colleague from the philosophy department pushed the argument even further. He used John Stuart Mill’s theory of liberty to say, “Surely it is morally wrong to bring suffering into the world that you know you can prevent.”
The freedom of choice that we are offered by our culture is illusory.
I thought a great deal about these arguments. Most of all, I thought about what it means to have freedom of choice. We are trained by our culture to believe that our choices are unlimited. Indeed, choosing what we desire is understood to be the very essence of what it means to be human. Yet when we do not choose within the range of options that are expected of us by our tolerant postmodern culture, we quickly find our choices challenged. Our culture is tolerant of the tolerant—so long as tolerance itself remains unquestioned.
Although termination was presented to me in the language of freedom of choice, it was the only recommended medical option and, as I learned afterwards, the hospital did not have a budget for the obstetric care of those who were carrying sick children to term.
The freedom of choice that we are offered by our culture is illusory. I didn’t choose to conceive a malformed child. My friend would rather be married than single. Other friends choose to have children but they are unable to conceive. What if freedom was the way of Christ—who chose to limit Himself in every respect, taking on the very nature of a servant and laying down His life for the sake of life itself? What if His choice gives me freedom to know God in an impossible situation?
From week 28, I developed polyhydramnios. The baby’s deformity was such that she couldn’t swallow enough amniotic fluid. Normally this condition results in premature labour but for eight weeks, we lived in a state of suspended animation expecting the baby to come at any time. We were totally unprepared for what happened next.
The weight of the amniotic fluid lowered my blood pressure to such a degree that when labour finally came, it was not only a life-threatening emergency for our daughter but for me as well—and a terrifying ordeal for my husband.
At one in the morning, many hours into labour, I was alone in the delivery room. I felt the presence of God as I have never known it before—tangible, awesome, holy. I knew with certainty that God the Father was there to be with me at the time of my daughter’s death. It was confirmed many hours later that she had indeed died at one o’clock, shortly before the final stage of labour began. She died of a placental abruption.
In the end, her deformities didn’t touch her and she never had to endure the painful bone-crushing journey into the outside world. She simply went to sleep enfolded in the presence of God.
This experienced changed my life. It was an encounter with the unconditional and personal love of God. I had spent 34 years of my life valuing myself on the basis of my achievements, thinking that somehow they would make me valuable and acceptable. But it was not until I experienced God’s love for the weak that I came to a deep and settled assurance of God’s unconditional love for me.
Our daughter was precious to God—and to us—not because of the things she did or did not do. Her value wasn’t measured by her usefulness or even by her physical normality. She was precious simply because God made her and He loved her. And I realised it is the same for me—and for all of us.
The way a culture treats the vulnerable—the elderly, the ill, the unborn—tells you everything about the attitude of that society towards people full-stop. We live in a society that disposes of the weak and does away with the abnormal and, increasingly, ends lives when utility and capacity diminish. But when we act this way, we construct a value system for ourselves that none of us can live by.
In disposing of the weak we say personhood is conferred only on the lovely, the perfect ones who we choose, at the time we choose them. We establish criteria by which we then judge ourselves: we must be strong, competent, useful if we are to justify our existence. Is it any wonder that we are driven and anxious? This is tyranny not freedom.
How we treat the weak is ultimately how we treat God. God chooses to identify Himself with the vulnerable and the powerless and what we do to the least of these, we do to Him. God’s love turns the value system of our culture upside down.
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