Catholic Doctrine & Merciful Choice

Posted on Posted in Articles, Congenital Heart Defects, Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, Religious Perspectives, Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome)

By A Catholic Mother

Catholic Doctrine and Merciful Choice
Our Catholic priest gave us his loving support for our decision. He told us that in the face of hopeless suffering it is sometimes right to pray for death.

Our Catholic priest supported our choice to end our pregnancy. We’ve known this priest for years and have been through most of the sacraments with him. When we had pretty much made our decision, we asked him to come to our home so we could talk it over. My husband and I trust him and value his point of view. We weren’t asking for his blessing, but wanted to know where we would stand with God in the aftermath of our choice.

At 17 weeks gestation our baby had been diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), a major heart defect requiring a minimum of three risky open-heart surgeries beginning at birth, and most likely a heart transplant, as well as a large Atrial Ventricular Septal Defect further complicating any possible treatment of the HLHS.

At 19 weeks we were finally given our amnio results which revealed our baby also had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome). A surgeon at the major teaching hospital where we’d had our fetal echocardiogram informed us that even if our baby somehow survived his palliative surgeries, this latest diagnosis meant he would not ever be eligible for a heart transplant.

As we sat talking quietly in our living room, our priest shared with us that he’d spent time at the same hospital where we’d had our fetal echocardiogram and where our son would have had surgery. He was there to support the family of a three-month-old who was having heart surgery. In the three weeks or so that he tended to this family, he also met 10 other families in the waiting room, each of whom also had young babies undergoing heart surgery. Sadly, within the short space of time our priest was there, every single one of those babies died.

Our priest came away from that experience feeling that this world-renowned children’s hospital was basically experimenting on babies. He saw their futile suffering and likened it to being crucified. The family he had gone there to support later told him that if they had only known what their baby would be forced to go through before dying, they would never have chosen surgery.

Our priest told us that he believed we were not choosing our son’s death, only choosing the timing of his death in order to spare him a great deal of suffering. Something he said that brought us great comfort was “God knows what is in your hearts.” God knows our choice was based on mercy and compassion. Who would better understand our hearts than God, who made the choice for His own Son to die?

As my husband and I mulled over our choices, I turned to the book Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien. This authoritative reference book explores the Church’s origins, teachings, traditions and developments. It provides details about every aspect of the Church’s rules and explains the “whys” of Catholic doctrine. I had been studying it carefully the night before our priest came over to discuss our decision.

I focused on chapter 27, Christian Morality which thoroughly covers Humanae Vitae and outlines the Christian values underlying that issue including the Church’s teaching on abortion. I was surprised to learn that the Church’s official position does not at any point even consider a situation where severe or lethal fetal defects are present. It addresses neither poor prenatal diagnosis nor maternal health and well-being. It speaks only of unintended pregnancies, which it mistakenly assumes are always healthy and normal.

Page 992 of the 1994 edition of Catholicism states In making moral decisions on this issue, there are certain undoubted principals which Catholics have to take into account

I will relate each of these seven principals to our situation:

  1. The goodness of procreation, as an expression of mutual love for the welfare of the human community at large.
    Our baby was indeed conceived as an expression of mutual love within the sacrament of marriage. We considered that if he somehow lived, the extraordinary requirements for his daily survival may have become a burden to the community at large.
  2. The sanctity of human life.
    We considered him fully human, we revered his life; he was precious to us.
  3. The personal dignity and welfare of the spouses, their children, and their potential children.
    We considered the baby’s quality of life, his dignity, our daughter’s future, our family life, the physical and financial demands that would make it unlikely for us to have additional children, and our emotional health. We felt that the palliative surgeries to squeeze a few weeks or months of life out of him would strip him of his dignity, separate us from our young daughter and create great emotional strain for all involved.
  4. The inviolability of consciousness.
  5. The responsibility to act on informed conscience. Points 4 and 5 were the key Christian values that we felt supported our decision. Instead of abdicating our responsibility by blindly adhering to a simplistic interpretation of Humanae Vitae, we opened our eyes and hearts and looked with compassion on our child. Ours was a conscious, deliberate and loving decision to spare him pain.
  6. The right and responsibility of the Church to teach on matters pertaining to sexual morality. Clearly, the teaching of the Church involves that of pope and bishops, but other qualified teachers have a contribution to make as well. By anyone’s standards, there was no sexual immorality involved in our baby’s conception.
  7. The duty of Catholics to take such teaching seriously into account in the process of forming their consciences. We took these teachings very seriously into account in the process of making our decision, as the preceding list and our meeting with our priest can attest.

Our Catholic priest gave us his loving support for our decision. He told us that in the face of hopeless suffering it is sometimes right to pray for death.

Unfortunately, not every Catholic will have a priest who is supportive of her choice to end a wanted pregnancy. We are lucky that our priest is a kind soul who puts his love for people ahead of his love for the letter of the law, a lot like Jesus did. He cared more about us in our time of need than he did about his career, and for that I am forever grateful. I return his kindness by protecting his identity.

Many of us who have been though this feel strongly that we made the right choice for our babies. Unfortunately, the Church’s approach to post-abortion grief focuses on self-flagellation and begging God’s forgiveness. This is not helpful to those of us who made a choice based on compassion and love. It does not feel right to beg forgiveness for something we believe was the best decision we could make.

However, if you do believe you need God’s forgiveness for this choice, first put your finger in the air and look at it. That is the number of times you need to ask His forgiveness.

Thinking in moral absolutes is seductively easy, but I strongly believe that God is seldom pleased with those who rigidly follow worldly rules without regard for the consequences to others. Black-and-white thinking is a symptom of spiritual immaturity.

When someone is suffering terribly and then they die, what do we say about God? We say He is merciful. Our prenatal diagnosis presented us with a choice to be merciful. If a truck was about to run down my child, I certainly wouldn’t stand aside and sanctimoniously proclaim “It is God’s will!” Perhaps if I had not made the choice to end my pregnancy, God would ask me why I didn’t spare my child suffering when I had the chance.

It’s a comfort to me to know that even if I was somehow mistaken in this choice, that God understands my love for my son was what was behind it. As everyone who has been though this choice understands, we did not reject an imperfect child. We made an unselfish decision because we loved our child. This choice means going against every parental instinct in order to spare your child suffering.

We did our best. Isn’t that what God expects of us?

photo credit: Cathedral de Notre Dame, Paris via photopin (license)