Pro-life. Sanctity of life. It’s a child not a choice. Choose life, your mother did.
Such are the mantras of evangelical Christians when it comes to the fate of unborn children. I used these slogans myself once, though I was never rabid about being pro-life. I didn’t picket abortion clinics or throw rotten produce at liberals, but it was a settled issue: abortions bad, babies good.
Then my wife became pregnant with quadruplets. Not long after the first ultrasound revealed four embryos, our physician told us about “selective reduction.” That’s a euphemism for aborting one or more of the babies in a multiple pregnancy. A quadruplet pregnancy is high risk for both the mother and the babies, and reducing to two or three embryos decreases the chance of complications. Our physician didn’t outright recommend selective reduction, but he told us that it was a common procedure in cases where there are more than three embryos.
Our first response was “no way.” Not only are my wife and I pro-life, we couldn’t stand the idea of aborting one of our kids.
Then we read the research. Seventy percent survival rate, but still no guarantee they’ll all make it. Of those that live, there’s a 50% chance of one or all of them having a major neurological problem. I’m not talking about just blindness or mental retardation; I’m talking about a child being born with half a brain and unable to function. That’s bad enough, but the danger to my wife terrified me. She would be at risk for diabetes and whole slew of maladies that I can hardly pronounce. The medications required to help her carry so many babies could raise her blood pressure so much that she experiences heart failure. Death.
We had no idea what to do. Do we sacrifice one child in order to save the other three? If we did and had three healthy babies, would we feel guilty for the rest of our lives? If we didn’t reduce and some or all ended up dying or had severe disabilities, would we feel even worse? My wife and I both have Master’s degrees in Theology and Ph.D.’s in Psychology, but in that moment our educations were useless. Nothing we’d ever learned prepared us for this decision.
I started reading. I looked at everything from medical journals to Internet blogs for guidance. Nothing helped. The pro-life literature was also of a waste of time. It only talked about abortion in the case of someone who doesn’t want children. I saw nothing that discussed abortion when people do want children. All I got was clichés, rhetoric and nothing that addressed the complexities of the decision we had to make.
The pro-lifer pundits also advised against using extreme fertility methods to get pregnant so you wouldn’t be faced with multiple embryos and a high-risk pregnancy. All my wife did was take a low dosage of a drug to regulate her ovulation cycles. When our physician prescribed the drug, he said, “Don’t worry, this doesn’t give you litters of kids.” Famous last stinkin’ words.
Over the next few weeks, we went nuts trying to make a choice. We did our best to comfort each other, but came no closer to a decision. We begged God to show us what to do. I even got mad at God once, telling Him, “This is the kind of decision Your supposed to make, not me.” I wanted God to let us off the hook, to write something on the wall. This decision was too hard for a punk like me.
Finally, we talked to Ray Anderson, professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary, where I teach Psychology. He offered more wisdom than we’d found anywhere else. However, he didn’t make us feel any better and he certainly didn’t tell us what to do.
Ray said that it was impossible for us to make the “right” decision. We could only make the best decision in a situation where there was no obvious choice. He told us that either choice involved potential guilt and loss. We might have to ask forgiveness from God regardless of what we chose. He said that facing this sort of decision is part of being a Christian, part of living responsibly in a fallen world. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise us a pain-free existence. He doesn’t call us to a life of simple choices with predictable outcomes. But He does call us to be like Christ. Jesus had to make agonizing choices, and he was sometimes afraid. He even asked His Father to save Him from the painful journey to the cross. God didn’t do it. To be like Christ doesn’t mean an easy road. It often means making decisions that you know will result in suffering.
But Ray told us something else. He said that, whatever we chose, he would be our “accomplice.” He said that, not only would he support our decision, but also that we could tell other people that he was in on it. If we decided to reduce one of the embryos, we could tell anyone that Professor Ray Anderson had joined us in our decision. We wouldn’t be shouldering the burden alone. Ray would share responsibility for whatever spiritual, emotional or physical consequences ensued. That made us feel less alone. It also felt very Christian, much more so than political slogans or gory pictures of aborted babies.
Maybe that’s what the world needs from us. We make the Christian life of “family values” sound so simple. Trust me, it’s not. My kids haven’t even been born yet, and I’m already faced with gut-wrenching decisions. While morals and Biblical truths need to be proclaimed without shame, maybe we have another responsibility. Maybe we need to come alongside people facing decisions that are overwhelming. We need to be an accomplice during their darkest hour. Whether it’s a pregnant teenager, a homosexual, someone facing divorce or anyone who feels that it’s impossible to make the right decision, we need to let them know that we’re in it with them until the end. If we do, maybe they’ll see Jesus.
I’d like to end with that last sentence, but you’re probably wondering what we decided. I won’t keep you in suspense. We’re going for all four. But don’t pat me on the back. Intellectually, we concluded that reduction would probably be the best thing, but emotionally we couldn’t go through with it. After we saw them moving, practically dancing, on the last ultrasound, we couldn’t bring ourselves to sacrifice any of them. Someone told us that we were brave, but that’s not how it feels. I feel weak. I wonder if my wife and kids are at risk because I don’t have the stomach for selective reduction. It has nothing to do with politics or theology, I just couldn’t stand the thought of not giving those little dancing babies a chance.
As I’m writing this, my wife is in her seventeenth week of pregnancy. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we still don’t know if we made the best decision. You won’t find a blurb at the end of this article that says, “Steve, Shelley and their four babies are all healthy and happy.” This isn’t a morality tale. I would never think less of anyone who made a different decision than we did. In fact, if you do, I’ll be your accomplice. Especially if you know where I can find cheap diapers.