Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Wrongful birth

"Hey, isn't that that boy who played softball with your daughter?"

When my friend pointed out the pictures on the front page of the paper, I was delighted to see this smiling child, who did indeed play on the special-needs softball team my girl was on one year. In fact, he had his Challenger League cap on in that Page One picture. Photos of him filled three pages of the paper, a smiling, happy kid doing the things kids do. The fact that he was doing them in a wheelchair didn't dim his smile one bit.

We've seen this boy and his parents on numerous occasions since that softball season. They go to our church, and they're there at Mass every Saturday night, their son wheeling his way to the back of the church to go to the children's liturgy. I remember seeing them at the church carnival, the parents picking their son up and putting him on the rides, and being impressed by the effort they made to keep him involved in everything. The boy has, at various times, had the same occupational therapist and the same therapeutic riding instructor as my son, and by all accounts he is a terrific kid with a devoted family. So when I saw the pictures spread out through the paper, I assumed this would be an inspirational piece on overcoming disabilities and familial dedication.

It wasn't.

It was a story about a wrongful birth suit.

The text that ran around the photos of that cheerful child had to do with the fact that his mother had brought suit against the OB/GYN who had failed to diagnose his spina bifida in the womb, so that she could have terminated the pregnancy. It discusses her hatred for this man who did her the unspeakable injury of allowing her son to be born, and her willingness to go to court and swear she would have had an abortion. It mentions that the case settled out of court, and that the parents don't plan to tell their son where the money came from; which makes it a bad idea, I'd think, to submit to a page-one newspaper story about it.

I've read stories of wrongful birth suits before, and always found them chilling for the notion that kids with disabilities would be better off dead. I understand that the costs associated with caring for a disabled child can be astronomical, and that parents would want to ensure their financial future; and I understand that the work involved with caring for a disabled child can be heartbreaking, and that parents would want to make somebody pay for that, too. But to go to court and swear under oath that you would not have allowed this child to be born--I don't know how you could do that and then go home and give that child the sort of all-consuming, all-defending, Mama Bear love you need to feel to be a good advocate and a good parent. If you felt so strongly that you had been wronged by the fact of this child's birth, I don't know how you could stop crying long enough to do all the very difficult things that needed to be done.

I've read the stories before, but to read it again, in the context of these people whom I had considered to be such a poster family for special needs, made me heartsick. Now, I certainly don't wish to imply that this family has a responsibility to be an inspiration to me. I don't really know anything about them or what they've been through. My children have significant challenges, but they are not physical, and so I don't at all know what that is like. I try not to judge the decisions that any parent makes, especially parents of children with special needs, who have so very many factors weighing on every difficult choice.

I try not to judge, but it's hard. Isn't it bad enough for society to devalue the disabled, without the people who love them doing the same? As science improves its ability to diagnose disabilities in the womb, do we really want to weed out any children with any chance of coming out imperfect? Is the image of special-needs families as poor souls saddled with a burden because a doctor didn't give them a chance to get out while they could an image we want to embrace? Isn't every child precious, no matter how his or her gifts are wrapped?

Those are eminently unfair questions, but they're the ones that sprung to my heart as I read the story of this family. When I was finished, I went to my own children, hugged them and told them I loved them just the way they are. I'm lucky--I adopted these kids knowing of their special needs. I had a choice. I'm glad their birthmothers didn't.

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