But a couple of months ago I got the call that all physicians dread.
My heart dropped and I waited to hear what I had overlooked or misdiagnosed. The OB-GYN went on. "I delivered a baby girl yesterday with a cleft lip and palate. You did not mention it in your fetal ultrasound report and the parents are extremely upset."
I quickly reviewed the images and explained that the defect was not apparent, probably due to the early age of the fetus. I also added helpfully that cleft repairs were easy and the results excellent and that I was sure the parents would quickly feel better when they heard that from the plastic surgeon.
"You don't understand," he said. "The parents told me they would have aborted the baby if they had known. So call your lawyer. I've already called mine."
I know many people hearing this story will have trouble believing this kind of thing could happen, but the situation is not at all uncommon.
When people hear the term "prenatal diagnosis," they imagine a team of doctors standing by the delivery room, waiting to whisk the newborn child with a heart defect to the O.R. They even imagine a miraculous operation performed on the baby before birth, with the baby tucked safely away afterward inside her mother, to be born perfect later.
These things certainly do happen, and thankfully so. But they are the exception. The more common outcome for many prenatal diagnoses is a "termination of pregnancy."
As a Catholic with a deep commitment to the sanctity and inviolability of human life at any stage and any degree of usefulness, I find it very difficult to make those diagnoses, knowing in many cases it is a death sentence.
In fetal ultrasound we look for signs of Down syndrome, like increased thickness of the skin fold at the back of the neck. When I see this on an ultrasound I'm often moved to tears. I have just seen the little one, already a tiny, fully formed person making the same endearing and recognizably human gestures all the other babies make.
This one, however, will probably not be alive much longer. The parents, during their lowest moments of shock and fear, will be told matter-of-factly that this problem has a solution, a surgical one, and that they can soon try again. They will probably not get a referral to a support group for parents of children with Down syndrome, where they might hear of the special delight these loving people bring to their families. Studies show that about 85% of these children
will be aborted in the U.S., with higher percentages in Europe.
You see, now a child is a "choice." And when one is choosing something to add value to one's life, who would choose something that is already a little broken? Who would choose disability, or defect, or illness, when one is looking only for cooing and giggles and joy?
These are the naturally occurring roads that lead to a culture where the conversation I had with the OB-GYN is not only possible but commonplace. Having soundly rejected eugenics as it was infamously practiced in the 20th century, we are doing our own soft eugenics before birth, singling out the "damaged" or unwanted humans for eradication.
We couch our decisions in gentler terms. We say that some lives are not worth living, especially lives that will be full of pain and anguish. We claim to end those lives out of pure compassion, because in our wisdom, we believe we can judge for another human being exactly the point at which suffering outweighs all the joys of life. We forget to ask ourselves why it is acceptable to end the life of an unborn baby with a disability, when no one would condone ending the life of a 5-year-old who suddenly acquired the same infirmity.
The truth is that the logical endpoint of thinking of a son or daughter as a "choice" is a terrifying one. It leads inexorably to a culture that treats damaged, vulnerable or weak persons as disposable.
That way of thinking, once inculcated, will extend its reach to the elderly and the terminally ill. That way of thinking makes it acceptable to reject a daughter because we wanted a son or to "try again" when we would prefer a child without a scar on her lip.
I may get a letter soon, telling me I've been named in a lawsuit regarding that baby.
If I do, I'll have to call my insurance company and send them a check for several thousand dollars to cover my deductible. It will hurt, of course. But in this case I will consider the money well spent, because our inability to diagnose the defect resulted in the birth of a lovely little girl.
One day (if it hasn't happened already, and within hours of her birth), her mother and father will thank God with full hearts that the little defect went undetected, and their angel is now safe in their arms.
It's precious people just like her that I and hundreds of thousands of others will be marching for on a cold January day in our nation's Capitol at the 2015 March for Life