Thursday, January 9, 2014

Life Support for Mother, or Fetus?

It happened right before Thanksgiving.

In an ordinary middle-class suburb of Fort Worth, in the middle of the night, a young husband found his pregnant wife collapsed on the kitchen floor, utterly unresponsive.

Before he even called 911, out of sheer incredulity at his discovery, he impulsively punched a hole in their kitchen wall.

As paramedics rushed her to the hospital, her heart stopped several times, and while she was resuscitated each time, she never emerged from the vegetative state in which she had been found.  On her kitchen floor.  Ostensibly on an errand to get their crying toddler - their firstborn - something to drink.

There it was.  Just like that.  She was brain-dead.  Pregnant with their second child.  It's believed that she suffered a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of an artery in the lungs, but doctors can only confirm that with an autopsy.

Her parents, her husband's parents, her husband, and her doctor were ready to "pull the plug," as they say, when suddenly, the hospital informed them that doing so was against the law.  Her body contained a 14-week-old fetus which was still alive and well, and according to Texas law, which is similar to laws in 17 other states, maternal life support cannot be removed until the fetus is viable outside of the womb.  Which is at approximately 24 to 28 weeks.

The family has been reeling ever since.

In our politically-charged battle over procreative rights, such cases are exceedingly rare, but when they happen, a lot of obvious answers seem to crop up quickly.  She's brain-dead, which means she's legally dead, right?  How beneficial can artificial life support for a pregnant woman be for her fetus?  How beneficial is the choice to let the fetus come full-term without a mother to raise it after it's born?  Why make the family suffer such horrible agony any longer than they have to?  Who's paying for keeping her on life support, and if it's the family, why should they be forced to incur such an expense?

From a strictly logistical perspective, the obvious answer appears to be what this grief-stricken family, and their doctor, originally decided to do.  But they are currently prohibited from doing so. 

Indeed, this young man and his family think the law here in Texas is wrong.  They say this isn't what their wife and daughter would have wanted.  They've hired a lawyer to explore their legal options, and after all this is over, if he has any energy left, the young widower may try and advocate for the law's repeal.  Already, several news organizations across the country have publicized his story, aware of the power in its drama.

Meanwhile, his employer is covering his shifts for him so he can be at his comatose wife's bedside.  His parents and in-laws are caring for his firstborn son, and members of the community - people he's never met - are providing baby supplies and money to help support him as he waits.

By now, their pregnancy has passed the 20-week mark.  Only one month to go.  Two at the most.

Easy for us to say, right?  We're not the ones sitting at our wife's bedside as machines keep her alive, so the fetus inside of her can grow to the point where he or she can be surgically removed and brought into a world where... after the umbilical chord is cut... his or her mother will be allowed to die...

And all the while, you know there are a bunch of self-righteous politicians and lawyers who've crafted the law keeping this charade alive; policy wonks who have no idea the searing loss with which you and your family are being tormented.  You've already got a young son at home - whose home?  Is he with my parents today, or hers? - and he's going to grow up without his mother.  How am I supposed to explain all this to him?

It's true:  none of the rest of us know what this family is going through.  At least, as far as the extraordinarily unique circumstances of this case are concerned.  It's profoundly sad on so many levels.  We could almost say there's no good way of looking at it.  Misery plagues the entire scenario.


Yet, there is life.  It's there, isn't it?  It can't speak for itself, or pump its own blood, or think for itself, or feed itself, but life is still there, in the flesh and blood of its mother.  This is such a bizarre scenario, it's easy to miss it, or ignore it, or even try to rationalize it away.  There's so much grief, so many unanswered questions, so much financial expense, while so little of it makes any sense.

Yet life doesn't always make sense.  Obvious sense, anyway.  We're so pragmatic, logical, bottom-line, practical, and impatient in our lives.  Well, what about the little, tiny life inside this vegetative mother?  How likely is it that the fetus has detected in any way that anything is different for the host body in which it is residing and growing?  Besides, was this fetus not conceived in love?  What has changed in the relationship between this fetus and his or her father?  Is this fetus somehow less precious, important, or significant now that we know its mother will never recover?

There are no easy answers in this story, except one.  And that one, solitary, easy answer is that this fetus is valuable.  It has worth.  It is life.  It is alive.  In the midst of such anguish and imminent death, there is hope for human continuity.  Yes, some exceptionally religious people could rhapsodize theologically about all of the moralistic implications this fetus - and protecting it - holds, but even if you don't want to think in terms of religion, or politics, the same morality that you use to dignify this pregnant mother in her death is what you need to use to cherish the life still inside of her.  No, not her own mortality, which doctors say is essentially over;  But the life she's created with her husband, the father of the child she'll never see.

The anti-abortion movement calls itself pro-life for cases just like this, where the life of the fetus does not hang in the balance because of a mother's fear or a father's lack of integrity, but because in the face of such blatant illogic, life is still logical.  Maybe not easy, or painless, or timely, or inexpensive, but there is logic to life.  In fact, ironically, life what keeps the most ardent abortionist going.  It's so basic, we take it for granted.

I don't seek to beat this family over their heads with platitudes, or rhetoric, or even hyperbole.  I'm not going to claim to understand their grief, frustration, and uncertainty.  I don't know what the "professional" pro-life community is doing in terms of outreach to this family, or even if the family would accept it, since from the news articles I've read, this husband is pointedly non-religious.  But I do pray that God will be able to use the little, innocent life that, paradoxically, is keeping its mother alive in a fashion, to provide some sort of joy, relief, and purpose after this present night is over, and the family's new day has dawned.

As one life passes, another emerges.  Regardless of whether it's convenient or blissful.  People have sided with this family in rationalizing that being on life support isn't what this young mother would have wanted.  But would she have wanted her unborn child to die as well?

This question of life support may be excruciating for the mother's benefit, but not for her unborn child's.

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