The Human Life Review and Plough Publishing hosted “On Personhood: A Conversation with Sarah C. Williams” in Washington the day before this year’s March for Life. It was a most moving event.
I originally began this blog with: “Sarah Williams is a former faculty member at the University of Oxford and Canada’s Regent College.” I then asked myself, why? Why did I start off writing about her career, rather than the important lesson she taught us that evening? So, I scratched it out and began again.
Sarah Williams is the mother of two young women. She is also the mother of Cerian, a little girl who died of a rare genetic deformity just before she was born. Recounting Cerian’s story—which is told in detail in her book, Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian (https://www.plough.com/en/topics/life/parenting/perfectly-human )—and what her daughter’s brief life meant to her family, was the heart of Ms. Williams’ presentation.
As a result of what is now commonplace prenatal genetic screening, Sarah Williams learned when she was 20 weeks pregnant that the daughter she was expecting suffered from thanatophoric dysplasia, a rare and lethal deformity of the skeleton which practically assured the child would die either during birth or soon thereafter. Offered the usual “termination,” devout Christians Sarah and her husband Paul “chose” to carry their daughter to term, knowing that her birth and death would almost certainly be concurrent.
What was most powerful in Ms. Williams’ talk was hearing that, for her, the decision not to end their daughter’s life did not center on abstract principle but on the demands of love. “I’ve often heard people use the phrase ‘God said to me’ but I never understood what it meant until that evening in May when I can only say we felt God speak a message to our hearts . . . ‘Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for me?’ The question reframed everything. It was no longer primarily a question of abstract ethical principle but rather the gentle imperative of love” (p. 19).
And love seeps through, suffuses, penetrates, and permeates every page of this book.
No one is saying that love is easy, because eventually the pregnancy would end and so would Cerian’s life. How is pregnancy experienced when it is known that the moment of birth will almost certainly be the moment of death? T.S. Eliot’s reflections in “The Journey of the Magi” seem apt: “. . . [W]ere we lead all that way for Birth or Death? . . . I had seen birth and death, / but had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
As an academic, Ms. Williams does not hesitate from drawing generalized observations from her experience. How can the world attach such a premium to “choice” as a defining human characteristic, she asks, when Cerian never had a choice in her life and yet still could become the subject of such love. (For those who would separate humanity from personhood—for example, Oxford’s Kate Greasley—the question becomes: Could such love as Cerian received go to a “non-person?”)
Ms. Williams’ conclusions are thought-provoking and deserving of all serious consideration. Still, as with her love-inspired rationale for not choosing abortion, I found that the reward of her riveting discussion was not intellectual stimulation but rather the sheer, intimate insight she offered into life, death, and a child. Hers was a personal journey—and a tragic chapter in her family’s life—which she has chosen to share with others. In doing so she shows us—and perhaps especially those in similar circumstances and/or having lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth—that love can triumph even in such agonizing situations. Love remains love, and it remains infinitely precious, even if it’s given for only nine months and seared through with pain.
Likewise, while Sarah comes from the Protestant tradition and includes religious thoughts about her experience, these are by no means confessional or exclusive: They are the best of “mere Christianity,” the essence of the Christian message presented as a personal spiritual journey (whose lessons for others I suggest are rich).
We live at an odd, indeed bizarre, moment in history. While abortionists generally shy away from admitting what they are doing, content to euphemize their deeds, we are also in the midst of a “Shout Your Abortion” campaign, an effort to “normalize” abortion by proclaiming it. In her soft British accent, Sarah Williams does not shout, but she tells us a story that is more compelling than a defense of “I did it my way,” a story even more rarely—but more in need of being—heard.
If you haven’t read it, get Perfectly Human. Then give it away: Like love, it deserves sharing. The book, and the evening some of us spent with Sarah, both affirm that life and love can be two sides of the same coin.