Pro-choice critics of the multi-state push for 20-week abortion bans say such bans place an undue and onerous burden on women, because many serious and “lethal” fetal abnormalities are not discovered until ultrasounds performed at about the 20-week mark. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (www.guttmacher.org), 10 percent of abortions are done after 12 weeks, and of the less than 2 percent done after 20 weeks, many are for medical reasons, including fetal abnormalities. There is a blog dedicated to supporting women who make this obviously painful decision, called “1 in 10: We are the faces of later abortion” (1in10blog.wordpress.com/), the purpose of which is:
Although our numbers might be relatively small, as we represent only 1 in 10 of all abortions, our stories are powerful and need to be told. Due to the stigma and judgment that persists around abortion (even 40 years after its legalization), many women who undergo a later termination are fearful and hesitant to share their stories, not only with society in general, but sometimes even with their own close family members and friends. But the stigma will never be lifted if we continue to allow ourselves to be ostracized and treated as shameful outcasts.
The site includes “Real stories from real women,” first names only, and each one starts off with a photo—of a woman, a couple, or surviving children. One woman, “Kari, Texas, July 25, 2013, Mother of four (three on earth and one in heaven), military wife,” tells how, during her third pregnancy, she got the news at a second-trimester ultrasound that her son had a neural-tube defect, severe spina bifida; and she explains her decision to abort:
For me, the choice came down to not only the pain and suffering our baby would endure, but also the life that my other children would have. I imagined their happy, carefree childhoods being replaced with childhoods spent in waiting rooms and doctors’ offices. I imagined my sick boy in watching his older brothers run and play, something he would never be able to do. It was not the childhood I wanted for any of my children. I also knew that, as older parents, there was always the risk that we would not be alive as this child grew into adulthood and that the burden of his care would fall onto my other children. My husband’s reasons were different. He imagined the financial burden, the problems of finding a wheelchair accessible rental house when we moved every three years, as well as the sadness of our child never being “just another kid on the playground.” I was the first to suggest that we terminate, and my husband agreed.
There are no people in the attached photo; instead there are a lone teddy bear and a baby blanket. Kari writes: “I now know that nothing will ever fill the hole in my heart, and I will forever grieve for my son regardless of how many healthy babies I have.”
Another website, www.chadjudice.com, was also created because of a real story, one with a similar beginning, but a much different outcome. And this “outcome” has a beautiful face to go along with it, the face of a little boy with spina bifida, Eli Judice.
In his book, Waiting for Eli, author Chad Judice, a high-school teacher from Lafayette, Louisiana, recalls the day in 2005 when a student asked him an unexpected question:
“Coach Judice, what is your greatest fear?”
I had to stop and think for a minute. I had never been asked that question before.
“My greatest fear would be to have a child with a mental or physical handicap.”
A few years later, Chad and his wife Ashley, a neonatal intensive-care nurse, parents of a healthy three-year-old boy named Ephraim, were happily anticipating the routine ultrasound of their second child. But soon into the examination, the cheerful atmosphere changed. The technician could not locate a part of their son’s brain, the cerebellum, and they were referred to a specialist. A few days and tests later, they were given the news that their unborn baby boy had an opening on his spinal cord and hydrocephalus, indicating spina bifida. Chad’s worst fear had become his reality.
When Ashley and Chad read up on the statistics on neural-tube defects—80 percent of parents choose to abort; 75 percent of the babies miscarry before 20 weeks; the child might be paralyzed from the waist down, might never achieve bowel control, and could have severe learning disabilities—they were terrified:
Ashley looked at me through tear-filled eyes in this moment of human weakness. “I’m going to hell. I am actually thinking about aborting this child,” she said. I stood up, held her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. “This is not your fault. It’s not my fault. It just happened. God has a purpose for this child and he has given him to us. We must trust in Him the way Ephraim trusts in us.”
Together they decided that they would name their son then and there and “now, when we prayed for him, everyone around us would know him by name.” So began the public life, one might say, of Elijah Paul Judice, a child who made a difference in the world from the womb. In Waiting for Eli and Chad’s second book, Eli’s Reach (available at www.acadianhouse.com), which has the adorable face of four-year-old Eli shining out from the cover, Chad tells how Eli, from before birth, made his presence known to great effect. The Judices reached out to their community and beyond, asking people to pray for their son, and they’re convinced that these prayers were heard. Not only did Eli’s birth challenge the doctors’ most dire predictions—the hole in his back which was to be as big as a softball turned out to be the size of a 50-cent piece, and both medically and developmentally he continues to far exceed expectations—but the lives of those who prayed for him changed. The first remarkable event was that the teenagers in Chad’s school, typically self-absorbed and usually, he writes, apathetic about prayer at best, prayed fervently for Eli. Both books feature moving stories, and in many cases first-person testimonies, of teens who started to take their faith seriously: a young woman who decided against abortion, a teen with cancer who survived a brain tumor. There is even the story of an incarcerated man, who, after reading Waiting for Eli, came back to his Christian faith after 30 years away. All were moved by Eli’s fight for life and his parents’ faith.
Full disclosure: Eli has reached me too. In my many years as editor of the Human Life Review, and as the mother of a young man with special needs, I have encountered many affecting witnesses to the value of each human life and the joy children that society deems imperfect can bring. But when I read these two books, and saw the photos of Eli, I found my heart powerfully pulled in a new way. Last month, on the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I met Chad Judice and I heard him speak at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to a group of young pilgrims on their way to the annual March for Life. He is a tremendously engaging speaker, and his presentation, complete with a slide show and a video of little Eli impishly pulling himself commando style across the floor and walking with his walker in physical therapy, is both poignant and hopeful.
And what about big brother Ephraim, who might have been “spared” a handicapped sibling? Chad writes that Ephraim is his “unseen hero”: Ephraim, often overlooked now that Eli is well-known, and “often asked to give things up for Eli’s benefit,” is not resentful, but instead is “moved to give” in ways that amaze his parents. He is Eli’s joyful playmate and his tireless champion.
There is something so compelling about Eli, this family, and this story… it communicates the pro-life message in a way that words and logical arguments cannot. Indeed, Chad believes that it will be a story, like Eli’s story, that will convert the hearts of those who have yet to remain unmoved by pro-life arguments—much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, became a bestseller and changed the public’s understanding of the humanity of the black person.
Chad is a devout Catholic, who writes about how his decision to accept God’s will brought him closer to Jesus, and how God’s grace has made his strength possible. But the story of the right to life for the disabled child is not only a religious one. For some, it’s matter of constitutional protections and the rights of the person.
Many years ago, Nat Hentoff, a Jewish, atheist writer at the liberal Village Voice read about another baby born with spina bifida, Baby Jane Doe of Long Island. Her story became controversial because her parents refused to allow her to have corrective spinal surgery after birth, and right-to-lifers (as they were called then) sought to save her. Pro-life lawyer Lawrence Washburn brought the case to court, asking that a guardian be named so that Baby Jane could get her surgery. Hentoff, in a column entitled “Big Brother and the Killing of Imperfect Babies,” asked: “As a person under the Constitution, has Baby Jane Doe no rights of her own to live as long as she can? No due-process rights? … No rights to equal protection under the law?” It was this case that converted Hentoff to the pro-life side. (Interestingly enough, Hentoff wrote later that his initial “curiosity was not so much the case itself but the press coverage,” which he said was “lazy and ignorant” and used the same talking points about “women’s rights” and “privacy” over and over. “Whenever I see that kind of story, where everybody agrees, I know there’s something wrong,” he said in a 1989 profile in the Washington Times.
In researching the Baby Jane Doe case, Hentoff also for the first time faced the abortion issue head on; he became, as the Human Life Foundation named him, a Great Defender of Life. (Hentoff was given our annual award in 2005. For more on his story, read “My Controversial Choice to Become Pro-Life,” in the Debate Since Roe, a book available on our website at humanlifereview.com). Hentoff’s first column about Baby Doe was followed by 6 more in the Voice, including one on the “shoddy” and “disgraceful” reporting 60 Minutes did on the case, and several others on another Baby Doe, the famous “Bloomington Baby,” who was “let die” because he had Down syndrome (“The baby starved to death for his own good.”) This Baby Doe needed a simple gastric surgery at birth; it took six days for him to die.
When Baby Jane was 17 days old, the NY State Supreme Court ruled in favor of her parents, who would release her first name, Kerri-Lynn. As the NY Times reported it:
The infant, identified as Baby Jane Doe, was born on Oct. 11 in Port Jefferson, L.I. She suffers from spina bifida—a failure of the spinal cord to close properly—along with hydrocephalus, or excess fluid in the brain. Without surgery, doctors say, she is likely to die within two years; with it, she could survive into her 20’s but would be severely retarded and bedridden. The parents, identified as “Mr. and Mrs. A,” decided to forgo surgery after consulting with neurosurgeons, social workers and clergymen.
The decision was seen as a landmark for the rights of parents to decide treatment for their “imperfect” children. The pro-life movement lost that battle.
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Or did it? When I began writing this piece, I assumed Baby Jane Doe, Kerri-Lynn, had died. But the first result of a Google search was a story from the Long Island paper, Newsday, from just a few months ago: “Baby Jane Doe at 30—Happy, Joking, Learning.” And there she is—pictured smiling at her 30th birthday party! Kerri-Lynn turned 30 on October 11, 2013. The article says she is a talkative and smiling young woman, who moved into a nearby group home two years ago, and attends academic and physical therapy classes. She takes medication for seizure control and wears a full body brace. Her mother says, “She’s happy; I’m content. I just take one day at a time. That’s the only way to do it with a child with disabilities.” Another Google search revealed that Lawrence Washburn, the man who tried to save Kerri-Lynn, died two days after her birthday, of complications from Parkinson’s at age 77. His New York Times obituary reports that he was fined because of the famous NY State case, but that “The sanction and fine were later stricken because the child’s parents had subsequently sought the surgery that was . . . [the proposed guardian’s] object.” Seems from one report in a feminist magazine (On the Issues, Volume 3, 1984) that the hole in Kerri-Lynn’s spine closed up on its own, but her parents did agree to have surgery done to place a shunt in her brain to relieve pressure. (This did not make the news.)
Because of the publicity surrounding her case, Kerri-Lynn, like Eli, touched many people with her story—and perhaps the prayers of many helped her as well. Because not only did she beat the odds—no one predicted she’d be even interactive much less a happy young adult—but her family was spared the heartache of being responsible for her death.
Little Eli Judice, now four, attends pre-K (he tests above average intelligence) and is enjoying his life. Yes, he has many challenges, his and his family’s life includes hardships—but he has his whole life ahead of him. Chad believes that his son will walk one day, and he believes in the power of prayer to make it so.
But for those who believe in the power of prayer and those who do not, I’d say the take-away is clear: Parents do not own their children. Eli and Kerri-Lynn were persons from the moment of conception, they had the right to life—and no one, not their parents, doctors, courts, or the court of public opinion, had the right to take that away from them. Nor to take their inspiring lives away from us.
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Maria McFadden Maffucci is the Editor of the Human Life Review.