The question of how to respond to a medical
problem with an unborn child has become more real in our day because it is more
possible to find out that there is a problem before birth. Modern methods of
visualization of the unborn child have increased our ability to diagnose medical
conditions in the womb. In an increasing number of cases, we are able to
intervene to treat and sometimes cure these problems. At the same time, many
such conditions cannot be cured.
These issues arise more frequently than ever in pastoral counseling. We
therefore continue our series on counseling by providing reflections, from a
philosophical and medical perspective, that can help us counsel those pregnant
with a child who is dying.
Philosophical response: Why Carry a Dying Child?
The diagnosis that an unborn child has a life-threatening disease or
anomaly is a particularly heavy cross for a family to bear. The hopes and dreams
that accompany a pregnancy are thrown into chaos, and the joy of the
anticipation of the child's birth becomes intense anxiety.
But there is one factor that does not change: the love which the family --
and the rest of us -- can give to that child.
Some wonder why a baby who will die shortly should even be brought to term.
But are we not all to die shortly? How are we to evaluate what is long and
what is short when we compare life to eternity? Nobody knows how long he or she
is to live, nor do we measure the love we give based on the length of life.
Why should a baby who will die shortly be brought to term? Because we love
that child for as long as that child lives, whether life be measured in decades
or minutes. Why should we be there for anyone who is suffering? Why should we
share in their pain? Why should we stay up all night for a sick toddler? Why
should we wait by the bed of a loved one in the hospital? Why should we accept
death for anyone, including ourselves?
The alternative to accepting death is to try to control it by giving
ourselves the authority to take life before life will make too many demands on
us. Hence we have abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. Just take control.
Don't let life hit you too hard. Eliminate the suffering by eliminating the
The late Terence Cardinal Cooke wrote a beautiful letter for Respect Life
Sunday in 1983. Its eloquence was enhanced by the fact that he was dying of
cancer as he wrote it, and died two days before it was read in all the parishes
of the Archdiocese of New York. He wrote, "The 'gift of life,' God's special
gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger
or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at
these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care,
concern and reverence."
His words are true no matter how old or young we are. Love means welcome
-- that is, I open my heart to you as you are -- not wanting -- that is,
you must meet my needs and expectations.
One of the most beautiful examples of this in our day is Karen Garver
Santorum, whose book, "Letters to Gabriel," tells the story of her medically
complicated pregnancy and her child whose life was so short. She and her family
loved their child in his frailty in the womb. Describing his birth, she writes,
"As sad as it was, the time with you gave us a chance to love and care for you."
And that is the very meaning of life.
Medical response: Perinatal Hospice
There is a new appreciation for the grief of parents who lose a child
before birth. While the tragedies of stillbirth and neonatal death are common,
the first studies investigating maternal responses to these tragedies were not
published until 1968 and 1970, respectively. Before that, these losses were
often viewed and handled by society as "non-events."
Now there is a growing acknowledgement these are losses of a real person.
Whether that real person is in the womb or outside the womb, he/she deserves our
best care, he/she can be loved, and he/she is grieved when lost.
The response to the terminal illness of adults and children has led to the
development of hospice care (adult and neonatal), providing holistic physical
and emotional support for dying patients and their families. More recently, the
concept has extended to the unborn child, giving rise to "perinatal hospice."
Dr. Byron Calhoun, President of the American Association of Pro-life
Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG), is a key advocate of this concept. He
writes, "Perinatal hospice…focuses on the persons involved…and places the
family in the central arena of care. It provides a continuum of support for the
family from the time of diagnosis until death and beyond. It is marked by a
cognizance that 'dying involves real people, even unborn fetuses; [and that]
significant relationships are disrupted and familiar bonds are severed.' Hospice
allows time -- time for bonding, loving, and losing; time so that the entire
course of living and dying is a gradual process that is not jarringly
interrupted" (Nathan J. Hoeldtke, MD, and Byron C. Calhoun, MD, "Perinatal
Hospice," American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 185 no 3 [Sep
2001]; internal quote from Knapp RJ, Peppers LG. Doctor-patient relationships in
fetal/infant death encounters. J Med Educ 1979; 54:775-80).
Dr. Calhoun reports that among a group of 32 patients whose children had
lethal fetal anomalies, 27 (84%) chose perinatal hospice care. All are all
positive about the experience and grateful for the time they were able to spend
with their infants before they died. The time of death ranged from 20 minutes to
2 months after birth. There were no maternal complications.
We at Priests for Life are grateful for the work of Dr. Calhoun and for his
friendship. He is eager to consult with those in the medical community who want
to set up perinatal hospice programs. He is also working with us at Priests for
Life to enable priests to more knowledgeably refer people to these options. For
more information, visit www.aaplog.org/perinatalhospice.htm
Mark your Calendar: March 25 in Washington!
Join Priests for Life and Human Life International for a special day
of prayer and celebration for the Unborn Child on March 25, 2003, at the
Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. This is part of
an effort to respond to the convictions of so many people that the Feastday on
which Jesus became an unborn child should be marked by more explicit pro-life
At our invitation, numerous Catholic leaders have signed a statement that
reads in part, "As Catholic leaders at a time when our society is beset with
the evil of abortion, and when the human embryo is treated as a mere object for
scientific research, we believe that the celebration of the Feast of the
Annunciation is more important than ever. By celebrating this Feast with special
solemnity, and by spending more time meditating on its doctrinal and spiritual
lessons, the faithful can be even more solidly rooted in their pro-life
convictions, and spurred on to effective action in defense of life."
If you cannot come to Washington, we encourage you to mark the day
with special celebrations in your parishes and schools. For suggested prayers
and activities, as well as for the full text and signers of the statement
mentioned above, visit www.priestsforlife.org/annunciation.htm.
Details: Noon Mass (Upper Church) -- Fr. Tom Euteneuer; afternoon talks in
Crypt Church by Fr. Tom and by Fr. Frank Pavone; Mass at 7:30pm (Crypt Church)
-- Fr. Frank Pavone. Come for part or all of the day! No registration necessary
-- No fees.
"The procedure changes significantly at 21 weeks because the fetal
tissues become more cohesive and difficult to dismember. This problem is
accentuated by the fact that the fetal pelvis may be as much as 5cm in width…A
long curved Mayo scissors may be necessary to decapitate and dismember the
fetus…." (Warren Hern, Abortion Practice, p.134)
Action Item: Mobilize the Professionals
One of the greatest services that can be rendered to the pro-life
movement by the local parish is to mobilize the professionals in the
parish. If a parish priest, for example, called together all the medical
professionals in the parish, he could discuss with them the moral challenges
they face, as well as invite them to lend their services to the local pro-life
The priest can also gather all the legal professionals in the parish to
discuss legal dimensions of pro-life efforts and to invite their assistance. The
same is true for many other professions.
Priests for Life is willing and able to direct priests to national pro-life
organizations that are built around people in specific professions. Such
contacts can help us all in guiding these professionals on a local level.
You are encouraged to remember the following intentions as you pray the
Liturgy of the Hours:
November intention: For an increase in pro-life attorneys and judges.
December intention: For a greater awareness of pain management options for
the terminally ill.
Bishop Wuerl on the Priest and Pro-life
It is said that evil exists when good people do nothing. We must find
a way to make our convictions known and effective. For Catholics, the parish
community is an ideal context in which to do this and the role of the priest, as
leader, places him in a perfect position to reiterate this most basic principle
of respect for life. In particular, the homily at appropriate times can be an
effective means for communicating this truth. Other opportunities include the
regular intentions of the general intercessions, the use of the parish bulletin,
parish newsletters and increasingly web sites. The United States bishops offer
guidance and a starting point: "We must begin with a commitment never to
intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no
matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem."
-- Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, STD, Bishop of Pittsburgh, "God's Good Gift of
Life," Pastoral Letter, September 14, 1999
Pro-life Today and Always
In this short booklet, Fr. Frank Pavone shares his reflections on the
pro-life movement 30 years after Roe vs. Wade, and what we must do to
reach our goal of ending abortion.
Published in 2002 by Liguori Publications, 1-800-325-9521, www.liguori.org
My Journey into the Catholic Church
By Norma McCorvey, with Fr. Frank Pavone
This short booklet describes how Norma McCorvey, the woman who was the
plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade was led into the Catholic Church. It is a
supplement to Norma's book Won by Love.
You may order it through Priests for Life, 888-PFL-3448, ext. 239, Fax
718-980-3900, Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Men and Abortion: A Path to Healing
By C.T. Coyle, Ph. D.
Men are hurt by abortion, and need healing from it. This book is based on
research on case studies, from which a program of healing has been developed.
The book is useful for post-abortion men, their families, and those who counsel
ISBN Number 1-894169-87-5
Published by Life Cycle Books, LPO 1008, Niagara Falls, NY
14304-1008 Phone (800) 214-5849 Fax (888) 690-8532 E-Mail: