Opinion: The Unborn Baby – a precious opportunity for Communion

by Kerry Pound, M.D.

When I was a third-year medical student beginning my rotation on obstetrics and gynecology, one of the physicians began her lecture with the following statement: “We are the only specialty that deals with two patients at once.”

“Two patients”…. a simple-yet-profound statement recognizing that the baby, like the mother, is truly a patient to be respected and cared for throughout a pregnancy. For a brief moment, with a small glimmer of hope, I wondered whether the training I would receive in obstetrics at McGill University in Montreal would be, like me, pro-life.

Rather quickly I realized that, as at most teaching hospitals, abortions or “terminations” went on routinely. During the next couple of days of my OB rotation, I would learn that “products of conception” is the euphemism used for the fetus and placenta when discussing the completion of a miscarriage or abortion. For medical purposes, women are often referenced by their age and name followed by three figures known as their GPA — a kind of shorthand for their obstetric history referring to the number of gestations, births beyond 20 weeks’ gestations, and abortions. The final qualifier essentially treats a miscarriage and a “termination” the same.

And yet, for all these euphemisms, there was the clear recognition by all caring for expectant mothers that there are, in fact, two patients … two persons.

The baby’s heart rate is assessed at each visit. The woman’s “fundal height” (how big her uterus is getting) is checked to assess the baby’s growth. Vital signs of both baby and mother are essential as both patients are carefully and lovingly cared for by obstetricians. Typically the goal of obstetric care is simply to have a healthy baby and a healthy mother after the nine-month gestation period is completed. To accomplish this certainly necessitates the consideration of two patients.

When I became pregnant for the first time during my pediatric residency at Massachusetts General in Boston, I was fascinated with the reactions elicited by my condition from colleagues and hospital staff, both familiar and unfamiliar. Everyone, from members of the cleaning crew to the most pompous surgeons, would glance at my “baby bump,” and a twinkle would appear in their eyes. There often would follow the obvious three questions: “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” “Is this your first?” And then, with just the slightest encouragement from my response, the sharing would begin to flow freely: “When my wife was pregnant with our first….” “I carried so low, I was always in pain…” “My sister loved every minute of being pregnant…” “I was sick for 9 months, but it was worth it.” This would happen every single day of my pregnancy. I would encounter random people — renowned Dr. Steadyhands, Michael from the cleaning staff, a patient’s family member, and me — randomly sharing a ride on the elevator at Mass General, and on a short trip up to Ellison 17 we would let go of our various hospital titles and roles and instead speak about something intimate and profound because of that baby in my belly. We would connect in a personal, private, perhaps even vulnerable way regarding the most beautiful event of life — the beginning of a new human life.

Of course, that wouldn’t just happen at work. As any pregnant woman can tell you, everyone loves to talk to a pregnant woman about pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, and raising babies. The hairdresser, the librarian, the gentleman behind me in the grocery store check-out — they all want to connect, to share, to be in communion with that experience. That bump — which, without hesitation, they all recognize as a baby — is just the excuse to spend a moment in common wonder and joy contemplating life’s new beginnings. It is a precious means toward communion with one another.

Being in communion changes us. It sustains us. These short interactions provide an immediate knowledge of one another because we had come together briefly to wonder about the miracle of new life. We shared in a transcendent moment, and it had made us better. The next time I would see Dr. Steadyhands, I would be comfortable chatting about our mutual patients rather than intimidated as I might have previously experienced. The next time I would see Michael the cleaning guy, not only would we smile and greet each other as we always had on the floor, but now we might also ask each other about our families. We had, in essence, begun to love each other and build a closer community. It truly matters that the context in which this happened was so essential to happiness — wonderment, joy, and appreciation of the miracle of new life.

The reality is that everyone — even Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the abortionist recently convicted in the murder of three infants who had survived his abortions – in some way recognizes that there are two patients in every pregnancy. Gosnell had simply accepted that it was OK to kill, mutilate, and disregard the younger one while barely treating the older one with common decency. How did he come to be this way? How did he transform into this “monster” who saw his young patient as a nasty nuisance that could be so brutally disposed of? He was certainly not experiencing that sustaining communion with either his patients or staff.

When did our society begin to equate the disregard of these youngest patients with the greatest freedom for women? Doctors in much cleaner clinics than Gosnell’s, with more advanced tools, make similar choices in the way they “treat” the younger patient. How can we as a society declare that the “fertilized content” of a woman’s uterus is somehow her enemy? Why instead don’t we stand up and declare, “Babies are beautiful; babies are good. Babies remind us of our humanness, our connectedness, our ability to share with one another”?

Babies are not the problem. We are called as individuals and a culture to protect human life, to value human life from the earliest stage to natural death. When we allow family disintegration without a fight, when we seem to not simply tolerate but expect men to desert women and the babies they helped bring into being, when we let poor and disadvantaged women believe death is better than birth for their children, when we insist to women and girls that the feminist battle is to be fought in their own bodies, we lose hold of a culture of life. We no longer see life as inherently precious. It’s a culture where Kermit Gosnell can flourish. It’s a culture that’s lost sight of our innate human need for communion.

Gosnell must have lost an authentic sense of community, of sharing and experiencing the joy of being human with others. Over time, he had to become blind to the beauty of life and, therefore, to the beauty of his two patients, the baby and the mother. Although he tacitly recognized that the babies were patients — products of conception don’t “walk to the bus stop,” as he reportedly joked about the size of one 30-week-old fetus whose spinal cord he snipped after the child had been born alive — he chose death, as has our culture.

If we don’t begin to recognize as a society that these most vulnerable humans are precious — as any stranger in an elevator is able to do on a personal meeting — then we are losing sight of that which constitutes our human beauty: Our ability to live together in community.

Kerry Pound, M.D., practices pediatric medicine in Massachusetts and is a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

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