By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
Sanctity of Life rallies and marches and blog entries polka-dotted American culture all week. As I watched and listened, I felt at times like I wanted to slap the rosy adjectives away the moment they exited the participants’ mouths.
I am in favor of life.
I am also in favor of reality.
The reality is that for every family facing a “Sanctity of Life” situation, more than one life will be irrevocably changed. And it won’t always be beautiful, inspiring, I-wouldn’t-change-it-for-anything clear. Choosing life is hard and painful and untidy, because the decision-making process that leads up to the choice is just the prelude. I repeat: the agony of decision-making is a mere sneak peek. After the choice is made, there’s the rest of life to live.
When I was 16, I found myself pregnant and unmarried. A restless teen, I dreamed of a year as an exchange student in France, college at Parsons School of Art, a life crowded with museum visits and late-night discussions about philosophy and literature.
Unable to access such cultural highs, I opted for a boyfriend who’d earned his seeming sophistication through a hard-knocks upbringing in the foster-care system.
My story isn’t unique in a region that lists one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the nation, except for this: I never considered abortion an option. That would be murder, I believed. Further, I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing a child into the world only to say goodbye. I knew, at some level, that I’d already lost my boyfriend and the future I imagined; another loss seemed unendurable.
So I gave birth to a daughter who was, six months later, diagnosed with profound disabilities. Nobody could say why. Indeed, nobody had anything helpful to say to me, my then-husband or my parents about this tiny, blind baby who could not swallow and would never learn to speak — nobody except for our family doctor, an experienced, practical man who placed a call to the state hospital in Winfield. That’s where my daughter lived, from age nine months to 12 years old.
A little less than half her life, so far.
When Kansas closed its state hospitals, my daughter moved to a group home in Wichita, close to the medical specialists whose care was still covered by government programs. Then she turned 18, and “aged out” of half the services. It was time, once again, to search for people who had something helpful to say.
Now 28, my daughter lives in a group home operated by a nonprofit agency in Liberal. I’m grateful for the caregivers who see to her daily needs, the knowledge that she is safe. There’s no way to adequately describe how important these people are for my daughter or how beholden I feel to them.
Even so, as time goes on, witnessing her life becomes harder, not easier. When I contemplate the trajectory of my own story, that of my parents, and the family my second husband and I started together, 20 years ago, I see that the choice I made as a feckless teenager has marked all our lives in a permanent and decided fashion. When I visit my daughter and watch her struggle for breath, her spine twisted, her face often creased with anxiety, I don’t feel the Hallmark moment. I feel sorrow.
This is what I want to write about — not the morality of bringing her into the world despite the bad timing. That was easy.
I want the conversation about the precious nature of life to reflect long-term reality. I want the people who march and post and preach to be mindful of what they’re suggesting to the mothers who choose life, and the children who are thus born. Seeing that newborn baby arrive whole and well is indeed beautiful and inspiring, and it’s certainly clear that the child is alive. What next?
“We’ll help,” is the most common response, though I’ve rarely witnessed an offer of help that lasts 28 years. The help inspired by Sanctity of Life week often means donations to the crisis pregnancy centers, maybe even regular coffee dates with a struggling single mother or an offer to host a pregnant woman in a home until she gets back on her feet. Families provide foster care for children unwanted at the moment of birth.
Some even adopt, a choice that comes with good and bad consequences for all parties. Birth mothers don’t forget. From what I’ve seen and heard, you trade raising your child for a daily existence with grief. Sometimes it’s a low-level, familiar presence like the hum of the refrigerator in the next room. Other days, it pierces the soul. Research suggests that adopted children experience a parallel set of emotions and challenges.
Mothers who keep the child have also signed on to a life quite different that what they may have envisioned. These days, we’re peppered with reports about how the breakdown of the family and irresponsible personal choices are the cause of poverty in America. Yes, and meanwhile, generations of children grow up with ramen noodle nutrition. Living in poverty isn’t just about hunger and humiliation; it creates a daily level of stress that changes the brain and hampers a child’s ability to climb out of the hole. It’s possible to build a better life through faith, education, wiser choices, consistent, steady work. It’s also unimaginably difficult. The odds are not in one’s favor.
Earlier this year, as our family received news of a faraway nephew who’d committed suicide, I remembered once more how hard choosing life can be. This boy’s life was saved before his birth when a family member persuaded his young mother not to abort. The older, more established aunt raised her great-nephew until he was 12, and his mother wanted him back. Neither of them knew how to live as parent and child, though he became a father himself before he hit 20. When he bled to death in a parking lot, he left behind two pregnant women and one preschooler.
Was it a victory when the family persuaded his mother to choose life? Well, yes. But the choice she made spooled out for 20 years and could have been longer. In the end, her son did not choose life.
Of course living is better than dying. Of course!
As the Sanctity of Life celebrations continue, however, I wish we who participate would commit to the longer view. The women who face unintended pregnancies can’t avoid it. Neither can their children. Neither should we.