My grandson, Matthias, is nearly two months old and a joy to behold. Strangely, the first time we saw him was months before his birth through the wonder of ultrasound. The doctor scanned his whole body and everything checked out. My son and his wife could expect and now have a very healthy child.
So I can imagine the scene when Alain and Tammy Gonzalez looked at the ultrasound image and saw what seemed like a bubble the size of a peach being blown by their unborn child. The “bubble” was a fetal oral teratoma, a rare and rapidly growing tumor occurring in one in 100,000 pregnancies.
The choices? Well, abortion was the first choice presented. Abortion being, alas, the go-to solution for problematic and “defective” fetuses. Choice number two was wait and see. But the tumor’s growth was expected to be more rapid than that of the then-17-week old child. Problems such as potentially fatal bleeding and various long-term complications after birth were foreseen.
According to an article in the Guardian, Tammy Gonzalez explained, “If she was ultimately delivered alive, there was no guarantee that she would be normal, she’d have a tracheotomy, numerous surgeries, she’d have deformities.”
Rather than abort, a third solution was discovered. Surgeons at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital performed groundbreaking endoscopic surgery on the child in utero. The doctors cut a small incision in the Tammy’s abdomen and guided a laser into the child’s mouth using the beam to sever the tumor.
Five months later, 8-pound, 1-ounce Leyna was born. Twenty months after that, her doctors broke the story. Leyna has nothing more than a scar in her mouth to mark her early brush with death.
The same article reported that her doctor announced, “This is an opportunity to expand the field that we have developed, with this ability to treat birth defects in utero, and give hope to mothers.” And, indeed, we should all rejoice with the Gonzalez family.
I read Leyna’s story, however, after reading bioethicist Wesley Smith’s article at First Things about DNA testing and eugenics. The combination reveals the strange and dangerous thinking about “defective” humans that we have in our culture.
“Scientists recently announced that they are perfecting a maternal blood test that will permit technologists to map the entire genome of the developing fetus.” He notes that unlike amniocentesis, the procedure is non-invasive, can be done earlier in pregnancy, and carries no risk to the fetus — “unless, that is, it reveals unwanted genetic conditions or propensities. In such cases, the fetus’s very life would suddenly be at material and immediate risk.”
Ideally, Smith writes, genetic testing as well as amniocentesis and ultrasound would be used to diagnose problems that (a) could be treated in the womb or (b) could help parents prepare for special needs their child might have after birth. Stories like Leyna’s would become commonplace.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. Abortion is the favored route to “treat” children who are “defective.” The "anti ‘defective’ message," he goes on to say, “is vividly clear.”
So while our culture cheers with Leyna, her parents, and her surgeons, it would express no regrets had Leyna instead ended up in a plastic pail marked “Biological Waste.” This is, in fact, what happens to 90 percent of children diagnosed in the womb with conditions such as Down Syndrome. We don’t see as many Down kids as we used to because the vast majority have been denied birth.
“What a bitter irony,” Smith writes, “We extol diversity and tolerance more that at any other time in human history — as we unleash a merciless reproductive pogrom to eradicate imperfection from the human condition.”
The solution he proposes is simple — simple, but not easy. The traits named as desirable, that is, the traits without which one is “defective,” are typically things like intelligence, physical beauty (or at least lack of physical deformity), and health. If we detect that an unborn child lacks these, the “defective” may well be aborted.
But, Smith goes on that these are not in any way the most important human trait. “I believe,” he writes, “the most crucial attribute is our capacity to love.”
“God is love,” wrote St. John. And so the greater our capacity to love — including our capacity to love the stranger, the weak, the “defective” — the more we exhibit the image of God and the more genuinely human we become.
Prenatal diagnostics can be used as tools of love and Leyna’s story is a love story. Without love, those same tools facilitate the evil of eugenics and we all become less human in the process.
Publication date: August 8, 2012