A way forward for pro-lifers: Empathy

When our newborn baby was whisked away by an ambulance in December 1998, I knew she was going to die. She had been born 30 minutes before in an uncomplicated home delivery; but as soon as I laid eyes on her, I knew. Her flawed facial features, her eight toes, fused fingers and lifeless body, all belonged to a child who would never meet her mother.

Though I felt fine physically, I was taken to the hospital in another ambulance as a precautionary measure. After getting settled into a room, the doctor came and told us our baby didn’t make it. Over the course of several hours, the nurse kept asking me if I wanted to hold her and I refused every time. Joe and I went home the same night and told our seven children their baby sister had died. We named her Victoria Hope and held a graveside service a few days later.

The decision not to hold my baby would become one of the greatest regrets of my life. I was tormented by it, along with so many thoughts that plagued me with guilt. But one of the questions that nagged me most was this: “If God does all things perfectly, then who made my baby?” Just writing this out takes me back to the anguish of trying to answer this question. For the first time, I was confronting the brokenness of our life on earth, the imperfection God himself allows.

If I had to choose a primary reason I decided not to hold Victoria it’s because I believed that her death was a failure of my faith. Our cultish theological positions back then included the idea that righteous people get all their prayers answered and unrighteous people get sick and die. A dead child indicated there must have been some sin we committed as her parents and we deserved this. It was God’s righteous judgment. End of story.

So holding a dead baby was like holding some sort of failure. The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence, according to Psalm 115. I knew this verse well. This little baby was not useful for God’s glory it seemed. “Let’s repent, get our hearts right, and move on.”

I want to be clear that these thoughts came and went quickly through my mind. Joe and I did not discuss the pros and cons of having the nurse bring our baby to my room. We reached no conclusion together. It was only after the fact, when I regretted my decision, that I assessed the potential reasons why. Ultimately, I was scared to hold a dead child. I didn’t want to face her deformities again. I didn’t think I could handle it. So I did what I thought was best at the time.

Later, as I sought comfort on grief websites, I read about women who did choose to hold their dead babies. They invited family members to the hospital to meet these babies. They took photos they now treasure. I met a friend online who bathed her deceased son and she describes it as sacred, like anointing the body of Jesus for burial. I wish I had been brave like her.

But not every mother is brave in every way. We are imperfect. We are human. We don’t have faith for every situation. This struck me as I perused the website for Care Net, a nonprofit that supports a national network of pregnancy centers. The president of Care Net is a childhood friend and I respect his work and his family’s testimony. On the organization’s website, he outlines the pillars that guide their philosophy about abortion.

The first pillar is marriage and how abortion-minded women and their partners should marry if possible. The idea is drawn from the biblical account of Joseph choosing to marry the mother of Jesus when he learned of her unplanned pregnancy. Joseph was, according to the website, “a man with a plan.”

The second pillar is discipleship and the belief that “The first thing that should come to our mind when we see a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy is that she needs to become a disciple of Jesus Christ” because “discipleship empowers people to reject abortion.”

There is merit to these concepts and I understand their biblical moorings. I have been privileged to review the training materials pregnancy center volunteers are required to undergo, and it is impressive, professional, and compassionate. I have also been invited to train center volunteers and they are receptive to my lens on race and class.

But my caution is this: we have to be careful not to oversimplify the issue. It’s simple to believe that what a pregnant single woman needs is to get married and get saved. But marriage is not an option for many women for a hundred reasons. Many women considering abortion are already married and devoted to God fully.

We have to accept that few have faith as strong as the mother of God. Most mothers and fathers are not visited by angels like Mary and Joseph were. Our default setting is not Be it unto me according to your Word. No. We fight, flight, and freeze. We falter and fail. We face mountains that seem too high to conquer. In short, we are not Bible characters. Or if we are, we are more like Jonah and Peter. We run and hide when circumstances are hard.

Our perfect God allows these hard circumstances, including the conception of babies with conditions “incompatible with life.” Including babies conceived through rape and incest. Their mothers are good and loving mothers who may not find the strength to hold them. We may wish these moms would see what feels obvious from our armchair. We may wish they understood that God will work all things together for good if they allow their children to be born. But rather than label them as baby killers if they choose to abort, let’s manifest God’s love. The harsh words and narrow positions taken by many Christians drive people away from Jesus. They want no part of a God or a people who don’t sacrifice more than a day walking with a poster in Washington. They are turned off by our lack of empathy, proximity, and unity in addressing the problems this broken world presents to us.

Partisanship on this and so many other issues leave vulnerable people without spiritual tools to guide them when they need God most. After Victoria died, I needed God more than ever, but I felt abandoned by my church family. They shared my narrow views about death so they didn’t know how to meet me in my brokenness. I had so much caustic spiritual shame that I didn’t take communion for two years.

Thankfully, Jesus was there to bring me out of the dark places my guilt had taken me. One night in the depth of my grief, I fell to my knees weeping and asked, “Lord, did you know my baby died?” At that moment, I felt him loving me deeply, hearing my heart, and releasing me from guilt. This is the Jesus I want the world to know. Victoria introduced him to me.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34.18

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