Near the end of Sarah C. Williams’s book Perfectly Human, the Oxford historian recounts a jarring scene in her hospital room as she prepared to give birth to her daughter Cerian. Due to a condition called skeletal dysplasia, Cerian could not survive outside the womb and so her birth would also mean her death.
The doctor attending Williams was named Stella. Williams describes her as curt and direct. The reader infers that Stella’s bedside manner was somewhat lacking. By the end of Stella’s shift, Cerian had been born and Stella had witnessed the bright sadness of Cerian’s family, who grieved her loss deeply while also attempting to find comfort and hope in the promise of the Gospel: that death does not have the last word. The experience chastened this doctor. Before Williams left her delivery room to move to recovery, Stella came to visit her. She said, “it’s very sad what happened.” Then she began to cry. “You’re a brave lady,” she said, and, as Williams writes, “fled the room sobbing.”
What is most striking about this story is not so much the doctor’s reaction, unexpected as it is. What is most striking—what struck the doctor—is the decision Williams and her husband made to carry the baby to term, knowing she would not survive outside the womb. The Williamses understood that even in utero Cerian was a person, beloved of God. This fact compelled them to respond in a particular way.
We are often told that the abortion debate is about choice, and so those who describe themselves as prolife are really “anti-choice.” But in a 2010 paper, Kimala Price, a Women’s Studies professor at San Diego University, stressed that framing the issue in terms of “a woman’s right to choose” oversimplifies it. To understand the debate as one about whether a woman has the legal right to an abortion fails to address the problem that many women are, for various reasons, not able to use that right. For them, a more expansive form of advocacy is required. Price refers to this new fight as the struggle to secure “reproductive justice” for all women. In this understanding, the true fight for women’s rights is not only about keeping abortion legal; it’s about making sure that all women have the equal ability to abort, or to bear a child, and to raise her. Nothing outside a woman’s will should hinder her freedom with respect to any of these three choices, all of which can be threatened or constrained in various ways by oppressive dominant groups. A true movement to address the abortion issue must, in Price’s view, address all three of these reproductive choices.
To the extent that Price’s argument for a broader focus recognizes some of the many ways in which our society and its economy are not friendly to babies and their mothers, it is a welcome development with important political implications. Reproductive-justice advocates and pro-life activists should be able to work together on reforms such as paid family leave and tax credits for children. Still, there is something deeply inadequate, even alarming, about Price’s approach. It still reduces the issue of abortion to a question of coercion. The choice to abort is no worse than the choice to give birth as long as a woman gets to make it autonomously, unhindered by either legal restrictions or material impediments.
To understand the problem here we must return to Cerian. The fact of Cerian Williams’s existence creates a problem for Price’s treatment of coercion and freedom in the abortion debate. For Price, the only sort of limitation on personal autonomy is essentially violent—a matter of one person or group violating the liberty of another person or group. But Williams’s example suggests that our autonomy is sometimes limited by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. And these circumstances, even when they are tragic, invite us to reject violence, even when violence appears to be the easier and safer choice.
If her parents had viewed Cerian as nothing more than a hindrance to her mother’s autonomy or a lesser sort of life because of her disability, then abortion would seem like the logical choice. But if you view Cerian as a fully human child, despite her disability, and believe that the natural law requires parents to love their children, then Paul and Sarah experienced the freedom of acting according to the given order of things, even though acting thus was painful and difficult. And in the midst of that action, they learned new things about the nature of love and what it means to be human.