'Like a Shadow'

A Tragedy Tests Prolife Convictions

Maya is a young woman who works at the foundation I direct. Until a few months ago, she also worked part-time as my adult daughter’s babysitter. (Moy Moy has special needs and requires constant care.) I play a sort of mother role to Maya. Her own mother died three years ago, her father abandoned the family long ago, and she has no elder woman in her life.

Maya quit when she became pregnant. She and her husband were thrilled about becoming parents and each time we met, I got an update on the morning sickness, the weight gain, the items they were collecting for the baby.

A few weeks ago, she called me in a panic. She had just had an ultrasound and the results were bad. The baby—five months along—had anencephaly, a condition in which the skull does not form properly and which is generally “incompatible with life.”

I went immediately to meet her. My heart was pounding as I neared her home, a tiny two-room place with a hand-pump in the front yard and no running water inside. I knew she would do whatever I suggested she should do.

Before coming, I had Googled anencephaly. I found a website that profiled families who had decided to carry the pregnancy to term, to give their babies as long a life as possible and to make their inevitable deaths peaceful and calm. One family had hired a photographer who specialized in documenting such traumatic situations. The woman, beautiful in her pregnancy, was photographed in various positions. The child, born full-term, was also photographed lovingly and sensitively. As I thought of Maya, these photographs made me unreasonably angry.

She was tearful and frightened when we met. She showed me the ultrasound images in which her baby’s head was clearly malformed, and she informed me matter-of-factly that the doctor had already given her a pill to induce an abortion—the follow-up procedure would happen the next day at the hospital. I felt a strange sense of relief, a mixture of guilt and gratitude: the decision had already been made. There was no moral stand to be taken, no need to convince her to see the pregnancy through.

Had I been in her position, that’s what I would have done—see it through, just like the woman on the website. And just like her, I probably would have made a big fuss about it with photos and heartfelt prose. But neither of us would ever be in Maya’s position. Neither of us lives in a slum; neither of us would ever give birth to a dying baby in a dingy, unhygienic hospital.

“You’ll come with me tomorrow, Didi?” Maya asked. There was really no doubt in her voice. There was no doubt in my mind, either. Yes, I—the first person to go to jail in the United States for protesting abortion—would be there. I would hold Maya’s hand and help her through a process she didn’t choose and would have given anything not to endure.

I have attended many births but this was the first time I had to help a woman deliver a baby we both knew would be dead. In the end, an emergency at home prevented me from being there at the moment the baby emerged, but I was back twenty minutes later. Maya was dozing; her husband and mother-in-law sat quietly beside her. The baby was in a plastic bag, lying on the floor behind the bathroom door.

I asked Maya if I could look at her and she said yes. The nurse took the baby out of the bag and held her out for me to see. She was the exact length of my hand and, except for the head, she was perfect: fingers, toes, hands, and feet—all in miniature, all lovely and complete.

“Maya! Look at her!” I said. “She’s so beautiful.” Maya’s eyes filled with tears. “Would you like to name her?” I asked. In India, babies are named several months after birth, so I knew this was pushing things. Maya shook her head. “Oh, go on.” I said gently. “She’s your first born. She’s your little daughter.”

“I want to name her Chhaya,” she said. (“Chhaya” means shade.) “Because she came like a shadow and she went like one.” The speed of her response surprised me. She had clearly been thinking about it already, and I was suddenly confronted with the assumptions I had made about Maya, about how the daily burdens of a life without a safety net would have determined her decisions. Maybe she, too, would have preferred to go through with the pregnancy. Now we’ll never know.

That evening I Googled the drug Maya had been given and learned that it could not have been effective at inducing an abortion so late in a pregnancy. I think I had half-suspected as much all along but hadn’t wanted to know for sure. I think I had been trying to protect Maya from the horror she would feel while delivering a baby with an open skull. (The old textbooks called such babies “anencephalic monsters.”)

The paternalistic approach to medicine that prevails in India, particularly for the poor, ensured that Maya was guided toward the abortion while remaining completely ignorant about her options. The doctor simply told her the baby needed to be “cleaned out.” There was no discussion about the baby’s future or Maya’s right to decide if she wanted to meet her at least for the few days she had to live before her inevitable death.

The hospital was going to bury the baby along with a few tumors and other surgical debris. Instead, we took her home and buried her in our garden with a simple ceremony: we said a prayer; my nephew sang “Amazing Grace.” We planted impatiens around the tombstone—those colorful flowers that grow so beautifully in the shade.

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You observed: "Maya shook her head. 'Oh, go on.' I said gently. 'She's your first born. She's your little daughter.'"

You may have spoken softly, but I sorry, I cannot find gentleness in the actions you describe - to me those seem everybit as mindlessly intrusive as the ones you characterize as paternalistic. Did it not occur to ask - "Maya, how can I be of help to you?"

“Maya! Look at her!” I said. “She’s so beautiful.” Maya’s eyes filled with tears. “Would you like to name her?” I asked. In India, babies are named several months after birth, so I knew this was pushing things. Maya shook her head. “Oh, go on.” I said gently. “She’s your first born. She’s your little daughter. - See more at: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/shadow#sthash.D9vhf1LT.dpuf

I would not criticize the author for what she said, since I don't know enough about her relationship with Maya. She had asked her to be with her; which suggests a level of trust.   This was the only opportunity for Maya to see her baby and say Good--bye. Instead of being discarded, the baby's brief life was acknowledged and honored.

It should be obvious even to the most dogmatic, absolutist Catholic/Christian that sometimes an abortion is justified---as in the case of Maya and others like her.  Granted, abortion should not be a means of birth control, but compassion should be shown to the mother (& father) of such fetuses, not just the fetuses themselves.  Moreove, who should make these difficult decisions, and who should pay for the care of such helpless beings when mothers are forced to bring them to term?

@Edda,

My objective is not to criticize the author per se, but rather to take the opportunity to reflect upon what action she took - and how she has subsequently contextualized that action in this piece. I take the publishing of the piece to be an invitation to such further reflection.

It seems worthy to us all to ponder what alternative choices were available to build upon the trust Maya showed.

I suggest that this vignette shows us how difficult it is in this area of moral challenge, to be mindful of the living in the presence of these natural tragedies. How difficult it is to set aside our inevitably imperfect preconceptions of "the way the world should work" on the level of human policy and just be present to those whose anguish is as intensely private at any that I can imagine.

I find the decision "We took her home and buried her in our own garden" to be a crassly political one - not one of compassion. Perhaps it was not premeditated, I cannot know that, but, why not a memorial service in Maya's humble home?

The spiritual value of wakes, funerals, and such is not to soften the landing of the departed in Heaven - it is to restore the weary on Earth. It would seem to me this point escaped the author's comprehension in this instance. I can understand that - what the Commonweal editors were thinking I'm still wondering.

I have to agree that the description of burying the child in her own garden seemed jarring. If this was not to help heal the mother's heart was it serving to help assuage the writer's guilt? And if so was it not inappropriate? The mother should have been allowed to decide on the proper rite for the burial of her child. 

But, it was obviously a very traumatic experience for all concerned and the writer is courageous to share the story.

I would like to ask Right-to-Life folks:  Who will pay for the life-long, around-the-clock care of an essentially totally-dependent, minimally human, being, such as Maya (& there are many others like her)?  Who will adopt an unwanted physically-deformed or brain-damaged baby? 

***Editor:  I meant to say Maya's baby, not  Maya, and that there are many babies like Maya's who live a long time.   How can I correct this?   Or, please correct this.

Anthony,

I don't think it is at all obvious.  And that is because there is a premise behind that position that is quite troubling.  To say that an abortion is justified is to say that some lives aren't worth living, some people aren't worth protecting, some people aren't worth the sacrifice.  That is troubling on two levels, both idealistically and practically. 

Idealistically, it is contrary to fundamental beliefs about the worth of the human person (a value that God held so high as to come to earth and die for our salvation).  The very fact that we would draw the line and abandon one for whom God was willing to die shows either a rock-hard callousness or a deeply misguided compassion.

Practically, it is troubling because if a line can be drawn, then it can be drawn anywhere.  Why draw the line at an anencephalic child?  Why not a developmentally disabled child?  Why not a below average child?  Why not the sick?  Why not the mentally troubled?  Any argument used to deny the anencephalic child her right to life and right to protection can be applied to some other child that we would likely choose to protect.  Either human life is sacred or it is not.  Either every person is an icon of God, or no person is.  And thus, if we are willing to draw a line at all, it then becomes simply a matter of the strong imposing their line on the weak .. another thing that runs contrary to Catholicism.

As to your question of who would pay for the care of such people, that is a crass appeal.  We do not look at the problem of poverty and say, "Well, let's just kill them off, because who is going to pay for their needs?"  We are our brothers' keepers, even when our brothers need a lot of keeping.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. We would agree that Maya was deprived of the opportunity to make an informed decision about her pregnancy. An abortion was more or less forced on her without her perhaps understanding what was happening and that this wasn't the only option. The author was confronted with the fact. I can understand that she felt relieved not to have to be part of a difficult decision. She did prevent the baby from being discarded, and provided for Maya an opportunity to see and name her baby, make the baby's short life "real" to her. We are not told what Maya's tradition is and what options a woman living in an Indian slum might have about funeral and burial. I would think that the author talked to her about it. The brief reference to the burial in the garden may sound jarring, but this doesn't mean that is how it was. I wasn't there! I believe the author did what she thought and felt to be best under extremely difficult circumstances. We have the leisure to reflect on other options, something she didn't have. So I respect her both in what she did and for sharing this difficult experience.

P.S. This response was intended for William P. Mullins.

The crucial thing is that the author was there, being a person for another person who was in an impossible situation.  She did the most she could.  And shared it with us.  What more can we ask  Thank you, Jo.    

Edda, Jim: I do appreciate your sensitivity and insight. In the very short space I am allowed in my column, it is  difficult to cover it all. You both gave me the benefit of the doubt, withholding judgment and assuming there must be more to the the story.

How could there not be? 1000 words to deal with disability, abortion, poverty, cultural differences, the powerlessness of a young woman, the views of a traditional society, the taboos around pregnancy and childbirth . . .

Very quickly: Hindus do not bury. Yet no family would even consider a cremation (with its expense and elaborate preparations) for a baby like Chhaya. Maya reacted with tears and dismay to the nurse's move to throw the baby in with the trash, yet burial would not have occurred to her as it is totally outside her tradition. My offer - which I came up with on the spot, without forethought - seemed the only possible solution. Calling it "crassly political" is so far from the truth I don't really know what to say to William Mullins.

I expected a discussion on the complexity of abortion. I have to say I am dismayed and saddened by irrelevant and uninformed comments on my relationship with a young woman I hold very dear.

Jo, thank you for your response! As a healthcare professional I know the challenge of difficult situations that require quick decisions. I appreciate the added information since I suspected that Maya might be Hindu, and cremation of her baby not a realistic choice for her. I admire your compassion and am sorry that the intention of your article was missed by some respondents. I am sure being a columnist is not easy, and brings both joys and disappointments.    Blessings to you and your ministry!

It's fairly easy for someone who has no responsibility for a fetus which will become totally dependent to say that the mother must bring that fetus to term.  Who will care for, and pay for, an unwanted child who is severly brain damaged or physically deformed is not being "crass", it is being "realistic".  Very tough life and death choices are made every day by family members and physicians.  Why complicate these agonizing choices by the intrusion of big goverment?   Many of us don't "look at the problem of poverty"; we look away from the problem of poverty and pretend that it doesn't exist.

It's fairly easy for a person who has no responsibilitiy for a fetus which will become totally dependent to say that the mother must bring that fetus to term.  Who will care for, and pay for, an unwanted, severly brain damaged or physically deformed child is not being "crass", it is being realistic. Very difficult life and death decisions are being made every day by family members and physicians.  Each case is unique.  Why complicate these agonizing decisions with general laws enforced by big government?   Many of us do not "look at the problem of poverty"; we look away from the problem of poverty and pretend that it doesn't exist. 

It's fairly easy for a person who has no responsibilitiy for a fetus which will become totally dependent to say that the mother must bring that fetus to term.  Who will care for, and pay for, an unwanted, severly brain damaged or physically deformed child is not being "crass", it is being realistic. Very difficult life and death decisions are being made every day by family members and physicians.  Each case is unique.  Why complicate these agonizing decisions with general laws enforced by big government?   Many of us do not "look at the problem of poverty"; we look away from the problem of poverty and pretend that it doesn't exist. 

Please pardon and delete the duplication!

The author indicated she was expecting a discussion on "the complexity of abortion." That is what she is getting. To suggest my comments were irrelevant and uninformed is consistent with having missed my point in the first place. I can grant that a decision was made on the spot to offer a Hindu the option of shifting over to the author's religious tradition for purposes of holding an ad hoc and totally foreign ceremony in memory of the lost child.

Why then not offer to pay for a cremation? The crassly political action I described is not any one related to the sequence of events surrounding the internment of the remains. Rather the allegation was against the considered decision to write this story, publish it in a US journal and then still, upon considerable reflection conclude that it was "really" not about using a relationship you have that came under horrible distress for the purpose of making a political point in America.

I doubt Maya knows of this exchange; neither she nor your relationship with her are at risk here; that you chose to keep the debate going reinforces my judgment that your motives in publishing this story were flawed. I am of course not any more qualified to sit in final judgment than any other living person, but we all do the best we can with limited information and different contexts.

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.