Is a child a gift or an entitlement?
by John M. Grondelski | January 15, 2018
from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
We Americans who are 50-something or more remember a critically acclaimed dramatic series from the late 1970, “The Paper Chase,” about first year students in law school. The opening credits started with Professor Charles Kingsfield addressing a lecture hall, solemnly intoning to his overachievers that “you come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you leave here thinking like a lawyer.”
Sometimes I think that Prof. Kingsfield failed because his graduates—the generation that implemented Roe et al. v. Wade--themselves filled American law with a lot of mush, especially on matters of Constitutional and family law.
Hard cases make bad law. That adage is true, but there is no denying that hard cases have often been used to freeload easier cases that might otherwise not have prevailed but for latching on to the harder cases.
Consider the legalization of abortion. Back when states still legislated on the matter, it was generally admitted that the vast majority of abortions were procured for reasons of “convenience,” i.e., socio-economic factors that had nothing to do with maternal or fetal pathology nor criminal circumstances of the conception. Today, the term has practically disappeared and would probably be declared politically incorrect. The theology of Roe treats questioning the reason for an abortion as impermissible, and abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood push hard for women to “brag” about their abortions, convinced that the culture must be inured to even question the procedure.
Like divorce, abortion must be normalized by making the “cause” irrelevant. Ours is a voluntaristic ethic where self-will makes good rather than measures itself by it.
The phenomenon of easier cases leeching off of the emotions associated with harder ones is on full display whenever any restriction on abortion is proposed. Suggest the most modest restriction on the abortion liberty and one will immediately be accused of forcing women at the point of death to bear a rapist’s child. Question third trimester abortions (abortions performed in months 6-9 of pregnancy) and one will be accused of putting women at risk of death from continued pregnancies, even though the incidence of such dangerous pregnancies is infinitesimal. No matter—the emotional rhetoric will usually suffice to get most politicians to beat a retreat and run for cover.
Which is why I realize that writing on the topic of Jen Gann is kind of like hugging the third rail on the subway. Nevertheless, I’ll take the risk ….
Jen Gann is mother of 21-month old Dudley, a boy who suffers from cystic fibrosis. She is also “parenting” editor at New York magazine. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease: if two parents both carry the recessive gene, there is a one-in-four chance of their child inheriting it. Gann wrote about her boy and her “wrongful life” suit in a recent issue of New York.
Cystic fibrosis requires aggressive treatment to break up internal mucus buildup, which can lead to infection. That said, longevity for cystic fibrosis sufferers has increased to the point that many reach age 42-50, a significant gain considering that, when the disease was first documented in the late 1930s, few victims survived infancy. Even Gann admits that “half of all reported deaths occurred before the age of 30” (which means that half occur later, we are still talking about a quarter to a half century of life, and no one can predict future medical progress).
Still, Gann is not satisfied.
Gann’s article is a defense of her “wrongful life” suit against the midwife who managed her pregnancy. Gann had undergone prenatal testing and admits her attention was clear: “if something were [sic] wrong, we’d decided, we wouldn’t continue the pregnancy.” She also contends that she understood from her midwife that the practice did not notify mothers unless test results revealed a pathology. They never did; she never asked. The first Gann knew her child was ill was after birth.
The rest of the article is divided between discussions of the daily care she must provide for her child and her frustration at having to sue today for the abortion she didn’t have yesterday. Gann cloaks her rationalizing in noble terms: “Every parent wants to protect their [sic] child. I never got the chance. To fight for my son, I have to argue that he should never have been born.”
Gann’s split feelings flow throughout the article. On the one hand, she acknowledges that one reason people pursue “wrongful life” suits is to claim money that goes “toward the cost—usually astronomically high—of the child’s medical care.” On the other hand, it’s clear that her case is not about getting money for care: “I know exactly what I would have done.” She confesses that “[y]ou can’t discuss what happened to me without discussing abortion.” Yet she admits that, when a sympathetic woman asked about what she would have done had she known of Dudley’s disability, she “could not use the word ‘abortion’ or bring up our legal situation” in front of “a roomful of people I barely knew with Dudley pushing a plastic car back and forth over the carpet nearby ….” Yes, “I do know exactly what I would have done.” Just don’t ask me to say it, to verbalize it, to acknowledge it.
But she’s getting used to that. She now apparently feels no discomfort bringing it up in front of 400,000+ readers in a magazine.
Gann admits she told her sister-in-law that, had she known what she knows now, “’there would be no Dudley.’” Her seemingly non-judgmental relative “nodded slowly and said, twice, ‘that’s a lot.’”
The author seems proud of herself that “[t]he more I discuss the abortion I didn’t have, the easier [it] gets to say aloud: ‘I would have had an abortion.’” She’s clearly becoming a Planned Parenthood kind of woman, ready to brag about the abortion she wanted … but didn’t have.
And there’s the rub. Because none of the Planned Parenthood women ready to brag about their abortions would ever have to explain them to their dead child. The only voice in the public debate is theirs; their son’s or daughter’s ended in a silent scream.
But Gann has Dudley. And she ponders “what he might want from me someday, of the kinds of questions he’ll want answered.” She expects little Dudley will conclude “his disease should have been detected before he was born, not after.” He may find out about his mother’s “wrongful life” suit. She seems to assume he’ll want to know why she did not put him out of his misery. But, in the end, Gann’s conclusion remains: “I should have had an abortion. And that is where my conviction crumples, because I don’t know how I’m supposed to tell Dudley that someday” (emphasis added).
Maybe Ms. Gann should check if Cecile Richards is available as a regular baby sitter to start brainwashing Dudley, because my bet is that the most likely question the little boy will pose is “Mommy, didn’t you want me?” And I don’t want to imagine how Jen Gann will “crumple” faced with answering that question honestly.
Children are always needy for the reassurance they are wanted or loved. The modern world wants to convince people that “love” can mean snuffing out their existence, but that lie about love works only in the third person, not the second. Which brings us back to the paradox with which Gann opens her article, a contradiction she cannot square: parental “protection” does not include denying someone life in the name of “protecting” them from it. Yes, she wants to call her frustrated abortion an “opportunity for mercy [that] quietly slipped by.” The only problem is that Gann has no clue how she might someday explain that “mercy” to its purported beneficiary. Especially if he asks the wrong question.
There are numerous tragedies here. The tragedy of suffering, especially of children, which has plagued mankind from its beginnings. The tragedy of an American medical system that often would leave the parents of disabled children bereft of assistance for the costs of catastrophic illness unless they pretend their very lives were tortious wrongs inflicted upon them.
But the biggest tragedy is that Jen Gann has drunken the rhetoric of “choice” hook, line, and sinker. The problem is that the rhetoric collides with reality, the lived reality of the toddler she has and wants yet doesn’t. A rhetoric she is unable and afraid to explain someday to its alleged beneficiary. She thinks that “’I love my child the just the way he is’” is not as good a choice as how “I would have given Dudley another way: healthy.” Earth to Jen: dead is not healthy.
Gann takes exception to “anti-abortion crusaders” whom she contends accuse parents like her “of seeking flawless ‘designer babies’ free of health issues.” But that is exactly what she wants and exactly what Michel Aupetit, the new Archbishop of Paris, was addressing when he criticized the notion of a “parental project” that was gaining ascendancy in French law as a way of dealing with the quality control, destruction of surplus embryos, and other factors connected with in vitro fertilization. “If a child becomes a ‘project,’ it is clear that he ought to correspond to criteria that belong not to his human nature but to his ‘qualities.’ If he presents some anomalies in conflict with the parental qualities project, he will be eliminated.”
Gann just can’t quite get out the e-word.
The title of this essay is also taken from Aupetit. Gann might not like the other “e-word” – entitlement – (though she sure sounds like it), but she needs to learn that a child is a gift that does not come with a return policy. Unless you are Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva, or Peter Singer.
John M. Grondelski (PhD, Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.