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The Right Stuff

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October 2013

It’s amazing how things change.  Not all that long ago, Halloween was just a day.  Today it’s a season.  We’ve gone from just displaying pumpkins to displaying lights, signs, witches, ghouls, coffins, and all sorts of things dead.  We still have the haunted houses, but they’ve been intensified by way more than a notch.  It can take daring to walk headlong into the dark.

Haunted houses are pretend stuff.  Those who enter know that they’ll leave.  But that first step is far more difficult when survival is not guaranteed.  In the fifteenth century, conventional wisdom was that the earth was flat.  When Columbus headed west to find the East, many figured that he would sail over the edge.  Columbus bet the ranch that the earth had a curve, and we are here because of it.  Centuries later, author Tom Wolfe wanted to learn why our country’s early test pilots and astronauts were willing to venture the great unknown of space.  His 1979 book, The Right Stuff, chronicled their stories.  Those explorers drew on their physical and mental toughness, their bravery, and even their machismo.  They had the “right stuff.”

Little by little, man has conquered land, sea, and air.  We’re working on deep space.  Nothing comes easy, but with each step more is learned, and the knowledge man gains will help guide those who venture further.  Yet there is another frontier about which much is still unknown-man himself.  We’re learning more about ourselves all the time.  But with the knowledge comes a troubling question: what do we do with it?  The question pits science against ethics, morality against pocketbooks and politics.

Case in point.  Science has given us ways of knowing things about the health of a baby still in a mother’s womb.  Through 4-D ultrasound technology, medical personnel can detect conditions that can, and often must, be treated prior to birth.  Spina bifida, heart problems, blocked urinary tracts, fluid on the brain have been corrected by fetal surgery.  In some cases, doctors can even separate conjoined twins.  The advances in fetal surgery have been incredible.

But genetic testing can also reveal such uncorrectable conditions as Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and mental retardation.  Amniocentesis can show whether a child has sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Tay-Sachs disease.  Scientists are perfecting a genetic test that can reveal up to 3,500 health problems in a developing unborn baby.  The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology now recommends testing for all pregnant women.   Under Obamacare, screenings are offered free of charge.   What if the results are bad?

In our culture, the pressure to abort a less-than-healthy baby can be intense.  It comes from all angles.  The expectant couple must deal with their disappointment and understandable fears of the future.  Physicians who want happy outcomes and are unwilling to deal with the problems of disabled child sometimes push for a mother to end the pregnancy and start again.  Financial concerns also play a role.  Will there be enough, or even any, insurance in the future to cover the medical needs?  With health care becoming a political issue, the availability of coverage for the disabled is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Some even argue that the abortion of the seriously disabled is ethically appropriate and even necessary.  They contend that a child’s lifetime struggles will always outweigh his minimal accomplishments.   They claim that to optimize children’s life choices, parents have a duty to produce children free of defects.  Denmark has set 2030 as its target date for eliminating Down syndrome in the country.  But because Down syndrome is incurable, only killing an unborn carrying the gene will eliminate it.  As society pushes for perfect children, less-than-healthy unborn will be killed.  Some are aborted merely because they have a cleft palate or clubfeet.

Yet amidst all the pressure to abort disabled or diseased unborn babies, there are those people who resist.  Recently, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beuller gave birth to a child with Potter’s syndrome, a genetic defect impeding kidney and lung development.  Expected to survive only a few moments, Abigail was born on July 15th and still lives.  Against severe pressure from doctors, Bernadette and Philip Smith refused to give up on Hannah, born with Edward’s syndrome.  The disease produces kidney, heart and organ disorders; only ten percent reach their first birthday.  Erin and Aaron Ruskamp were devastated to learn that Jude would be born with anencephaly, a brain condition that to some creates the look of a “monster.”  These couples, and many others, ventured forward when others would not.  Why, and how?

They realized that their baby’s life is God’s gift to them, and even more, that God does not give broken gifts.  Whatever their baby’s condition, their child was whole in person and in dignity of soul, neither of which any health condition can ever destroy.   So with thanks in their hearts and faith in God’s ways, they love their babies.  They allowed their love to grow as their unborn babies grew.  And with God’s grace, their love conquered all fear. It was a love so powerful that Bernadette willingly underwent a C-section without anesthesia so that she could make sure that no one took her baby from her.  It is love so deep that a mother would willingly surrender her own life to save her child.

The life of a disabled child might be very short.  For baby Hannah, it was just five years.  For baby Jude, it was only a week.  For others, it will be longer.  But for those who walk the journey with them, it is never long enough.  For as their child’s life becomes part of their own lives, they realize that they have become richer for the experience. Every day is another blessing, an opportunity to experience God’s miraculous hand at work.  And so they accept the risks, embrace the struggles, endure the pain, and walk together with their children into the great unknown.  They can, for they have the right stuff.

We all do.  It’s God’s gift.  Love.  It conquers all.

Paul Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have six kids.

© 2013 Paul V. Esposito.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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