Finding out that an expected baby has been diagnosed with a birth defect can be devastating. But for many parents, even when the diagnosis is a fatal one, these babies are still loved, wanted, and valued. Anencephaly is one such diagnosis that almost always leads to death not long after birth, and requires compassion and empathy. Yet an article recently published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, a medical journal published by the American College of Physicians, shows an appalling lack of sensitivity, as a doctor describes a baby with anencephaly using dehumanizing and offensive language.
The Annals of Internal Medicine is one of the most well-respected and and influential medical journals in the world. This month, it published an article from an anonymous doctor who discussed why women who have babies with anencephaly “need” abortion. The doctor begins by describing a patient who was at the time “so pregnant her belly is huge” with a wanted baby which had no brain or skull.
“You wait for the patient to break the silence,” the doctor wrote. “The baby’s heartbeat trots through the monitors while you softly hold her gaze. Her eyes plead with you. End it. You talk to the obstetricians, because eventually it will end. But nobody will do it. Not in this state. Not in this hospital. And so, the mother goes home, pregnant and grieving.”
After a few days, the mother went into labor, and returned to the hospital to visit the same doctor. “The baby is born with no skull, eyes like gumballs too big for their sockets. Alive, briefly. It hurts to look. Grotesque is all you can think, but you cannot say it,” the doctor wrote, continuing, “She cannot see the deformed creature she birthed, because once seen it cannot be unseen. It doesn’t last long, these precious but vulnerable moments. Gently, the baby dies. He is warm, whole, and not alone.”
She will walk out of the hospital with breasts swollen and weeping for her dead child. Her hips loose and large will force her pants to tug. She will struggle with her gait for weeks, punctuating loss in the waddle of each step, until, gradually, she retires her maternity pants and her steps become firm, upright, and forward.
The doctor concludes by talking about the need for compassion and dignity, because some women don’t have access to abortion, but concludes, “You’ve enabled false hopes, not for cures but for time to bond, hope, and heal. It is the parents you are healing. The hopes false. All these children died in the end.”
There’s no denying the difficulty of a situation like this, giving birth to a child who will almost certainly die soon afterwards. But how would abortion have improved the situation? Judging by the doctor’s description, the mother was in her third trimester, and a late-term abortion would have taken days. It would have changed nothing — not the timing of ending her pregnancy or the grief she felt. And instead of the baby dying, as the doctor said — warm, whole, and not alone — he would have died a violent, terrible death.
It’s not unusual for abortion advocates to present abortion as a “solution” to a birth defect or disability, and parents who have gone through similar experiences have said they were pressured to choose abortion or shamed for choosing life. Meanwhile, countless parents who have given birth to children with anencephaly have spoken candidly about the difficulty and grief they had to endure, but also about the love they felt for their babies, and the purpose their lives had.
In addition to treating abortion as if it was a necessary treatment for anencephaly, this doctor uses dehumanizing language to describe a child. Describing a human being as “grotesque” and “deformed creature” just because of a disability or a birth defect is horrifying coming from anyone, but it’s especially galling from a doctor. In addition to being dehumanizing, such language is hurtful and insulting to the countless families who have had children with anencephaly, who loved and valued them, and who saw them as beautiful babies deserving of love and affection. This raises the question of how often this doctor would speak this way about not only children with anencephaly, but any other children diagnosed prenatally with disabilities.
Every human life has value and meaning, even if that life may include disability or only last for a short amount of time. And for a doctor, of all professions, to ignore that and dehumanize someone in such an awful, abhorrent way is unacceptable — and it’s even worse that such an attitude is evidently embraced and viewed as acceptable by one of the most well-respected medical journals in the world.
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