Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The Daily Mail has two articles out this week that caught my attention. The first one is by a mother, writing under the pseudonym Sara Carpenter, who chronicles the heartbreaking story of her unborn son’s diagnosis with spina bifida. She assumed she’d have the child, but then started imagining what his life would be like:
I pictured him watching from the sofa, frustrated and immobile, as his sisters turned cartwheels and somersaults in the living room. I envisaged trips to the park, where he would sit on the sidelines as other children clambered over climbing frames and kicked footballs ... I tried to shake away the image I conjured in my head of a little boy, lonely and friendless, robbed of the most basic human functions.
Notice what a clear, specific image there is of the future. These mental pictures, combined with comments like the one from her sister, who said that Ms. Carpenter should “spare us all the suffering and have a termination” led her to choose to have an abortion at 18 weeks gestation. She writes of the event:
My baby was being forced into the world long before he could survive in it, and it felt unnatural—completely at odds with my instincts as a mother. My body seemed to be doing all it could to hold onto him, and the labour went on and on.
At one point, in the grips of what felt like a panic attack, I became hysterical. Gasping for breath and screaming, I demanded that Andrew tell me why we were doing this and why it was the right thing for our son. He calmly described the kind of life we were trying to spare him from, and that we were loving parents, doing what we felt was best.
In an article listed on the site’s “Related Stories” feature, Elle Editor-in-Chief Lorraine Candy writes about her dilemma about getting sterilized upon the birth of her fourth child. In favor of having the procedure done, she argues:
We know how lucky we are, the toast has landed jam side up for us nearly four times and I don’t want to tempt fate further. I’ve already run the gauntlet of hideous nightmares and fear of Karmic retribution with this fourth pregnancy. ... I’ve cried for each of the high-profile women who’ve miscarried late in pregnancy, sensing only the tip of the iceberg of their pain and then selfishly wondering if I’d be next. I am not emotionally equipped for another nine months of living this fearfully. No, this is it. The last one. The full stop for the chapter marked ‘Pregnancy’.
On the other hand, she considers why she may not want to have the procedure done:
Last week, as I sat in that darkened room looking at a scan of my new child wriggling, the grimmest of ‘what ifs’ flashed through my mind. What if something happened to all my children, what if I lost them in an accident, what if someone took them? Where would I be then: childless and sterile? [...]
The question of sterilization brought all those illogical emotions to the fore for me. It frightened the life out of me, truth be told. It also made me question my own mortality. ... If I am beyond child rearing then I am not young. And I don’t want to think about it, not out of vanity but out of another fear: the limited time I may have left with my babies. I am half way through my average life expectancy, after all.
My heart breaks for both women, especially Ms. Carpenter. What strikes me about both of their stories is just how much fear was the driving force behind their thought processes. I have no doubt that both women love their families, their children, and have truly tried to discern what the best course of action is in these life-and-death dilemmas they have faced. It’s all the more tragic, then, that they seemed held back from even considering the realm of positive outcomes to their situations.
Just last week my children went to a birthday party at which they had so much fun that I have been assured that any of my feeble efforts at celebrations shall no longer be deemed in the same category of the awesomeness they beheld that day. And the joyful guest of honor, with whom they laughed and played and frolicked, was a child with spina bifida, who cannot walk. With Ms. Candy’s situation, there are just as many possible positive outcomes as there are negative: Maybe she would be able to avoid pregnancy through other methods until menopause, and thus avoid the trauma she admitted she’d go through if she were to be surgically sterilized. Or maybe she’d have a surprise pregnancy and the child would have a rich life and would be a tremendous blessing to her family, even if he or she had special needs. Obviously, nobody has a crystal ball one way or the other, but what’s striking is that hope simply did not seem to be part of the equation in either case.
Sadly, I think that decision-making based on fear is increasingly common as secularization sweeps through Western society. Some of the key tenets of the secular worldview are that this world is all there is, suffering is the worst evil, and each person can and should be completely in charge of his or her own destiny. If all of those things are true, then it starts to make sense to imagine the worst case scenario of suffering, and manage your entire life around avoiding it. Without a solid belief in an eternal afterlife, the redemptive nature of suffering, and the sovereignty of a loving God, it is the rare person who can engage in hope-based decision making. And unfortunately I think that women are most exposed to the temptation to let fear control their lives, since there is never more at stake than when we contemplate bringing new life into the world.
In popular culture there’s been plenty of approval of Western society’s increasingly godless worldview, but I think that we haven’t even begun to see the full ramifications of these titanic changes—the first among them being that when God leaves the picture, so does hope.