PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The adverse prenatal diagnosis that their baby was missing parts of her brain and skull inspired Rony and Sonia Morales to name her Angela.
“She would be our angel, our Angela. We thought she was going to heaven right away,” Sonia said in October, tearing up at the memory of the heartbreaking diagnosis of anencephaly in her third trimester — and how the staff at Providence’s Women and Infants Hospital had suggested an abortion. “Two weeks before delivery, I learned that Angela means ‘Messenger of God.’
The couple was determined to trust God with their baby’s life.
“They told us she had fatal birth defects, that she was incompatible for life, because babies with her birth defect sometimes are stillborn or die just after birth,” Sonia recalled. “They gave her no chance. We had three ultrasounds that confirmed the diagnosis. They used the word ‘terminate,’ but for us, that meant abortion — killing our child.”
Their hope was well-founded: Sonia told their story to the Register as she cuddled tiny Angela, 6 1/2 months old, who weighed more than 14 pounds, just before Columbus Day.
The Morales continued to see an opportunity to take care of their child in the womb and beyond.
“I came home [after the diagnosis] with a piece of paper with ‘anencephaly’ written on it,” Sonia said. “We had wanted a boy after having a girl. We laughed when I told him we were having another girl. Then I told him about the diagnosis, and we started crying.”
The news was devastating for the couple, who had been thanking God for months for the gift of another baby, but they did their best to cling to their faith.
“I was crying every day because I was feeling her moving inside me. She was alive — but they gave her a death sentence,” Sonia said. “My husband cried, too, but he told me that I shouldn’t cry all the time because she will feel our sadness. We felt that God had a mission for us to be [voices] for the life of our baby and all the others like her.”
Power of Love and Prayer
They turned to prayer, as they always had, concentrating on devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and praying for the special intercession of the Child Jesus, Virgin Mary and St. John Paul II.
The doctors discounted the family’s reports that Angela was alive and kicking in her womb and that she responded when Sonia, Rony and their daughter, Elizabeth, age 5, sang to her.
“I have a baby who is giving me strong kicks who has no chance of survival?” Sonia asked her physicians. “The doctors said, ‘She is only living because she is attached to you; it is only a reflex.’ God gave us the child that we wanted, and we were going to love her despite her condition.”
With her due date nearing, Sonia, Rony and Elizabeth visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, Mass., to light a candle and pray for the delivery. They also shared special family moments.
“I tried to make so many memories of her when she was inside me,” Sonia said. “For us, she was the perfect baby.”
That is exactly the correct approach that parents with adverse prenatal diagnoses should take, said Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a non-sectarian medical organization.
“Let the parents be parents,” Harrison said. “He or she deserves the same care any human being deserves. ‘Incompatible with life’ is completely wrong. This is a way in which social eugenics creeps into medical terminology. These are social-ideological descriptions.”
Even the best medical technology can provide doctors an unclear picture of what is happening prenatally to a child with an adverse diagnosis, said Dr. Byron Calhoun, a diplomat of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a staff leader for the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates.
“There is very little information on these cases,” Calhoun said. “You can’t tell until you get the baby out. At best, you have an idea, a description (from ultrasound, CT scans).”
Harrison, who is in practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist in Eau Claire, Mich., said the association has 2,500 physician members. The association incorporated in 1975 in response to the Roe v. Wade decision and is growing in membership.
“We take the Hippocratic Oath seriously,” Harrison said.
Of the Morales’ decision to resist their doctors’ recommendation to abort, she responded, “They are willing to lay down their life in love for their child. That is inspirational.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life said that loving actions such as the Morales’ have far-reaching effects.
“When parents resist that pressure from doctors, they are literally helping to save the medical profession from the corrosive effects of legal abortion, reminding doctors that they are supposed to care for life, not kill it,” he said. “Moreover, such parents spare themselves from a lifetime of damage from abortion. It’s one thing to lose one’s child; it’s quite another to kill him or her. Parents who love children who may only live for a short time in or outside the womb understand that the value of life is not measured in hours, days or weeks, but, rather, is seen in the love given and received during whatever time God gives us.”
Mary Kellet, founder of Prenatal Partners for Life, based in Maple Grove, Minn., knows firsthand about the love brought by special babies.
In her case, her son, Peter, one of 11 siblings, was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome, a chromosomal condition associated with abnormalities in many parts of the body.
On day two of his life, a test revealed the difficult diagnosis.
“At that time, it was recommended to us that we stop all treatment, wrap him up in a blanket and let him die,” Kellet said. “We were told he would lead a life of terrible pain and suffering and would never know us or respond to us.” The family was told that babies with the condition do not live beyond two weeks and that most people abort them.
But subsequent research by the Kellet family found that some children born with Trisomy 18 live into their 30s. Kellet asked her doctor why “he lied.” He answered, “Well, we have to think about resources, and you know Peter will never be able to contribute to society and will be a horrible burden to your family.”
Peter lived for six and a half years — and was a blessing to his family in that special time.
“We [as a society] care more about money and convenience, and we are not seeing through to the real gift of these kids,” Kellet said. “He made his family and everyone else who knew him better people. That's what these precious kids do who have disabilities like Down syndrome or Trisomy 18. Over 90% of these kids are aborted and will never have the chance to experience the love of their families and help us be more compassionate, loving people.”
An Angel Is Born
Angela was baptized 20 minutes after birth. Two days later, she was discharged and sent home with her parents and hospice nurses.
The Morales were contacted by “My Child … My Gift,” a Catholic peer ministry in the Diocese of Providence that supports families in such circumstances. The group, in turn, asked Dr. Sheila Kuzmic of Westerly, R.I., a pediatrician, to visit baby Angela.
“When I saw Angela, I was immediately taken aback and shocked by the appearance of the open skull and protruding encephalocele at the infant’s skull,” Kuzmic said. “The top one-third of the skull was not there.”
Kuzmic — whose own daughter, Mary Grace, 18, was diagnosed with cognitive brain dysfunction after an ultrasound at 30 weeks and has defied the odds — was amazed by the young mother.
“She told me that when she treated the opening in Angela’s skull, ‘I am bathing and cleansing the crucified body of Jesus,’” Kuzmic said. “I was also amazed at how naturally calm and lovingly this family cared for and nurtured Angela, despite the physical anomaly. Angela was loved, breast-fed and cared for like any other mother would nurture her newborn.”
Kuzmic was Angela’s advocate, obtaining needed prescriptions to treat her infections when the family’s pediatrician wasn’t returning Sonia’s calls.
Angela continues to thrive, gaining weight and slowly meeting milestones that most doctors would not have imagined: rolling over, smiling, rooting and cooing, Kuzmic said.
Kuzmic also advocated to find a surgeon to close the opening in Angela’s head.
“I wanted Sonia to see and experience Angela in a way that was not so shocking,” Kuzmic said.
The Morales’ parish, Our Lady of Fatima in Providence, rallied around them with generous donations, which were needed because the family’s insurance company would not cover the surgery because of the diagnoses of “pre-existing anencephaly” and “not compatible with life.”
The family was referred to a neurosurgeon, who removed the encephalocele and closed her scalp with her remaining hair. Angela’s surgery was successful and paid for in full.
John DiComello, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, finds the story of baby Angela inspiring.
“It is striking — the pressure that patients and their families are under today, in the current medical culture, to push the ‘easy’ option,” he said, referring to abortion.
The Morales’ “decision is a reflection of acting for the true good of the child — and for them, that trust in faith that they have to do the right thing.”
Father Pavone agreed: “In short, aborting the child will bring grief that lasts a lifetime. Loving that child will bring sweet memories that last a lifetime.”
Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Warwick, Rhode Island.
Sonia Morales has created a Facebook page for those interested in Baby Angela and issues related to adverse prenatal diagnoses: Facebook.com/ourbabyangela