I took my seat on the crowded airplane and settled in for the long flight. After greeting the woman next to me, I immersed myself in work.
About an hour into the flight, my seatmate and I struck up a conversation. She asked about my destination. Was I flying for business or pleasure? What do I do for work? Any kids?
Then she told me her story.
This woman had gotten married a few years earlier at the age of 41. She and her husband wanted children but when it didn’t happen, they underwent IVF, in vitro fertilization. This entails removing eggs from the woman’s body and combining them with sperm in the laboratory to create embryos. Several days later, these embryos are transferred into the woman’s womb.
During my seatmate’s IVF procedure, three embryos were implanted in her womb with the hope that at least one would survive the process. A few weeks later, she and her husband were shocked to learn that all three had survived. She was pregnant with triplets.
The problem was that the woman neither wanted triplets nor felt her body would deal well with such a pregnancy. In addition, since infant mortality rates are higher for triplet pregnancies than for twins or singletons, she feared that none of the babies would survive if she continued a triplet pregnancy.
Her solution was to undergo a procedure known as selective reduction, which involves aborting some but not all of the babies in utero. Potassium chloride is injected into the baby, killing him/her while leaving one or more babies intact. My seatmate underwent this procedure, reducing the pregnancy from triplets to twins. Months later she gave birth to two healthy babies.
My jaw slacked as I listened to the matter-of-fact way in which she told her story. It was difficult to wrap my mind around the whole concept of a selective abortion. To be honest, I was horrified.
Two years ago, I came across a story of another couple who had faced infertility. They, too, had undergone IVF and, like my airplane seatmate, had conceived triplets.
The husband was overwhelmed by the prospect of three infants, but at the same time he was delighted. His wife was not. She informed her husband that she would not proceed with a triplet pregnancy. In fact, she would not carry twins. Instead, she would undergo selective reduction to reduce the pregnancy from three babies to one, and if he tried to stop her, she would have a complete abortion. There was no room for negotiation.
The husband was heartbroken. Weeks later he watched helplessly as two of his babies were injected with potassium chloride. He saw the babies retreat and push away as the needle entered each amniotic sac, then crumple as it pierced their small bodies. The first baby’s heart stopped immediately but the second baby fought hard against the chemical invader. Before long, however, the second heart was also silenced.
Selective reduction is a natural outgrowth of in vitro fertilization. To maximize the results for an expensive IVF procedure, multiple eggs are fertilized. But what if this produces more embryos than the woman wants implanted? Some couples freeze embryos for future use. Others donate them. Still others are destroyed.
Each option is fraught with moral peril, and our ability to deal with such ethical problems lags far behind our technological skill. Divorcing couples have engaged in bitter custody battles over ownership of frozen embryos. IVF errors have resulted in babies being born to the wrong parents.
And since multiple pregnancies are common with IVF, many couples turn to selective reduction to decrease the pregnancy to a number they find more acceptable. The irony is that many of these parents have gone to great lengths to get pregnant. They just don’t want to be pregnant with so many.
I am not unsympathetic to the plight of these couples. My husband and I also battled infertility. For years, we yearned for a baby, hoped for a baby, prayed for a baby. I know what it is to be so desperate that I would do almost anything for a child.
Almost, but not anything.
These scenarios bear frightening resemblance to Nazi Germany. Nazis convinced themselves that the people whom they were starving and shooting and gassing were untermenschen – subhuman – and therefore could be exterminated without guilt.
The truth is that no one is subhuman. Every human, born or unborn, is made in the image and likeness of God. May we show compassion to all as we pray for God’s mercy.
I wonder if God weeps.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.