When the news broke in the early 1960s about birth defects caused by the drug Thalidomide, I was in high school. I was shocked and alarmed by some of the reactions I heard and read. Some mothers wished they could have aborted their babies; they saw their child with a defect as a curse, a punishment, a life sentence to onerous service. Some women said if abortion were an option, they would get rid of an unborn baby rather than risk having a child with a burdensome defect.
It was frightening. They might have been talking about me.
Abortion, in my case, could have wiped out four generations of productive people.
The reactions of those women made me wonder how people really felt when they looked at me. I was used to strange looks from little children who would point at me and whisper to their parents, or the furtive side glances from adults when they thought I didn’t see them. When I was a little boy, I had seen the look in the eyes of some women when they complimented my mother on how well she was doing with me; it was a look that said, “Thank God my child didn’t turn out that way!” Sometimes those conversations went on as though I could not hear or understand, and there was a subtext to them: How wonderful that you’ve been able to teach him to be independent, so he won’t be a burden to you.
When I started school, there was some bullying and taunting, but I learned how to deflect it. I learned that I could not afford to let what other people thought of my defect matter to me, and by my mid-teens, I thought I was past all that.
Not long ago, I read an article by a well-known woman who had aborted a child during the Thalidomide panic because it might have had a defect. That article brought back some of the old hurt and fears. The woman wrote that she would make the same decision again. Her words reminded me of those years in high school, when I, like every other teenager, was trying to figure out how I fit into this world, and I learned to my horror that some people would never have given me the opportunity to live.
When I was born, there were no ultrasounds, no ways for a couple to know the sex of the child a woman was carrying or whether the baby had a normal, fully developed body. My birth was difficult for my mother. She woke from anesthesia to find her mother and sister sitting somberly by her bedside. They told her that her son was missing one finger on each hand, that his left hand was split like a Y, and that his right foot was similar to that left hand.
My father was across the country in the Navy’s officers candidate school. Alone, my mother wondered what challenges she and he might face in rearing and teaching me. When she was finally able to talk to him, he gave her the right answer: we’ll face them together.
“Together” ended when my father was killed in an accident 21 months later. My mother was left a widow at 24 with a young son who had what people called “a handicap.”
Mom proved wise enough to make sure my life would not be defined by my defect; she taught me how not to be handicapped. She challenged me to learn to use both hands well. We had a country store and service station with her parents. She would toss pennies or nickels on the floor and challenge me to pick them up with my left hand. She saw that I learned how to tie my own shoes very early, to play with a ball and bat like any other boy. Never once did she say, “Oh, you can’t be expected to do that. Let me do it for you.” I learned that the world wasn’t going to change to accommodate my needs. If I could not do things the way others did, my mother taught me, I could find a way of my own.
She set an example by the way she met the challenges in her own life.
Before she met my father during World War II, she had worked as an aviation instrument mechanic at a naval air station, repairing the flight instruments out of Navy planes. She went back to work there after his death. But before many years passed, she realized she was getting little growth out of her work and there was no way to advance; the next higher position in the shop was “leading man.” She quit her secure civil service job, we moved 1,500 miles away to live in my other grandparents’ low-rent basement apartment, and my mother enrolled as a freshman in college at 31 so she could get a degree in something she found rewarding. We lived below the government’s official poverty line during those years. Sometimes I wore hand-me-downs; my Boy Scout uniform belonged to someone else’s son first. But we were blessed, and my mother was such a good manager that I only realized decades later we had been poor. Mom was resourceful and loving enough to deal with my emotional needs and her own too. It was only later that I realized how hard some things had been for her.
After six years, with a master’s degree in sociology and some postgraduate work behind her, she spent the rest of her life counseling and teaching young people. I am a witness to her strength and determination in facing opposition and discrimination when, in my childhood and youth, a single woman did not enjoy many of the legal protections she would today.
When that Thalidomide panic hit, with women lamenting that abortion was not available so they could avoid the possibility of a baby with a deformity, I wondered briefly: Would my mother ever have considered abortion if she had known about my defect? But no, the love she gave me and her commitment to the sanctity of life assured me that it would never have crossed her mind.
Then I wondered about other women who knew me—some who looked on me as one of the challenges my mother faced. If they had seen me in the womb, would they have said, “I can’t keep this baby”?
By the time I began high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I could see that the typing classes my classmates signed up for would not work for me. Between my freshman and sophomore years, my mother’s parents let me borrow the antique typewriter that had belonged to my great-grandfather, and I experimented on it until I had taught myself how to type.
Am I good at typing?
Well, only fair. But it was good enough that I was able to build a career as a writer and editor for a major newspaper, a university, then an international magazine.
I lived for more than 70 years without thinking very much about my birth defect. It is, after all, “normal” for me. Then, after retirement, volunteer work for our church called on me to do presentations before family and school groups. I realized the important messages I was trying to share were not getting through sometimes because my hands were a distraction. I could not ignore it. Often, I would say to a child who was staring or whispering to a parent, “I hope you won’t mind talking about this, but I notice you were born with five fingers. Is that extra finger a problem for you? Does it get in the way?” Most of the time, this would get laughter and we could move on. The child might protest that I was the one who is different. I would answer that some of us are able to handle life with four fingers, but it’s OK if others need five, most of you seem to be able to deal with that extra finger. It was a way of pointing out, with good humor, that we can all be different without one of us being less valuable because of the difference.
I have been fortunate, really. Many children are born with far worse defects than mine. I have always wished for them to have parents who will help them be all they can be. I wish for them a mother and father who will teach them they are capable of handling much more than others believe. I cheer for the parents who give support, get out of the way, and watch their children achieve.
It took great courage for the beautiful young woman I fell in love with to marry me, knowing her children might suffer from or carry my birth defect. Her attitude was that we could handle it together. So far, we have five children, 18 grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters, all with the normal complement of fingers and toes, all contributing individuals or children showing great promise.
Before me, there is no record of the birth defect I carry in my extended family. My mother’s younger brother had six children, three of whom showed the same defect. A few of their children also have inherited it, but the defect has stopped none of them from being contributing members of society.
Some would say I have no right to speak about the issue of abortion because I am, after all, a man and will never know the pains or trials of pregnancy and motherhood. I disagree. When there are voices saying they would abort individuals like me because we could be too much of a burden on them and on society, I have a right to speak up.
It is true that I can never know the pain, confusion, or fear of a young woman or girl pregnant because of someone else’s evil actions. I can’t imagine the emotional trauma of pregnancy after rape and incest. I am not qualified to decide how the victims should deal with this, and I know that decisions on this issue cannot be trusted solely to politicians whose actions are dictated by political winds blowing from the left or right. Laws and medical practices need to be flexible and compassionate enough to deal with the agency and the choices of the victims.
My wife and I are not unfamiliar with health issues in pregnancy. After several children, it was obvious that doctors could not identify or provide a cure for the transient heart problem that had gotten worse with each pregnancy. What would be the effect of another pregnancy? We studied the doctrine of our church on the issue and exercised our faith in prayers to our Heavenly Father. The decision we made about our family size was strictly between us and Him. Government input was not wanted, not needed, and not appropriate.
But absent the aftereffects of victimization or real concerns for the mother’s health, I cannot imagine a justifiable reason for destroying an unborn child.
I cannot bring myself to refer to a baby growing in the womb as a fetus, and it seems that people often do so to depersonalize the child—to treat it as a piece of tissue that can simply be excised.
Debates about abortion often center on when life begins after conception. Those debates are far off the mark. My faith teaches me that inside every one of us is an eternal spirit that lived in the presence of God long before it was given the opportunity to inhabit a mortal body. In this spirit is the essence of what we are—personality and intellect—and when this spirit leaves the body, the body remains behind inert, or what we call dead.
Our Heavenly Father gave mortal men and women the power to be co-creators with Him so that eternal spirits could come to earth to live and learn in mortal bodies. It is impossible for me to believe He would be pleased by mortal parents-to-be (or a mother-to-be) who, having willingly created a mortal home for one of His children, decide that, no, they cannot welcome it after all.
Again, I look at this issue from a very personal viewpoint.
I wish I could speak to women who are unsure, who have not yet decided whether to keep the baby. There are two things I would want to tell you.
First, you are capable of more than you know, and you can do more than you think you can.
Some people could give you a hundred reasons why you should not let the baby be born, especially if it might have a birth defect. They would say you don’t have enough income to support this child the way it will need to be supported, you don’t have the training to handle the issues you will face, the child will wear you down physically and emotionally, you’ll never be able to have the life you wanted to make for yourself, etc.
A lifetime of experience has taught me that they’re wrong.
No one can tell you what your life will be, how hard it may be if you have this child—or if you don’t. With any child, birth defect or no, there will be heartache and difficulty. There will be sacrifice and weariness. But there will also be joy and blessings. The same Heavenly Father who loves you also loves the child, and He will bless both of you in ways seen and unseen, if you ask Him. People who tell you that you can’t do it or that the sacrifice isn’t worth it may be underestimating you. There will be ways to increase income, to handle the issues that arise, to build a life that may not be the one you planned but will still be rewarding. You will find emotional wells and wells of faith that you have not yet tapped. You can do this.
Some may say I am being impossibly idealistic. Perhaps. But my mother taught me never to say “I can’t” until I explored my own capabilities.
Second, you don’t know who or what the child may become.
I had a friend, a botanist and environmentalist, who said the supreme irony would be for us to wipe out the last of some obscure, seemingly useless plant and then discover it had been the cure for cancer all along. Stories of intelligent people who have achieved great things even though they have imperfect bodies are numerous. You’ve seen them.
But if your child doesn’t rise to that level—if he or she is not physically or emotionally capable—then what?
I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. I’m confident there will be lessons to learn and blessings to receive, for both you and the child. After nearly eight decades, I still don’t fully understand why it was important in my mortal experience for me to be born with only four fingers on each hand. There are still lessons for me to learn.
But if you feel you absolutely cannot handle this child, you know there are options other than eliminating the baby. There are people who would gladly take it if you let it live. Through some adoption agencies, you can help pick the parents and even be involved in other decisions about the child’s future.
You will know that what is growing inside you is not simply a piece of tissue to be removed and discarded. You will feel it move, feel its will to live.
So please, if you can find it in your heart to do so, give the child a chance.