Beth Hutchinson stands with her son, Richard, last fall. For a time, Richard – born when his mother was just 21 weeks pregnant – was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most premature baby to live. (Photo by Joe Winter)
Editor’s note: In this column, Joe Winter writes about Richard Hutchinson, who was born when his mother was 21 weeks pregnant. He weighed 11 ounces at birth. Winter covered the story for the Feb. 17 issue of the Catholic Herald.
Pro-life is pro-life. But where life, and God, lead us can make it a journey to come to that full understanding.
Because most all the existential and spiritual questions in life indeed revolve around, and start with, the pro-life dynamic.
This situation has been a deep and lifelong concern of mine, on both an intellectual and spiritual and even personal level, and the story I reported recently on preemie baby Richard’s unlikely survival has taken what had been a gradual evolution and raced it forward, to fully embrace all of life’s forms even if – and this has always gnawed at me –possibly large costs could be perceived by some people.
I have a severe form of Tourette Syndrome and have had a taste of more than one type of intolerable pain, from muscle cramping to depression to a crazily racing mind. For people like me, suicide is not uncommon, as many of us are empathic to a fault. So I have a major hurdle stemming from what I’ve seen among people at things like support groups, and cringe at the thought of people being born into this situation. But I also cringe, even more, at the thought of abortion.
But that little Somerset child, who was given a zero-percent chance of survival but is now thriving, brought an uneasy conclusion to my thinking on being universally pro-life. It has been a journey. But seeing that child, now over a year old, cooing and smiling, stamped a final perspective on me.
I and other people begin to see that there are no absolutes in the field of medicine, about when it is used to determine what will be someone’s quality of life, or their life at all. Especially when what can broadly be termed “disabilities” are brought into the picture. Babies survive and grow against all (medical) odds, as only one example. A rare circumstance, in all probability, but being more and more legitimized by what we see happening around us. Likewise, with my Tourette’s, I have seen this scenario full bore, that what is medically impossible happens from time to time. To wrongly discount the impossible as something that can never occur, and basing our ethics and what doctors can be allowed to do solely on that, is so to speak (and not to be glib), throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
All possibilities, no matter how unlikely, have to be taken into account when we make the choice on whether, if ever, to discontinue life. First, do no harm. Again, I bring into the picture what’s called Super Tourette or Tourette-plus, afflicting the most extreme 2 percent of those with the disorder, and called by the most celebrated researcher in this field, the late neurologist Oliver Sacs, as the cruelest and most unusual, and complex, condition he has seen. Again, throw out the rule book about what’s possible, when setting the limits of our bioethics concerning the choice for living or dying. An addition that I am making with my final edit of this column – anything is possible with God.
So, no absolutes concerning if a person could ever recover or not, and never say never, as far as things like literally choosing to pull the plug on someone to end their life. Give a big preferential option, as has been so justly done in the past by people in our faith concerning the poor, and extend that to the needs of people of all walks of life who are on an extreme with their medical situation. There are exceptions to the rule of what could be seen as scientifically logical when it comes to life decisions.
Concerning baby Richard, this is several times now that I have seen such impossibilities come full circle, in my admittedly sporadic watching of the TV news, then play out in the game of life. This last time around, it swayed my thinking even more.
There are many manifestations of how I got to the point of saying in all its fullness, pro-life is pro-life.
This journey had continued, through God’s providence, even as I was choosing words for this column. I met up with a friend at Green Mill, and she and her husband had been told their child would likely not survive or have any normal quality of life … but here he is. A server came past the table, heard the conversation, then relayed that much the same had happened with her. There was surgery on the child, who was born without certain organs in the chest, or they were not fully formed, but it was successful, and the only remnant of that past time is a wide scar across the side of the waist.
Years back, I was watching television with my deeply Catholic mother-in-law and my wife when a story came on about a boy who was killed after horrific child abuse. The others were, even more than I, appalled by the boy’s treatment, and I told them this child would have been better off not being born. They discounted that to a degree, to which I suggested people could have seen such a death coming, based on the family situation. The others, provoking further thought, said that such assumptions cannot be universally made. We agreed that an open dialogue can help people grow in their thinking.
There was a Menomonie teenager who was in a similar situation, then died. But in the last months, he was befriended by a true friend, and this was the joy in his life that allowed him to keep keeping on. Ending his suffering by whatever means at an earlier stage would have denied both of them that beautiful companionship.
So what if … What if this approach to prevent suffering had been taken with baby Richard? Or so many others? Or even Jesus Christ?
Communication about these situations is vital and literally life and death, said Richard’s mother Beth, and they can draw on its value by their own experience – and thus be in an even better position to help other families.
On a more personal note … I was driving toward the Twin Cities for a family function when the depression hit and became unbearable, but only temporarily, as is so often the case – and if we just tough it out a bit longer, our cross passes us until we need to take it up again. A thought hit and lingered as I was going up the up ramp, and I was close to suicide to take away my pain, and maybe it was melodramatic and pompous: “I have so much to offer that come what may, and at what cost, I have to find a way to continue with life.”
A select few other times, the pain overwhelmed me and I had the thought, “If this doesn’t clear in the next minute, I will have no choice but to take my life.” But you know what? It again, against all odds, went away in a few seconds, due to God’s grace and the power of prayer.
Just ask baby Richard’s parents about that aspect.