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The Truth About Premature Babies and Pro-Life Arguments

January 21, AD2014 8 Comments


As a professional who cares for childbearing losses and as a Catholic who believes in the sacredness of life, I pay very close attention to how the media treats the subject of childbearing and loss.

I am endlessly frustrated that the mainstream media has a near black-out on the topic of perinatal death. Over 50,000 babies between 20-weeks gestation to 28-days of life outside the womb die in the US every year from natural causes, not because of abortion. But you would never know it from the mainstream media.

Likewise, I am frustrated with the way conservative media outlets portray childbearing issues. They are fast to see any story that involves babies as an “abortion-related” story with hopes that it will bolster our argument that all life, and in all circumstances and situations, can and should be saved at all costs. The people reporting often grossly misunderstand the nature of these issues and when they write about them they perpetuate poor misunderstanding and serious error.

Enthusiastic prolife supporters eager to “inform” others click “share” these media reports without understanding the flaws in the story, and the misinformation get regurgitated over and over. This does not help the pro-life cause at all because it “arms” people with seriously flawed arguments, especially on the topic of babies who are born extremely premature. I see these babies routinely.

I understand the inclination to argue that abortion is more wrong if the baby has reached a place of possible viability, and I understand that society has responded to that logic. I understand why some people argue that this helps the pro-life cause. However, there are problems with this line of reasoning, three main ones as I see it.

  • We fall into a dangerous trap where we are tricked into defining 24-weekers as more important and precious than 20-weekers because they have the possibility of survival. Isn’t a main pillar of our belief that they are equally valuable?
  • We overzealously use the “viability” argument of extreme exceptions—exceptions which are at best extreme statistical outliers and at worst fabricated legends—and present them as reasonable expectations.
  • We have tossed around the “24-weekers-can-survive” idea so freely that people mistakenly believe that 24 weeks is “home free” for the baby. Being born at 24 weeks is a serious, dangerous medical condition that is harrowing for the baby and family, and even with perfect medical care nearly half do not survive. For those who do survive it, we rejoice, but we need to never consider it in any casual manner.

For instance, I have read pieces written in the conservative media that use this second error to argue that aggressive treatment should be given to 21-week gestational-aged babies with the unproven theory that they might survive. The trouble is, there is no accepted treatment for a 21-week preemie. It is an unsurvivable condition. Actually most of the time, 21-23+ weeks is unsurvivable, but no one can claim the ability to tell exactly which day of gestation an unborn life becomes viable. It is complex, and requires the expertise of a neonatologist. Period.

For those infants born at the edge of viability where there is any chance or question of survival, they are most often given full neonatal care. It is still impossible to tell from the start who is too premature to live and who will survive so a significant group of babies who get full and thorough care still do not survive. This is, again, a group hardly ever mentioned in the media. Neonatal doctors and nurses are getting really good at transitioning theses babies to competent palliative care once it is clear they cannot survive.

Returning to the way-too-early-to-survive babies, someone might argue, \”We’re just trying to show that these babies are important, if a little exaggerating of their survivability makes a point, what is the harm?\” The harm is that it misleads pregnant mothers and fathers. If it is bandied about in the conservative media that ~21-week babies survive, when their moms come into the hospital imminently delivering a baby this small, they have been told that a treatment is available that simply does not exist.

I have seen this sad situation more times than I would like to recall. The neonatologist professionally and thoroughly explains the limitations of neonatology and how the medical professionals will provide comfort care in preparation for the baby\’s death, and the family is, understandably so, shocked and befuddled after that conversation. Nurses like me are then left to reinforce what was communicated and to review the plan of care. What already is a horrible, painful, and agonizing situation for these parents is made more horrible, more painful, and more agonizing by the media who only told them about “miracle babies” and nothing of the thousands who die.

The exaggerations also harm the medical community. There was a story widely circulated in the conservative media about a 21-weeker born in Britain a few years ago. The baby was born alive and the mom mistakenly believed that if the baby were born alive that s/he would surely survive if only neonatal care were given. The hospital staff were derided in all sorts of ways in the articles and unfairly accused of injustice, incompetence, not caring. Perhaps more destructive than simply maligning people is that the misinformation leads to families developing a distrust of those who are caring for them.

In reality, the staff did nothing wrong. This story was a perfect example of the very sad truth that some babies are born alive who are simply, sadly too premature to survive. If this is something you never knew before reading this article, then our society has failed you as badly, as I fear it has. People are already under-informed about this profoundly important topic and, therefore, it is crucially important for people to understand the full truth about it. There is a danger, a real danger, in making points based on legends and exaggerations.

When our society is courageous enough to openly and somberly learn about the unimaginably difficult reality of perinatal death, we may come to value life even more because we will value even the most precarious and fragile lives that do not survive the most nurtured circumstances, instead of using them like so many pawns in a game. I ask my pro-life friends to commit themselves to understanding the realities of these complicated situations and not to make things worse for families by perpetuating misinformation.

The argument for life is real, complete, compelling and needs no exaggeration. Babies are all miracles and they are all precious, not just the ones who survive extreme premature birth.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Social Justice

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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