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The Truth About Premature Babies and Pro-Life Arguments

January 21, AD2014 8 Comments

\"Tammy

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.

Filed in: Life, Social

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz has been a Nurse for 28 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 9 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. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild.

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  • John Darrouzet

    Outstanding! What a contribution to telling what is really happening! Your post deserves wide reading. I will do my best to promote it.

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  • Mary Kellett

    Hi Tammy, I liked your article. You brought up some good points that are valid. But let’s not forget the flip side in that there are many times, especially with kids like my Peter who had trisomy 18 and lived 6 1/2 years, families are not told of treatment options or even offered them. The honesty has to go both ways for all life to be truly respected and valued. Clear, accurate, complete information offered in a compassionate, non judgmental way in all cases will go a long way in supporting families at a very challenging time in their lives and promoting the truth about the gift and value of every life. Being truly pro-life recognizes the gift of every life and then helps support that life to reach it’s God-given potential. Many of the families I work with at Prenatal Partners for Life have been discriminated against in the treatment offered their child with special needs. If they find out before birth something is wrong, they are often pressured to abort, if they refuse and have the baby they are often pressured not to treat their child but as we were told to” wrap him in a blanket and let him go.” As you challenge your 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,” I challenge all medical professionals to do the same. Let’s all work together to foster a true and honest culture of life! God bless you Tammy in your work!

    • NurseTammy

      For anyone who has never heard of Mary Kellett’s organization “Prenatal Partners for Life” I encourage you to go to her website and familiarize yourself with it – she does great work.

      What Mary shares here might at first glance look like a disagreement, but its not. She experienced Physicians giving her information with their opinions heavily influenced by them having set ideas about her sons diagnosis and being unwilling to see him as a unique and valuable person.

      I proposed that truth is what was needed in the conundrums that I presented and truth was the solution for the challenges that Mary’s family faced when her son was born with a serious condition. In both cases, agenda fueled misinformation hurts people and pushes a wedge between families and caregivers.

      I think that too often truth is skewed because we dont respect people enough to make good decisions if we tell them the truth so we exaggerate to push them in the direction we want them to go. My families deserve the truth and the families Mary works with do too. Lets not be afraid of the truth (it sets us free after all !)

  • NurseTammy

    In discussing this article with my friends, I interacted with someone dear to me who lost a 20 weeker. I told her that one of my goals in bringing this topic out into the open is that when this happens to someone, that they not get a call from a well intentioned but misinformed person who would say something like “I saw somewhere on the internet that some baby lived at 21 weeks, couldn’t they do something for your baby?” It would be best if people (even in the midst of heartbreak) understood that the “something” that we can give to our 21 & 22 weekers is baptism, love and presence.

  • Melissa

    They told us at 20 weeks that our baby wasn’t growing normally and would not survive. We made it to 24 weeks, at which point they told us that she would be dead in 24 hours. We talked to a doctor in the NICU who explained our options and the percentages (our daughter was 24 weeks but only estimated to weigh 14 ounces). They told us that if she could make it to 1 pound her chances went from “one in a million” to about 50/50. We decided to wait a little longer to see if she would grow but her heart stopped a few days later. She was stillborn at 25 weeks and weighed 11.8 ounces. It breaks my heart whenever I hear about a “miracle baby” that was born under a pound and survived. Did we make the right decision or should we have tried to have that “miracle baby” who survived the one in a million shot? The only comfort that I have is that our daughter went to sleep, warm and comfortable with her mommy and daddy there with her. Having the news report that 24 weeks is survivable and having people point it out and want to know why they couldn’t do anything for our daughter is horrible, It breaks my heart every time I hear it.

    • NurseTammy

      Melissa, Im so sorry that you suffered that loss. +]:o(
      Your pain is palpable in your words.

      Your story about how people “point out” the fact that some 24 weekers live is a good example of people having just enough information to be dangerous. I seriously doubt that any of them ever tried to start an IV on an 11 oz baby or witnessed any of the difficulties that NICU babies endure.

      It is not a kindness when (after a death) people second guess us.( I say this as a woman whose husband died from a complication of strep throat). In reality people say this stuff because they want to convince themselves that we / they have control over such awful things and you and I can both attest to the fact that we don’t have control over all the harsh things that life can throw our way.

      I believe that God whispers into the ears of parents and helps them make the best choices. You did a valiant job of parenting in a very hard circumstance. I hope that you can eventually come to admit to yourself that you did a good job and your daughter was blessed to have you as parents. I describe the experience of stillbirth for the baby as “going from a warm soft place to a warm soft place” Blessings to you.

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