Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Healthy skepticism

Remember the news story a couple months ago about the pregnant woman with undetected melanoma who was brain-dead from a cancer-related stroke? And her husband kept her body on life support so she could continue serving as an incubator? Well, that body has now undergone a C-section at roughly 26 weeks of gestation, and a baby weighing 1 lb., 13 oz. and 13.5 in. long has been born. According to a news article, "the baby appears healthy, said the girl's uncle." A lot of 26-weekers do start out on ventilators, so perhaps already the baby (named Susan after her quasi-late mother) resembles her mother. It's expected that adult Susan's life support will be turned off soon, and her widower can move his vigil from her hospital room to baby Susan's NICU. While the uncle describes the baby as "healthy," she's likely to remain hospitalized for a good 3 months or so (many preemies stay in the NICU until they are close to their original due date; those with complications may stay longer).

The idea of keeping a body nominally "alive" for months (about 3 months in this case) to gestate a fetus gives me the willies. Yes, I have sympathy for the family that has suffered a terrible tragedy, but it seems like a precariously slippery slope to walk out on without a better pair of cleats. Predictably, the National Pro-Life Action Center issued a statement last night, saying in part: "This has reaffirmed the incalculable value and sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death." If it makes sense for a woman whose brain has ceased working at 15 weeks of gestation to have others decide to use her body as an incubator (her husband says this is what she would have wanted, and that may well be), it's not that far a stretch for others to decide that a healthy woman in the early second trimester of pregnancy should also continue serving as a vessel, whether or not she wants to.

I suspect some of you think I'm completely wrong on this, but that's my two cents' worth.

6 comments:

DocLarry said...

Heard this story on CBS Evening News last night. My wife immediately commented, "Science and medical know-how has outstripped common sense." We're childless by choice, so I can't pretend to know what the father is going through. But in my gut I think this is just wrong. Just because we can doesn't mean we should.

Emma Goldman said...

Depends on what principle we're following here. Part of the principle in play in the Schaivo mess was that her husband claimed that (a) she was brain-dead and (b) she would not have wanted to live in that condition. Her family contested (a), of course, though clearly from the realm of wishful thinking rather than the realm of fact; they occasionally contested (b), too, but their whole case primarily rested on contesting (a).

In this case, no one is contesting (a), we're merely wondering the (b) conditions here--would she have wanted to incubate the child? If so, then her husband is respecting her wishes as well as his own desires (presumably, on the latter), and, squicky though the case is in some ways, it still maintains a certain amount of autonomy for the mother. The cases that are more problematic to me are the ones where people are ignoring the wishes of the mother. Of course i disagree completely with the Anti-Choice action center's position: what it reaffirms is the importance of respecting our right to make choices about reproduction and the importance of honoring those choices.

bitchphd said...

Did you see Twisty Faster (I blame the patriarchy)'s post on this subject? I made essentially the same argument Emma did--that it's a private decision between the woman, now dead, and her husband. But Twisty convinced me that your position, Orange, is the correct one. And the outcome--a very fragile preemie--supports that case: *maybe* the baby will be okay, but to maintain a dead body as an incubator only in order to extract a very fragile and high-risk fetus, is pretty sick. I have no doubt that the father is thrilled to death with his new little girl, and will love her madly; I would in his situation. But it's still a pretty upsetting situation.

Orange said...

Dr. B, I just read Twisty Faster's post from a couple weeks ago. Interesting conversation in the comment thread over there.

Additional points I neglected to mention above: The Torres family already included a 2-year-old son. Though the melanoma hadn't yet invaded the placenta, the new baby may face roughly a 20% risk of the cancer that killed her mama—man, I sure hope this guy doesn't end up facing a second cancer death in the family. And good gravy, how much therapy might you need to grapple with the fact that, biologically, your mother died months before you were even born?

the nut said...

So I've been thinking of commenting or not because sure this was a private decision that should have (and was thank goodliness) been made with the father/family. But keeping a woman alive on life support just to "give birth" to a high-risk fetus creeps me out. I feel like we're entering in a new realm of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or something.

You see, I can just imagine the Handmaids Tale coming into reality if the human incubator style is practiced more often. What would really stop them from making women who are alive and walking do the same thing?

Which is what Orange's point was, I think.

Mary Ann Steinacker-Grimm said...

Wow! Thank you, thank you! Recently I have been conducting "research" to see what other people are reading, thinking, blogging...and questioning the idea of blogs themselves. Now you have answered one question: what are other people reading! I would never have known about that article (I have a 2 month old-my time is limited) and am amazed at what science can do! How wonderful! What a fantastic concept. Maybe Susan died, but her daughter lives on. Perhaps she will have some difficulties, but what a gift of life her mother gave her. Let me go get my tissue box....