By Courtney Grogan
Pope Francis said Saturday that abortion is never the answer to difficult prenatal diagnoses, calling selective abortion of the disabled the “expression of an inhuman eugenics mentality.”
“Fear and hostility towards disability often lead to the choice of abortion, configuring it as a practice of ‘prevention,’” Pope Francis said May 25.
“But the Church’s teaching on this point is clear: human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective purposes must be strongly discouraged because it is the expression of an inhuman eugenics mentality, which removes the possibility for families to accept, embrace and love their weakest children,” he said.
The pope addressed a Vatican conference on perinatal hospice highlighting medical care and ministries that support families who have received a prenatal diagnosis indicating that their baby will likely die before or just after birth.
“Yes to Life: Caring for the precious gift of life in its frailness,” a conference organized by the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life May 23-25 brought together medical professionals, bioethicists, ministry providers, and families from 70 countries to discuss how best to provide medical, psychological, and emotional support for parents expecting a child with a life-limiting illness.
“Sometimes people ask me, what does perinatal hospice look like? And I answer, ‘It looks like love,’” author and mother Amy Kuebelbeck shared at the conference.
Kuelbeck was 25 weeks pregnant when she received the diagnosis that her unborn son had an incurable heart defect. She carried her pregnancy to term and had a little more than 2 hours with her son, Gabriel, before he died after birth.
“It was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” Kuelbeck said. She wrote a memoir of her experience of grief, loss, and love called “Waiting with Gabriel: A Story of Cherishing a Baby’s Brief Life.”
“I know that some people assume that continuing a pregnancy with a baby who will die is all for nothing. But it isn’t all for nothing. Parents can wait with their baby, protect their baby, and love their baby for as long as that baby is able to live. They can give that baby a peaceful life – and a peaceful goodbye. That’s not nothing. That is a gift,” Kuelbeck wrote in “Waiting with Gabriel.”
Dr. Byron Calhoun, a medical professor of obstetrics and gynecology, who first coined the term “perinatal hospice” spoke at the conference. His research has found that allowing parents of newborns with a terminal prenatal diagnosis the chance to be parents can result in less distress for the mother than pregnancy termination.
Many families facing these diagnoses have to decide if they will seek extraordinary or disproportionate medical care for their child after birth.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.”
Ministries like Alexandra’s House, a perinatal hospice in Kansas City, provide counsel and grief support to parents as they face these difficult medical decisions. They also connect families with a network of other parents who have had a terminal prenatal diagnosis. “Most of the families stay in contact indefinitely,” said MaryCarroll Sullivan, nurse and bioethics advisor for the ministry.
There are now more than 300 hospitals, hospices, and ministries providing perinatal palliative care around the world.
Sister Giustina Olha Holubets, a geneticist at the University of Lviv, helped to found “Imprint of Life” a perinatal palliative care center in Ukraine that offers grief accompaniment, individualized birth plans, the sacrament of baptism, and burial, as well as respectful photos, footprints, and memory books to help families cherish their brief moments with their child.
The motto of Imprint of Life is “I cannot give more days to your life, but I can give more life to your days.”
Pope Francis met with Sister Giustina and other perinatal hospice providers in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on the last day of the conference.
The pope thanked them for creating “networks of love” to which couples can turn to receive accompaniment with the undeniable practical, human, and spiritual difficulties they face.
“Your testimony of love is a gift to the world,” he said.
“Taking care of these children helps parents to mourn and to think of this not only as a loss, but as a step in a journey together. That child will stay in their life forever, and they will have been able to love him,” Pope Francis said.
“Those few hours in which a mother can lull her child can leave a mark on the heart of that woman that she will never forget,” he said.