I was caught off-guard when the doctor told me that my month-old son was about to be hospitalized. Was he really so sick? I had brought him to the clinic that morning because his cold was not improving; it turned out he had a respiratory virus that was likely to get worse before it got better. I had left my house expecting to be back in time for lunch, but instead it was days before I stepped back through my front door.
Sleeping on a hospital recliner is not comfortable. I was grateful to be close to my baby though, and it was interesting to get an extended look at the Children’s Minnesota hospital, which is quite different from other hospitals I have experienced. The colors are brighter, and community spaces are more abundant. I saw volunteers walking the halls in costume, sometimes carrying animals or musical instruments. The common areas offered a constantly rotating selection of freebies: snacks, T-shirts, playing cards, toiletries. One morning I wandered bleary-eyed into the Ronald McDonald House, and they gave me a cup of coffee and invited me back for dinner. That night the thermostat was 20 below, with a wind chill of minus 50, but the volunteers still showed up promptly at six with enormous trays of food.
It was humbling. The hospitalized child was my fifth baby, but this was the first time I had occasion to see how much my community was willing to do to support sick kids. My own was not sovery sick as to throw our family into crisis, but I was keenly aware of being in a place where others were grappling with immense suffering and grief. If a hot meal was such a godsend to me, I could only imagine that others needed it far more. Compassionate gestures can have a value that far exceeds their monetary worth since they ease the crushing sense of isolation that suffering and illness can impose.
The hospitalized child was my fifth baby, but this was the first time I had occasion to see how much my community was willing to do to support sick kids.
The timing of this experience was interesting. Outside the warm walls of the hospital, the Midwest was enveloped in a polar blast, and the nation was enveloped in a bitter dispute about late-term abortion. As our nation’s judicial landscape changes, blue states are moving pre-emptively to ensure that abortion is readily available to all women, under all circumstances. It is difficult not to react with disgust when the political angles are so obvious and the potential consequences so harrowing. In the heat of political battle, some seem to have fixated on abortion almost as though it were a good in itself. They do not seem to see the child anymore.
But the child is still our best emissary. Babies are experts at instructing us in the preciousness of human life. It is almost impossible to hold one without feeling a strong desire to protect and cherish it. Sitting in that creaky recliner with my infant son, I found myself reflecting on the tremendous contrast between the sort of care he was receiving and the concern that was being directed at other infants of about the same size. He gets balloon animals, lullabies and attentive nurses, while others become bargaining chips in a rancorous social dispute. To be sure, the political battles can be important, but they are likelier to be won when we tap into that same well of compassion that keeps the pantries stocked in the Ronald McDonald House.
In a children’s hospital, a child’s life is of paramount concern. It is the reason the hospital exists, and almost everything doctors and nurses do there implicitly acknowledges the preciousness of young life. At the same time, the homey details speak to something else: the raw and painful emotions that naturally accompany a personal crisis. It is natural that these things should be connected in our effort to care for people. We do not choose whether to minister to the body or the soul, and thoughtful people understand that a child’s distress is not burdensome to him or her alone. The most effective pro-life responses are those that mirror these same insights. We should absolutely cherish all children. As much as possible, though, we need to do it in a way that ennobles their parents and enriches their community. Our advocacy for the unborn will be most effective when we allow it to transform us, making us more compassionate and more humane.
Thoughtful people understand that a child’s distress is not burdensome to him or her alone. The most effective pro-life responses are those that mirror these same insights.
Of course, that means working to ensure that expectant mothers get the medical care they need. It means supporting single parents and families in crisis and trying to revitalize institutions in less prosperous neighborhoods so that struggling parents have somewhere to go when they need help.
And it may mean more than that. If indeed our nation is on the cusp of a new era, when abortion law is settled by legislatures rather than courts, it may be time for pro-lifers to modify their strategy. For decades, the pro-life movement has focused on a single, crucial moral fact: The child is a human being with a right to life. Other points of controversy (contraceptives, artificial reproductive technologies or abstinence-only sex education) were largely pushed to the periphery for the sake of maintaining unity among people of diverse political persuasions. That approach was effective for marshaling opposition to a permissive abortion regime. It may not be as effective for winning the kind of widespread support that we will need to roll back a culture of death in the United States.
In our time, it is important for people to appreciate how opposition to abortion is connected to a broader sexual ethic that underscores the dignity of both women and men. We should not avoid discussion of this sexual ethic for the sake of a more superficial political unity.
It is important for people to understand why someone who opposes abortion might simultaneously oppose commercial surrogacy contracts, despite the fact that surrogacy can be called, in some sense, “pro-life.” If we want babies to be born into situations where they will be welcomed and cherished, we have to have a frank public discussion on every facet of family formation. Pro-life advocacy has shaped the sensibilities of countless young people over the past quarter-century. But Americans who have not participated in the movement, many of whom have their own humbling memories of hot coffee in a Ronald McDonald House, may not grasp the breadth and depth of the pro-life vision. Now is the time to help them see it.
No parent wakes up in the morning hoping for a surprise visit to a children’s hospital. As it happened though, my experience there filled me with hope. Americans still have a great willingness to love and care for children. Now we just need to extend that care to those who need it the most.