Recently a friend advised me that St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in London, Ontario, Canada, was providing something called "early induction of labor" for expectant mothers based on physician claims, such as the one voiced 24 years ago, that if the preborn child was not delivered early, the mother would die.
The news reports went on to comment that since that first case the hospital had been doing early inductions for a narrow set of reasons such as "when the fetus has a lethal anomaly, a situation that poses grave risks for the mother and child."
I immediately became concerned, as this was not the first such case that had come to our attention involving a Catholic hospital. At the center of this particular controversy is Father Michael Prieur, a medical ethics advisor, a theologian and the man responsible for making recommendations in seriously difficult cases such as the question of whether or not early induction should be done.
What troubled me about the news report, which was published in a secular newspaper, was the idea that somehow the fact that LifeSite News was a bit fanatical because they had reported on this and argued that early induction was tantamount to abortion. The newspaper said,
"On Dec. 11, 2008, LifeSite ran an explosive story under the headline: 'Exclusive: Twenty Years of Eugenic Abortion at Ontario Catholic Hospital.'"
It purported to out a practice it claimed "had been condemned as illicit by the U.S. Bishop Doctrinal Committee and called 'direct abortion' by the [American] National Catholic Bioethics Center." The article encouraged readers to voice their protest to Rome and to Bishop Fabbro, who oversees the diocese where St. Joseph's hospital is located.
The charge of "eugenic abortion" was especially nasty, because it implied the hospital was eliminating children with Down syndrome or some other non life-threatening condition that renders the child less than perfect.
The newspaper appeared to defend the decisions Father Prieur had made, suggesting that because he had received awards from the Catholic Health Association, and had travelled abroad attempting to obtain a consensus from other theologians, his decision should not be challenged by LifeSiteNews, or anyone else, for that matter. One priest who also sits on the St. Joseph's ethics board claimed that some pro-lifers come to a "premature conclusion and judgment" by calling the procedure abortion.
He explained that the action is not directly killing the child but rather, "It is an action that is trying to recognize that the life of this child is dying and we're trying to support that process in a natural way and balance that with the complications to the health of the mother."
Bishop Fabbro appears to concur in this matter according to what he advised the National Post. The newspaper further claims that the policies in Canada are similar to those that govern U.S. hospitals, with one exception. At St. Joseph's in Canada, an early induction can be performed in the mother appears to be suicidal, while in the USA that is not a sufficient reason to take the preborn child's life early.
But a nagging question prevails as I study this question. I remember our first experiences with early induction, and how we came to the aid of Alaska Right to Life in their efforts to expose the same sort of practice that was occurring in Providence Hospital six years ago. In that particular explosive situation, Alaska Right to Life and Bishop Roger Schweitz were at odds over the very same question. At the time, it was Tom Szyszkiewicz who exposed the problem in a full report, which he wrote for Our Sunday Visitor. His thorough report was referenced by Jill Stanek and others who were as troubled with the situation as yours truly.
Not only was the Catholic hospital in Alaska found to be doing the same sort of termination but Szyszkiewicz's investigative work also uncovered a similar situation at Loyola Health System in Chicago. What's interesting about the Alaska case is that the struggle between Alaska Right to Life and the offices of Bishop Schweitz went on until early last year when the bishop and Alaska Right to Life reunited through a prayer service. It seems that after all the debate, Providence Hospital announced publicly that it no longer does early inductions, though the protocol for investigating whether or not the procedure can be done remains in place.
In the midst of all this gruesome discussion about a medical action that, regardless of what you call it, results in a dead baby, a baby killed before birth, I reviewed what the medical ethics experts I respect had to say on this subject. One of them, Nancy Valko, R.N. wrote
Induction itself carries serious risks to both mother and infant. As a May 2003 editorial in the American Family Physician journal states, even elective induction delivery near or post term "is not without potential risks, including iatrogenic prematurity, uterine hyperstimulation, nonreassuring fetal heart-rate tracing, and greater likelihood of operative delivery [C-section], shoulder dystocia, and postpartum hemorrhage."
In addition, Valko makes a very crucial point,
Emotionally, the diagnosis of a lethal or any serious anomaly in an infant is a distressing moment for parents whether this occurs before or after birth. There is a normal grieving process as the parents face the reality of the loss of the "perfect baby" they had imagined. When a birth defect is deemed lethal, parents must also eventually prepare for the death of that child. When such a baby is still in utero, there is a natural tendency to want to "get it over with" rather than endure well-meaning comments from strangers and imagine a sadly different labor and delivery weeks or months in advance. However, the natural grief of losing a child cannot be avoided, and it is by no means clear that waiting an additional two to four months before the pregnancy is terminated rather than waiting for natural delivery will substantially decrease maternal distress. To my knowledge, supporters of early induction have not cited studies supporting their contention that early induction can be psychologically beneficial.
Add to this the comments made by Rev. Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro, the Rome Director of Human Life International and a Doctor of Dogmatic Theology. When LifeSiteNews told Msgr. Barreiro about the situation at St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in Ontario, Canada, he said,
"These guidelines claim that it morally permitted to practice early induction after viability of the child, when there are severe and even life-threatening circumstances affecting the child in the womb. The first question we should ask is, is this early induction going to have a therapeutic effect on the child? It is evident that if a child suffers from anencephaly this early induction will not have any therapeutic effect on the child."
Msgr. Barreiro continued, "Then what is the purpose of this practice, in the opinion of their supporters, is to relief the emotional distress of the mother.
"What are the consequences of early inducement in the child? It hastens the death of the child by depriving the child of the good of gestation. It is evident also that an early delivery of a 'viable' child will endanger the life of the child due to complications of prematurity. A health care institution that favors early induction of anencephalic 'viable' children knows and as consequence wills it, that a child should be born in conditions that are objectively life threatening to him. So it can be said that early induction is akin to euthanasia. It willfully creates a life threatening situation for the child that will hasten his death."
These are extremely troubling words, and while there are ongoing efforts in Canada and the United States to justify "early induction" which causes the death of the preborn child, my sense is that it was wrong 25 years ago and it is just as wrong today. No Catholic hospital should be involved in this in my humble opinion.
We know that medical science is advancing. But what about man's perspective on the dignity of a preborn child's life, regardless of his condition or the anticipated brevity of his life once born? Is it ever justifiable to directly kill a preborn child, regardless of the "ethical" guidelines in place?
Perhaps as pro-life Americans, we should concentrate more on the encouraging work of those who, like one outstanding physician, Dr. Bryan Calhoun, focus on perinatal hospice as the ethical alternative:
The children born under the care of the hospices, Dr. Calhoun said, include those with anencephaly (underdeveloped brain), renal agenesis (underdeveloped lungs and kidneys) or even multiple deformities. That usually means they have very little, if any, time to be alive with their parents.
But at least they are born.