The baby in my arms lacks the majority of his brain. He was born just fifteen minutes before this moment, and he is likely to die before another fifteen minutes pass. He has taken no first breath and will give no first cry. He cannot see. He cannot hear. He does not feel the warm weight of my hand as it rests on his chest and belly. I quietly weep and pray as the last gift of oxygen his mother’s body gave him dwindles and his rosy newborn glow fades to gray. His soul gently slips out of his body, and his life ends.
Ability is not what makes death significant. At birth this baby had capacities below that of a healthy fetus at ten weeks. Holding his body, living and then dead, proves to me that it doesn’t matter how early the human heart beats, how early it is possible to feel pain, or when the senses develop. No ability or strength confers human status—not being viable or sentient or undamaged or wanted. Being of human descent is enough; you cannot earn or forfeit your humanity. If this baby’s death does not matter, no death matters.
I have not always seen this so clearly. A gut repugnance and horror of abortion, which I felt from the time I first heard of it as a nine-year-old, kept me from ever being fully pro-choice. But even after my conversion to Christianity at eighteen, I didn’t want to express full opposition to the opinions of almost everyone I knew, my family, teachers, and friends. I wanted to avoid the taboo of “judgmentalism,” widely imputed to those who oppose abortion, and to maintain credibility among the feminist friends I cherished.
I might eventually have reasoned my way into truths about life, death, and human dignity—perhaps, given the right information and friends and graces, but probably not. A jumble of allegiances, caricatures, arguments, and fears dictated my opinions. But bodies speak a different language; they teach in different terms. The images and touch memories of the small body of that severely damaged baby boy whom I held as he died only minutes after being born could not be explained away, caricatured, ignored, or debated.
The flushed, grunting woman whose face I cradle in my hands is pushing out her baby. She has rocked and groaned her way through sixteen intense hours, and now the baby’s head is crowning. She had stood and swayed while I massaged her back, squatted while I supported her weight, sweated while I wiped her brow, hummed and sighed while I whispered encouragement. Her hair is wild, her eyes half shut, her attention completely inward. Now she reaches down to touch her baby’s emerging head, and with a shout of surrender and welcome she releases him to the midwife’s waiting hands. As she gathers her son in her arms, she croons, “My baby, my baby, oh my baby!” She is exultant.
Her body tells a bold truth: Women don’t need to be rescued; they are strong far beyond society’s imagining. They don’t need to be protected from the children conceived within their bodies; they don’t need doctors to violate their wombs in order to “save” them from the “burden” within. Women are not so weak that they can handle the rigors of motherhood only if the conditions are perfect, the correct products purchased, careers neatly arranged, the approval of those in power secured. Women are not so fragile that they can delight in their children only when their own needs and desires are entirely satisfied.
Birth is a momentous occasion, a radical change in state. In the moment a child separates from his mother’s body, a profound physical and personal unity ends. We do not need to be afraid of acknowledging and even proclaiming the unity of a mother and her unborn baby. Insisting on the autonomy of the unborn requires a willful blindness to the physical reality and lived experience of pregnancy and birth. But more than that, it capitulates to the idolatry of autonomy, both as the primary criterion of personhood and the elusive prize worth killing for.
These truths became undeniable to me after being with many, many women as they gave birth. Certain turns of phrase common at my intensely secular, feminist university suddenly sounded discordant. Ways of thinking about gender that I had previously accepted unquestioningly began to seem, basically, silly. Birth, experienced over and over, asserted itself as the fundamental truth, and those ideas that did not conform to this living reality stopped having power over me.
At the same time, as I began to attend births regularly, I also began to spend time with the elderly and dying. That also changed me.
She is ninety-eight, an amputee from diabetes, senile. We speak quietly together, and though there is no logical thread to the conversation, it follows the rhythms and intonations of an intimate discussion: “I just want . . . this . . . just lying here like a bagel . . . not anymore.” To the emotion I hear behind her words, I reply, “I know, you’re so tired. It’s all right. You can rest soon.” She hates her adult diaper and constantly plucks at its waistband. She is small, frail, worried, dying. We hold hands. I stroke her hair and give her sips of water from a straw. She gets her pain medications and drifts off into a nap.
As the body and mind deteriorate, the dying are not less themselves. Dementia steals the faculties for expressing the self—language, memory, personality—but the self remains, albeit largely inaccessible to others. The experience of actually being with the demented and dying is one of watching someone move farther and farther away, out of earshot and eventually out of sight. It’s wrong to think, “Because I cannot access something, it does not exist.” Being with someone who is near death undermines such nonsense.
If people are as much themselves when there is no chance of further accomplishment, activity, or self-expression, then the fact that the unborn may grow up to great accomplishment, activity, or self-expression is irrelevant. That a precious child with Down syndrome may some day compete in the Special Olympics is irrelevant. Another precious child with a different genetic abnormality will spend all his days in a state that most of us will inhabit only at the end of our lives, if ever: incapable of communication, incontinent, compromised in language, memory, intellect, and personality. The compassion we show to the dying is not earned by the things they “used to be” any more than it should be earned by the things that the unborn might become. We will all end up in a state of total incapacity and inaccessibility, some for a long time and some only briefly.
I have now spent a lot of time with other people’s bodies—very old bodies and very new bodies, severely disabled, sick, or just plain worn-out bodies, bodies in labor, bodies that are well and strong, and the bodies left behind by death. Looking back, I realize that changing my mind about abortion was actually one of the least significant steps toward becoming truly pro-life. There are things that can be learned—can be said—only in the language of bodies. There is a specific wisdom to be gained through the experience of being with actual people: their actual pregnancies, illnesses, births, and deaths. And many of the lessons that bodies teach can barely be translated into words.
We stand to gain so much by learning those lessons. Having a big family, or living with our grandparents, or working in hospice, or being a doula or doctor or what have you, is not necessarily everyone’s calling—but the corporal works of mercy are open to us all. We need to draw on the experience of spending our time and energy on the care of other people’s bodies. If we confine ourselves to ideas that are best suited to legislation, picket signs, and the combox, we will lose the richest vocabulary of human dignity, one better expressed in embraces and diaper changes than in words. If we let bodies speak to us in their own language, by being present to them and offering the gifts of touch and physical care, we can learn what is truly at stake and why it matters.
Nora Calhoun is a Catholic convert, mother, and future midwife.