A woman in a white coat walked into the room and flipped on the fluorescent lights, jarring my wife awake. Bethany had been asleep for about half an hour – the longest nap she had managed all day. Though the doctor had ordered her to get plenty of sleep, nurses kept coming in every few minutes to take her temperature and blood pressure.
The day before, we were invited to lunch at a Thai restaurant. When we returned home, Bethany was bothered by a cramp in her side. Blaming the food, she laid down in bed. But after four hours of increasing pain, we left for the emergency room, thinking that it might be appendicitis. We were right, after after a few hours the appendix was removed with no complications (other than some nausea, which, when combined with Thai food, is especially unpleasant.)
All this would have been quite routine, except that Bethany was fifteen weeks pregnant. As it turned out, the timing was good: a younger, less-established baby might be at risk for miscarriage, while an older, larger baby would make it hard to get at the appendix. Our baby’s heartbeat was monitored both before and after surgery, and rather than putting Bethany to sleep, a local anesthetic was used. The one redeeming part of this experience came before the surgery, when Bethany’s appendix was examined by ultrasound and we were able to see our baby cruising around his amniotic home. (I say “his” – we asked the technician not to tell us, but it looked like a he to us.)
We were amazed at our baby’s development at only four months of age, when Bethany was hardly “showing” at all and could feel none of his movements. There on the ultrasound screen we could see clearly his head and skull, spine and ribs, arms and legs, hands and feet. Even a tiny heart was beating – at a rate of 160, to be exact. We watched in wonder as he kicked, fluttered, and twirled about, quite oblivious to his mother’s condition.
For new fathers, especially, it’s difficult to fathom that inside y our wife is a whole little person waiting to be introduced to the world. The ultrasound technician printed out several photos for us to keep, and later – as I sat in an empty waiting room at 2:00 a.m. taking advantage of the free cappuccino machine – I looked at the photos and wondered how the little guy was doing about now. In one picture, his mouth was open and it looked like he was trying to say something. Above his head, the technician had typed, “Hello!”
It was now the evening after surgery, and Bethany needed rest more than anything. There were two television sets in every room, and Bethany’s roommate watched talk shows all day. While she struggled to sleep, Jerry Springer’s guests screamed at each other. By midnight, after Jay Leno’s monologue, the television was finally turned off. Bethany at last fell asleep. I sank into my chair, next to her bed, and closed by eyes.
Then the lights came on. Bethany squinted under the glare, looking disoriented. The doctor stood over her, shuffling through some papers on a clipboard. “How are you feeling tonight?”
“Tired,” Bethany answered. I wished the doctor could take a hint and leave us in peace.
The woman announced that she was an obstetrician. After reviewing Bethany’s history and asking a few questions, she scribbled something down on her clipboard and stated that she was ordering a routine test for tomorrow morning.
“What kind of test?” Bethany asked, still half asleep.
“An Alpha-Feto Protein screen,” she explained. We asked what it would test for, and why we should have it now, rather than later in the pregnancy during a visit with our own doctor.
“Well, it can tell you if the fetus has neural-tube defects, Down Syndrome, or if the brain is not complete. Then, if something is wrong with the fetus, you can decide to terminate the pregnancy while it is still a safe, legal time to do so.”
I looked at Bethany – she appeared to be as uncomfortable as I was. This was a Christian hospital, affiliated with an evangelical denomination. Being told that we might want to abort our child was the last thing we expected, or wanted to argue about, under the circumstances. I tried to deflect the question. “We’ve talked about the different tests available with our own doctor, and we aren’t going to have that one.”
“Now is the ideal time. If you wait until you are further along, it might be too late,” she continued coldly. “The hospital strongly recommends the test, because parents might hold us liable if they have a disabled child. They will ask, ‘Why didn’t you warn us?’
“But we’re not going to have an abortion – under any circumstance. It wouldn’t matter what disabilities our baby had. We’re not going to have the test.”
“Well, I can’t force you have any test if you don’t want it,” the doctor shot back, and left as quickly as she had come. Bethany started to cry.
My tears came later, after Bethany had fallen back asleep, when I picked up the ultrasound photos again. In one, nearly every bone in his arm and hand was strikingly visible. He seemed to be waving for the camera – shamelessly soaking up the limelight even at such a young age. “Hello!”
I wished the doctor were there, so I could ask her, what is this a picture of?
Even science alone verifies that it is a human being. At the moment of conception, sperm and egg unite to form something entirely different – a genetically complete, self-determining organism, entirely unique and distinct from its parents. The mere presence of that newly conceived baby – far too small to be seen except through a high-powered microscope – is enough to trigger a complete readjustment of his mother’s hormone levels, preparing her to nurture the new life growing inside her womb. Left to normal biological processes, this organism will develop continuously from zygote, to fetus, to infant, to toddler, to teenager, and so on, with no substantial change to its being.
But science cannot tell us whether this human being has any intrinsic value. If we aren’t happy with the baby we’ve conceived, if a test shows that there’s “something wrong” with him, if he’s going to have a low IQ, if he has a terminal defect and will die within a few years anyway – wouldn’t it be better to “terminate the pregnancy”?
The Bible tells us that man is created in the image and likeness of God. This is not a scientific statement, but a poetic one. The image of God cannot be observed under a microscope or detected by an ultrasound scan – but it can be expressed in a poem.
In a hymn to the Creator, the psalmist writes:
Thou didst form my inward parts,
Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to Thee,
For I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
If this poetry can be believed, each human person is a masterpiece of God’s craftsmanship. Life is a gift to be received joyfully; it is not a creation of man, and we have no right to destroy it.
If each person we encounter bears the divine image, none should be exploited or used. Each of us – irrespective of size, age, or intelligence – is unique, irreplaceable, and invaluable. The only response to a human person is love.
If we are each created in the image of God, whatever we do to another person, we ultimately do to God himself. Jesus said, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)
The Apostle Paul writes that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But faith is not only about things unseen. There is another kind of faith – the faith to see, hear, and understand what is right in front of our noses.
For the heart of this people has become dull,
And with their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes;
Lest they should see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I should heal them.
To see the world around us for what it truly is, we must open our eyes – not just the literal eyes of our heads, but the poetic eyes of our hearts. To be healed is to be made whole. Head and heart, science and poetry, reason and faith – these are not supposed to be opposites, but complementary ways of seeing reality. They are reconciled in the unity of truth.
Just past 1:00 a.m., tired but unable to sleep, I tried my best to curl up comfortably on a small plastic chair next to Bethany’s hospital bed. Looking again at my baby’s ultrasound pictures, I tried to picture clearly in my mind’s eye what was so roughly suggested in the grainy black and white photos. I saw the delicate tapestry of flesh and blood and bone, woven together in the secret depths of my wife’s body. I saw an irreplaceable person, never to be repeated again on this Earth. I saw an embodied soul who will live forever, and for whom I am eternally responsible. I saw the visible image of the invisible God.