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David T. Koyzis

A Smile From the Womb

For as long as I have been aware of the abortion issue, I have considered myself prolife.  To be sure, I have never carried a placard in a demonstration, never joined a prolife organization, or in any other way become an activist on the issue. I do recall opining to one of my professors at the Baptist college I was attending in the mid-1970s that abortion is tantamount to murder. I do not recall either the occasion for the comment or the professor's response, but it coincided with a developing political awareness that would eventually lead to a more intensive study of the subject.

Over the decades I have not wavered in my anti-abortion convictions. Nevertheless, the issue was rarely a deciding factor when it came time to vote. As a prolifer I often found myself in the position of having to hold my nose and vote for a candidate with whom I agreed on most other issues save this one. But something happened two years ago that made this more difficult for me to do.

On November 3, 1998, my wife, Nancy, and I were blessed with a daughter, though her birth came much sooner than expected and, as a consequence, brought a heartache that only the parents of "preemies" can fully comprehend. Theresa Dawn Calvert Koyzis was born just over three months prematurely — at 26-weeks gestational age, weighing slightly more than two pounds. I will spare readers the details of Nancy's early contractions and the shock we experienced at being told she would be giving birth at any moment during what we had expected would be a short hospital visit; mere words cannot communicate the feelings of numbness and incredulity — a sense that we must surely be watching this happen to someone else.

Suffice it to say that Theresa spent the next 10 weeks in two different hospitals, where she received wonderfully attentive care from dedicated physicians, nurses, and technicians. Some of the nurses we knew to be Christians, and one of them even prayed with us in the visitation room adjacent the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). These were dark times for us as we learned that Theresa was afflicted with pulmonary interstitial emphysema, an air-pocket in one of her lungs that made breathing difficult and required steroid treatment. Thankfully, after numerous ups and downs, Theresa would eventually emerge from this ordeal in remarkably good health, blissfully unaware of her own unusual birth and early infancy.

Not all the stories in the NICU ended as happily, of course. An incubator next to Theresa's was briefly occupied by a baby appearing so much more fragile than she. When we saw that it was empty a day or so later, we drew a heavy sigh, fearing to admit openly what must have happened.

It need scarcely be said that our daughter's early arrival overwhelmed our lives. November, December, and half of January were spent driving back and forth once or twice a day between home and hospital, and even after her homecoming we paid numerous visits to her pediatrician and our family doctor.

All told, one side effect of our experience had an unexpectedly profound impact. During that stressful time, much of which coincided with an exceedingly bleak Advent and Christmas, I found it emotionally difficult, if not impossible, to read or listen to anything having to do with abortion. Moreover, I'll never again look at the issue of abortion in quite the same abstract, analytical way.

When Theresa was born, though she was not quite through the second trimester, she already had her own distinct personality, and we quickly came to know her likes and dislikes. She would get angry if she couldn't see us from her position in the incubator, her anger being registered not by audible cries — which she could not make due to the ventilator tube in her nose and throat — but by a jump in her heart rate measured by the monitor above her. She quite evidently hated this tube and repeatedly tried to pull it out, finally succeeding in her fourth week, when she proved able to breathe safely on her own.

Most extraordinary of all, Theresa smiled virtually from the beginning. I had always assumed that smiling was a skill acquired only a month or two after a full-term birth. But our experience with Theresa indicated that this is not so. To be sure, she couldn't hold a smile for very long, as her facial muscles were insufficiently developed. Nor did she smile in direct response to her parents, as would an older infant. Yet if one of us was holding her, stroking her face and singing to her, a look of supreme contentment would come over her, and every so often — very briefly — the corners of her lips would turn up. This happened so regularly, and at such predictable times, that we could not chalk this up to coincidence, much less to the proverbial stomach gas one sometimes hears offered as explanation. Nancy and I lived for these smiles, which we gratefully received as small gifts of God's joy breaking through our anguish.

In short, our daughter was not simply a mass of tissue but was obviously a person in her own right, capable of knowing frustration, fear, and happiness.

Our experience has persuaded me that babies must surely smile in the womb. I have no scientific proof of this — only the evidence of my own daughter doing so when she herself should have still been there. And if unborn babies smile, I am further convinced that they are capable of feeling terror and pain, at which point I ache at the thought of drawing further conclusions. There is a horrible irony in our daughter's plight as a preemie. Had she been born full-term and remained the entire nine months in the womb, she would not have enjoyed the normal legal status of personhood during that time, because Canada has had no anti-abortion law since 1988. But because she experienced something abnormal, namely, being born too early, she thus acquired normal legal status. This leads to the rather perverse conclusion that it would be better from a legal, if not a medical, standpoint for an unborn child to be born as early as possible. The sheer incongruity between these medical and legal "normalities" constitutes a powerful argument against the current abortion license.

One is tempted to observe that, without the biblical notion of the image of God, it is difficult to make a credible moral or legal case that we are obligated to treat all human beings as worthy of life, irrespective of their varying capacities for self-awareness, intelligence, and physical development.

Yet perhaps there's another way to pierce through the certainties of pro-choicers on this issue: Take them on a tour through a level-three NICU in a major hospital and let them experience for themselves the full personhood of these tiny babies, who, given other circumstances, might have found themselves at the receiving end of what many still believe to be a mere medical procedure. 

David T. Koyzis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He is a member of the Christian Reformed Church.