I’ve never marched for anything before, and I’m daunted at the prospect. But on Friday, I’ll take part in the 2019 March for Life in Washington, D.C., along with between 50,000 and 150,000 strangers who have diverse religious and political perspectives. We gather in united grief at the loss of more than 55 million human lives since the legalization of abortion across the USA in 1973. A vast crowd, a common theme and a horrific statistic, but I march for my daughter and everything she taught me.
My world changed in 2002 when the nurse put her hand on my arm and said the words that every expectant mother hopes she will never hear: There is something wrong with the baby.
The doctor called it a lethal skeletal dysplasia. When the baby is born, the doctor said, it will not be able to breathe. Quietly, he told us how to schedule a termination.
In the aftermath of that shattering visit to the clinic, a distancing mechanism kicked in: This isn’t a normal case, I told myself. The normal principles don’t apply. Termination is a medical act, in a medical crisis. I found myself copying the doctor, calling our baby “it.” But when the shock lifted, I knew she wasn’t an “it.” She was my daughter, a sick and dying child who needed me.
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For the next 16 weeks I carried our daughter, Cerian, to term. In the end, her deformities didn’t cause her any suffering or pain. She died just before the last stage of labor of a placental abruption. An hour before she was born, she simply went to sleep safely enfolded in my body.
Those weeks turned my life upside down, and they are the reason why I march.
Freedom to choose love — even when it’s hard
What I did not anticipate in making the decision to carry a sick baby to term was the anger that it would provoke in others. I discovered that we live in a society in which the decision not to abort an abnormal fetus requires a defense.
A colleague asked me, what if, against all the odds, this baby lives but is severely mentally and physically handicapped? It could ruin your career. You owe it, she said, to your other children and to yourself to exercise your right to choose. A friend told me that, surely, it is morally wrong to bring suffering into the world when you know you can prevent it.
I thought about these arguments. Most of all, I thought about what it means to have freedom of choice. I was raised in a culture that told me unlimited freedom of choice is central to what it means to be human. But this is not how life happens.
So many of the most important things in our lives, we do not choose. I didn’t choose my own parents. I didn’t choose the characteristics of my older daughters, Hannah and Emilia. And I didn’t choose to conceive a sick child. I didn’t choose the dreadful dilemma of whether or not to keep Cerian alive, to care for her when I knew I would lose her.
But what if freedom is not what we think? What if freedom is the willingness to put my own comfort to one side in order to care for another person? What if freedom is the ability to choose to love, even when it is hard?
A culture of conformity and disposability
Carrying Cerian was an unexpected privilege. It brought me profound joy as well as grief. It was not until I cared for this vulnerable human being that I came to see the value of all human life. The way our culture treats the most vulnerable — the elderly, the ill, the unborn — reveals our true beliefs about people. We live in a culture that wants to end life when a person’s usefulness, productivity and mental capacity diminish. We live in a culture that assents to the disposal of unborn children with abnormalities and physical challenges of many kinds. But this is a value system that none of us can live by.
To expect a certain kind of “normality” of everyone is tyranny, not freedom. We celebrate choice but we are creating a culture of selection, not a culture that values the unique diversity of human life.
So I march for the freedom to live for all those whose worth is not recognized by our culture. I march to honor the beauty and worth of those whose bodies are labeled “abnormal” by the majority. I march because in choosing to respond to my daughter’s weakness with care, and to her need with love, I found my freedom also.
Sarah C. Williams received her DPhil from Oxford University, and has taught British and European cultural history there and at Regent College in Canada. Williams is the author of “Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian.” Learn more about the history of the March for Life.