Lacking most of the skull, with the heart and other organs protruding from his tiny body, Elliot Josiah Henderson never really had a chance.
Guided by faith, his mother firmly believed she never really had a choice but to bear a son whose two-hour life outside the womb seven years ago Monday represents an especially gut-wrenching aspect to an issue that already divides the nation along medical, moral and political lines.
“(The doctor) said I had the option of abortion, but there was no way I could dismember and extract my baby,” said Karla Henderson, a 33-year old mother of three who got her first inkling something was wrong when an ultrasound during the sixth week of gestation revealed an abnormal pocket of blood on her uterine wall. Serious deformities were evident by the 14th week and by the 20th week the fatal diagnosis had been rendered, but Henderson said the decision she and husband Mike made to embrace “perinatal hospice” has nevertheless blessed her family and others confronted by similar challenges.
Why would a woman knowingly carry a child who could not survive a vaginal birth (Elliot was delivered by Caesarian section after 36 weeks) and whose life would be measured in hours if not minutes?
“I chose to surrender to (God's) plan, which is perfect even if it's not what we would choose,” Henderson said. “Life has value – every life. I don't know how people could go through this without God.”
Some people will dismiss the Hendersons as religious zombies unable or unwilling to deal with reality or their own feelings. But the stay-at-home Mom and her 37-year-old husband of 12 years, an Allen County Police officer, experienced everything from pain and anger to confusion about God and dissatisfaction with each other.
“I needed (Mike) to be my girlfriend,” Karla said, alluding to the male tendency to internalize concerns instead of verbalizing them.
But when they sat in their dimly lit room at Parkview Hospital and held each other and their infant son before his heart slowed then finally stopped, the Hendersons were at peace.
“We knew it would be tough, but it was the right thing to do and brought us closer together,” Mike said.
“It was the hardest choice I ever made,” confessed Karla, who acknowledged for a time not wanting to bond with the baby in her womb following the diagnosis. But when she did embrace the pregnancy, the couple set aside the name they subsequently gave their now-3-year-old son Brecken and substituted a name Karla said means “the Lord is good who heals.”
And part of that healing, Karla said, is the absence of the guilt the couple would have felt had they denied Elliot the brief period during which his life was much like any other newborn infant's.
“He even pooped three times,” she said.
Abortion vexes this country precisely because it resists easy compromise. Women's-rights advocates refuse to acknowledge the humanity of the “fetus,” just as many on the other side believe mere mortals lack the wisdom or right to end life God has begun. But when birth defects assure a short life or a long life of misery and expense or are used to justify what under other circumstances would be considered euthanasia, what then?
Still, if women do indeed have the “right to choose,” the kind of agonizing decision made by the Hendersons and those inspired by them deserve respect and at least an attempt at understanding.
Unfortunately, the medical personnel who were sympathetic to the Hendersons' decision may be the exception instead of the rule, according to Cathie Humbarger, executive director for Allen County Right to Life.
“The assumption in the medical community seems to be that it is best to terminate (this kind of pregnancy), Humbarger said. But that can be excruciatingly painful for the baby, and (giving birth) can be a better outcome for the mother.”
To that end, a free seminar is scheduled at the downtown library this week to educate social workers, medical personnel, members of the public and others about the case for “continuing a pregnancy with life-limiting prenatal diagnosis.” Panelists will include a doctor, ethicist, pastor, counselor and others. They will make some convincing arguments, but you don't have to be a pro-abortion zealot to understand opposing views.
There are no shades of gray for the Hendersons, however, which is why this week and every November Mike, Karla, Bennett, Brecken and daughter Delancey visit Elliot's grave – a son and brother rendered no less real, loved or mourned by the hardship and brevity of his life.