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Fetal surgery: Less bleak than abortion alternative

EDITORS’ NOTE: Sunday, Jan. 21, is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.

WASHINGTON (BP)–Development of fetal surgery to correct physical deformities in unborn babies represents a major advance for pro-life supporters, according to a spokesperson for the National Right to Life Committee.

Mary Spalding Balch, director of state legislation for the Washington-based pro-life organization, said fetal surgery is the new frontier that counteracts bleak scenarios for the child’s future. Such forecasts are commonly used to justify abortion, said the mother of two children.

“Medical techniques have proven us right,” Balch said. “If we can look at this from a positive outlook, we can get a positive solution. The picture today is much brighter.”

Fetal surgery garnered national attention last year in the aftermath of a baby born in Nashville, Tenn., who had corrective surgery for spina bifida before his birth. Much of the coverage surrounded a photograph showing the fetus grasping the finger of the surgeon, although the doctor said it simply showed him pulling the tiny hand out of the womb.

In spite of the controversy, Balch said the corrective surgery on “Baby Samuel,” which took place 21 weeks after conception, was a milestone. Press reports said he was healthy and did not have hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain that often results from this complication.

In addition, similar operations are taking place every day — which the Right to Life official called a largely untold story.

“I’ve come across many neo-natal surgeons,” she said. “These cases exist but they don’t have the limelight like Samuel did. There are fetal anesthesiologists now.

“But these specialists are few and far between. Other children are falling through the cracks. I wish more obstetricians and gynecologists would learn about these developments.”

The technological advances are significant, said Balch, who has been involved in court tests where her agency intervened on an unborn child’s behalf. In one case, a judge ordered treatment for a fetus diagnosed with spina bifida, although the parents succeeded in getting the order overturned.

“The parents were told she would be miserable all her life and wouldn’t live to age 2,” Balch recounted. “They were told [if they didn’t] close the lesions [on her back] her hydrocephalus would increase and she would die a normal death. When a doctor says to do that, parents will do it and think they’re making the right decision.”

However, the parents then changed their mind and sought treatment. Their daughter, now 17, has a disability that would have been less severe if she had been treated more aggressively in the beginning, Balch said.

Fetal surgery is proving many doctors wrong, she added, and could balance the abuse of medical sampling tests that she said often become “search-and-destroy” missions.

For example, a technique known as CVS that takes cells out of the placenta to check for deformities usually leads to abortion, she said. Amniocentesis — which was developed by a pro-life doctor from England — has also been used in this way, she said.

Fortunately, there are other tests that are being used to help mothers correct problems with their diet or other physical deficiencies before their child is born, Balch said.

However, society still hasn’t come to grips with the slippery ethical slope that has resulted from nearly 30 years without any restrictions on abortion, the pro-lifer said.

“A doctor in Germany, writing in a journal after World War II, said once you say there’s a life not worth living, you have an unfettered right to kill,” Balch commented. “Once society accepts that there’s a life not worth living, these children are at risk. [Many] are not going to be born.”

A consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission applauded fetal surgery, which he said is ethical if it improves the child’s life. However, C. Ben Mitchell cautioned there is a corresponding rise in the thirst for eugenics, the science of selecting who gets to live.

The choice to abort because a fetus has an abnormality has led people to make judgments about the optimal baby, said Mitchell, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and a senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

This has created a culture where people aren’t satisfied with an infant who is OK; they want one who is perfect, he said.

However, fetal surgery is taking the steam out of the arguments that fetal defects inevitably lead to misery and no chance for a quality life, he argued.

Mitchell also sees a clash of values on the horizon.

“At some point there’s going to be a collision coming,” he said. “People will say, ‘We’ve been aborting all these babies and now we should operate on them?’ We’re electing to get rid of people we can help.”

Yet, for a society that has gotten used to “choice,” there will still be many parents who opt for abortion unless surgeons can guarantee total correction, Mitchell said.

Spina bifida, which often results in partial paralysis, bowel problems and learning disabilities, is a good example, he said, noting that though fetal surgery can correct some of these problems, it won’t necessarily eliminate them.

“I think it helps if something can be fixed in utero,” Mitchell said. “But if it’s something that will be visible and external, like a limp or facial disfigurement, I think people will be less likely to choose fetal surgery.”

Parents facing such a decision should remember that God will and sovereignty ultimately make the difference, Mitchell said.

“Baby Samuel is a stark reminder that what’s going on in the womb is pretty amazing,” he said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BABY SAMUEL.

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  • Ken Walker