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‘Selective reduction’ among modern technology’s dilemmas

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–When Amy Guttensohn carried five
fetuses two years ago, several doctors advised that the
number be “reduced” to give others in the womb a better
chance of survival.
She and her husband, Eric, had a quick answer for each
of the physicians — “No.”
“The first thing we told (one) was selective reduction
was not an option,” said Eric, father of the nation’s only
all-male quintuplets. “Our assumption is we were going to
get the babies here.”
“I was thinking, ‘Of course I want to give my children
the best chance to live,'” echoed Amy, formerly a secretary
at Taylor Road Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. “But not
that. It’s not our choice as to who should live.
“We had a friend get pregnant with quads. (Doctors) ap-
proached her about reduction and she said, ‘No way.’ When
one of the babies spontaneously aborted, the doctor said,
‘I’m glad we didn’t go through with it. That’s not the one I
would have chosen.'”
The issue of selective reduction, which the Southern
Baptist couple see as a euphemism for abortion, has sparked
nationwide debates in recent weeks.
The late November birth of septuplets to Bobbi
McCaughey of Carlisle, Iowa, led to a wave of media coverage
on modern reproductive technology and the issue of multiple
births in particular.
The media thus renewed their interest in the
Guttensohns, who appeared on many national talk shows after
their sons’ births in August 1996. They recently appeared on
the “Montel Williams Show” and are profiled in this
January’s issue of Today’s Christian Woman.
The Wall Street Journal reported there aren’t any
statistics on how many parents selectively reduce the number
of fetuses in a mother’s womb. But a pioneering physician in
Detroit did five a year in the mid-1980s and last year was
expected to perform 100, the paper reported, while a doctor
in Philadelphia does three to six each week.
Among the stories that have appeared:
— A USA Today article said many in the fertility field
considered the birth of seven McCaughey children a failure,
since their goal is to produce a single healthy baby.
“We don’t consider this a happy moment,” Elizabeth
Ginsburg of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, told the
newspaper. The story continued, “The reason is that
pregnancies with multiple fetuses virtually always end in
premature delivery, increasing the chance of losing the
babies or physical or mental damage to them.”
— In a graphic discussion of reduction techniques, The
Wall Street Journal described a doctor hovering over a woman
carrying triplets, then injecting potassium chloride into
one of the fetuses. The child flailed its arms and legs,
then stopped, the paper wrote.
“(The mother) has gone with the odds, since twins
average only about four weeks premature, compared with
nearly seven … for triplets, and thus are more likely …
to be healthy,” The Journal reported. “But when she finally
emerges from the bathroom, she is wiping her eyes and unable
to talk.”
— The New York Times has written extensively on the
topic, including a story that spotlighted an Arizona couple
who had triplets last June. Two of them died less than
three weeks after birth.
The newspaper also quoted a mother who gave birth to
quadruplets, only to lose one and see others struck by such
problems as blindness and the inability to breathe
independently. Said the woman, “I absolutely don’t want
people to pity us. But I still want people to know it
doesn’t always have a happy ending.”
Statistics suggest the issue will have increasing
relevance in the future. There are an estimated 2.5 million
infertile couples in America, defined as couples trying to
get pregnant for a year or longer. Many rely on fertility
drugs, with up to 75 percent visiting a doctor or clinic to
seek treatment. Not surprisingly, the National Center of
Health Statistics reported that multiple births of three or
more quadrupled between 1971 and 1995, mostly because of
these drugs.
C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant on biomedical and life
issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty
Commission, expects the incidence of fetal reduction to grow
along with the use of new reproductive techniques.
“My understanding is doctors look for any potential
disability,” he said. “They look at the quality of eggs and
fetuses, and DNA analysis. If any show signs of weakness,
those are the ones eliminated. I understand their reasoning,
but this is a eugenics model. We’re going to decide who
An assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Mitchell is
intimately acquainted with these technologies. He and his
wife sought fertility treatments before stopping when they
became uncomfortable about proceeding any further.
He warned that couples must be careful when choosing
reproductive technologies, which can thrust them into
dilemmas where there is no good solution.
“In light of what we know, it’s presumptuous to ask God
to bail us out of all these situations we created,” Mitchell
said. “We can get painted into a corner (where) it’s not
good to continue the pregnancy and it’s a not a good choice
to use abortive techniques.”
Couples must also be prepared for disappointment, Eric
Guttensohn said. The first time they tried in-vitro
fertilization, only two of 13 eggs were fertilized and
neither took hold in the womb, he said.
Not only did four embryos develop the second time, one
of them split, making two of their five boys identical
twins. But if that effort had failed, he said, they were
ready to begin adoption proceedings.
“Our prayer from the beginning was not, ‘God make us
pregnant,’ but, ‘God, we pray we get pregnant if this is
your will.’ We knew we were in God’s will.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker