A review of Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics. By Melinda Tankard Reist.

Spinifex Press, 2006.

Melinda Tankard Reist is at it again. In 2000 she performed an invaluable service with her book, Giving Sorrow Words. In it she presented the stories of women who regretted their decision to abort their babies, and still deeply grieved many years later.

In this book she again has collected a number of moving stories about women, this time about women who decided to continue their pregnancies, even when advised not to.

This book is really about two things. It is about the women who defied the doctors, nurses, medical experts, friends, family members and others who insisted, demanded or pleaded that they end their pregnancies. Their births were defiant.

But it is also about the revival of eugenics as normative social policy in the West. The search for a good birth, the search for the perfect baby, the search for a culture free of “abnormal” people is now deeply entrenched in our medical community, and society at large.

Of course the last time we saw eugenics unleashed on a society as a whole was in Germany in the 30s and 40s. Never again, we said thereafter. But we have short collective memories, and the search for the perfect society, or at least for a society populated by perfect people, is back with a vengeance.

The author offers a meaty 70-page introduction discussing this worrying development. She documents how this renewed eugenics mentality has settled in and taken over. Of course advances in medical technology make the brave new world scenarios much more likely. Our ability to perform prenatal screening, and our growing understanding of the genetic bases to various diseases, makes the whole pregnancy experience a much different affair than it was just decades ago.

While many may welcome the advances in the screening and diagnosis of the unborn, the outcomes are pretty basic. If a parent is informed of a possible medical problem or defect that the baby has or may have, there are only two options: keep on with the pregnancy, or abort. And increasingly, medical professionals are encouraging the latter, even if there is only a slight chance of a complication or troublesome condition.

It is becoming commonplace today to hear that if a mother has even a possibility of delivering a less than perfect baby (whatever that means), the advice will be simply to end the pregnancy. We live in a throw-away society, and if we can’t get the perfect baby, simply abort and try again. That is the mentality most pregnant women now face in the West today.

There is mounting pressure, not only to abort, but to undergo the screening in the first place, even if the parents would rather not. Screening is now seen as “routine” medical procedure, and many women are not aware that it is – or should be – elective, and not compulsory.

So women are conned into believing they must undergo screening, but are also often conned into believing that the doctor knows best, and that if he recommends an abortion, then that must be the proper thing to do.

This is worrying, however. Most predictions of possible abnormalities or defects are not certain, but probable, and quite a few are proven to be wrong. Many of the stories in this book tell of women who were encouraged to abort their babies because of the possibility of this or that taking place, only to find that the babies were born perfectly healthy, without any problems at all.

Of course those women who succumb to the pressure to abort will never know if the doctor was right or wrong. So they are gambling on their medical advisors being right. Yet as one study has shown, prenatal diagnosis was only right in 39 per cent of cases. The women here are the lucky ones: they resisted the advice – and pressure –  to abort, and discovered that they need not have feared.

But of course some warnings are accurate, and some women – who decide to continue with their pregnancy – do have a baby born with various sorts of complications or problems. But their stories are worth hearing also. They speak of the great love and joy such children bring, and the wonderful lessons learned and character development that takes place as a result of allowing these precious children to live.

Indeed, the bulk of this book is made up of the stories of the women themselves, those who have “resisted the ideology of quality control and the paradigm of perfection”. These “genetic outlaws” are the real heroes, those who value life over death, those who cherish the sanctity of life instead of the mere quality of life.

And as noted, they fall into two sorts: those who ended up having quite healthy children, and those who did not. Both sets of stories are moving and powerful, and need to be widely heard.

Consider just one of these nineteen stories. Teresa had not one, but two, children die of anencephaly. A son with this condition lived for 24 hours after birth, while a daughter lived six days. Knowing your baby is going to have an extremely short life span is enough to convince many parents to not allow the pregnancy to proceed. But this mum and dad knew that all children were deserving of life, and those two were greatly loved during their short lives.

Says Teresa, “It’s about love. It’s about babies. We do not possess more strength than other people. It’s not because we can cope where others wouldn’t. There is no way to avoid the sad fact that these babies cannot live long after birth with this condition, but causing them to die earlier will not stop this happening. Causing them to die earlier will only take from us the beautiful experience of knowing and loving them.”

Many other such stories could be mentioned here. Suffice it to say that these women may never get a good run in the media, but they are real modern-day heroes. They have resisted the siren call of the new eugenics. And that resistance is often hard fought.

Indeed, there are several potent driving forces behind the new eugenics. One is a reductionistic view of what it is to be human, to be a person. It is a philosophy that says people are valuable because of what they can do rather than who they are. It is about a conferred sense of utility, functionality and/or pragmatism, instead of about the inherent and intrinsic worth of the individual.

The other is the concern about costs and benefits. Increasingly, economic pressures are determining who should live and who should die. Stated quite simply, it is cheaper to kill a “problematic” baby than to allow it to be born and cared for. These financial considerations will only continue to increase.

But these motivating factors behind the new eugenics need to be resisted. We need to remind ourselves that all people are special. All people have an inherent right to life. No one should be sacrificed in the name of some utopian search for perfection. And the stories recounted here will remind us of just that.

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One Reply to “A review of Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics. By Melinda Tankard Reist.”

  1. “It is becoming commonplace today to hear that if a mother has even a possibility of delivering a less than perfect baby (whatever that means), the advice will be simply to end the pregnancy. We live in a throw-away society, and if we can’t get the perfect baby, simply abort and try again.”

    What about when a couple has to discard some non-dwarf or non-deaf embryos in order to resist medical eugenics and make sure they have the dwarf or deaf baby they want instead of letting their baby have the full height and hearing ability that mainstream advice recommends? I’ve heard of some couples using in-vitro fertilization to do exactly this.

    Joseph James

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