dilemmas

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This week's problem: Having found that her unborn child will almost certainly be severely handicapped, and advised by her gynaecologist to have an abortion, Bridget finds herself in turmoil. Her husband says it's up to her, but her friends are shocked at the idea of a termination. The news about the parents of the Siamese twins makes her feel even guiltier. What should she do?

There are three answers to this question: the automatic pilot answer - "She must have counselling, though in the end only she can make the decision and whatever she decides will be right"; second, there's the right-to-life answer; third, there's what I believe is the only moral answer, abortion.

How can I help her share my conclusion? Bridget's husband, clearly a moral coward, is going to be of no help to her in making the decision nor, I suspect, if the baby is born. So she has to work this out by herself, look realistically at her own mental health and face the fact that she'll feel terrible whatever decision she makes.

She should also tackle her anxiety about her disapproving friends. It may be some consolation to her to know that according to SATFA (Support Around Termination for Abnormality), 92 per cent of parents of children who had Down's Syndrome prenatally diagnosed chose to have an abortion. Maybe her friends are po-faced in their sitting rooms but, given the option, the vast majority of them would probably make the brave decision to have an abortion in a similar situation.

Bridget says she feels guilty when she reads of those few parents who decide to battle on. But are they really so good and great? Aren't they, rather, guided by selfishness (fearing eternal damnation if they have an abortion) or muddled thinking (confusing sacrifice with love)? Whatever their motives they simply cannot have the interests of the child at heart.

And this is the nub of the matter. A good mother wants the best quality of life possible for her child. If Bridget's baby were to appear by surprise, she would love it and want to care for it. But knowing she had not used the power to have prevented it, how could she live with the torment borne by a severely disabled child? There are her future children to consider, too, who, with a severely handicapped sibling around, will not only have to accept being less mothered themselves but also may be burdened in the future with the legacy of looking after the child when their parents die.

At some point nearly every mother feels guilty about bringing any child into the world, even a healthy one, knowing that life is full of loss and pain and that it's difficult enough to live happily even when you're "normal".

Bridget must be brave and strong and must do the most loving thing for her child that any mother can do in these circumstances. To relieve her own child's suffering, she must suffer herself.

SATFA offers non-directive support to parents like Bridget. Helpline: 0171-631 0285.

readers' responses

If you think you may not be able to cope with a handicapped child, you should not go ahead. It's easy to think some severely disabled children are wonderful, but at what cost to the mother?

No career for you. You will be on call 24 hours a day for the rest of your life. No nice weekends away with your husband when your child has flown the nest, because it can't. No days off or doing anything without first considering your child's later adult development. Weekends and evenings forever spent occupying him/her. Will your moralising friends be there in 25 years to help?

Have you the stamina for a life-long fight with the authorities?

Ask your self-righteous friends to come with you on a visit to your local ESSN school. Speak to the teachers and parents and see the realities for yourself. I don't think you'll then have any trouble coming to a decision.

Mother of a handicapped son

West Sussex

One hundred years ago, nature was allowed to prevail, and this severely handicapped baby would probably not have survived. Today, we have such advances in medicine there is every chance that the baby can be kept alive, but what quality of life can it expect?

If you are already feeling you can't cope, what sort of life are you going to be able to give your baby? Go with your feelings. Ignore those that make you feel a murderer. It is easy to be moralistic and judgemental when maybe one hasn't experienced the 24-hour care that severely handicapped babies require.

Elisabeth Hooper

Isle of Wight

I am a Christian and oppose abortion in principle. But five years ago I reached the painful but peaceful decision to terminate a pregnancy at 22 weeks after an amniocentesis revealed that my unborn baby girl had Down's syndrome.

The decision, taken with my husband, stemmed from our love for that baby. We weighed up many factors, medical, family and theological. But in the end we had to rely on our deepest instinct as to what was right for that baby and our family. I used to see things in black and white. When close friends of ours terminated a pregnancy because of foetal abnormality, I felt judgemental and incredulous. Then I faced the same situation.

We loved and grieved for our unborn baby. We had a service of thanksgiving for her in church, and she will always be a part of us. But we know that for all of us it was the right thing, and the bereavement became an enriching experience, not a torment.

Mrs J M Thomas

London

There is a very old saying: "talk is cheap". It is all right for some of Bridget's friends to say go ahead with the pregnancy, I don't think they'll be around when the going gets tough.

Through having a very bright Down's syndrome child myself, I have been involved with mentally handicapped babies, children and adults for the past 20 years, and I urge Bridget to have an abortion. This child is severely handicapped. You'll have to spend many years fighting the authorities. What's more, statistics show 70 per cent of families with handicapped members are single-parent families - I know of one man who is the single parent. Bridget's husband is not keen on going on with the pregnancy; Bridget, be warned.

Dawn Bowmaker Kent

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband and I are deeply in love, but I am very unhappy. He is insecure and tends to put me down in front of friends. However, he always says sorry later and brings me flowers or chocolates (though he usually eats them himself!). I love painting, but he says I'm no good. When I protest he says it's just a fact, not a criticism. He says, rightly, that I'm responsible for my own feelings; if I get upset that's my problem. When I try to go to my evening class, something stops me each time - my husband's ill or he's put the car in for a service. He swears these are just coincidences.

Yet he is so caring when I'm unwell and has been so kind and come with me to a counsellor and psychiatrist; but nothing works. He says that although I'm neurotic, he couldn't live without me. Sometimes he breaks down in tears at the thought of us splitting up. I know blame has to be shared when there are problems in a marriage, but I can't seem to get things right. I feel so desperate. In one way my husband is my only friend. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,

Jeannie

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the `Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293-2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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