In Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, when a desperate and depressed George Bailey says, “I wish I’d never been born,” Clarence, his guardian angel, gives an unremarkable reply: “You mustn’t talk like that.” It was unremarkable because at this point in American history, there was still a stigma attached to suicide. Yet today that stigma has lessened, as the so-called “death with dignity” movement has gathered momentum.
Now imagine something worse than suicide—a mother or a father telling a child, “I wish you’d never been born.” Such a callous and cruel statement would be considered child abuse, plain and simple. Parents who uttered these dark words would be unfit and would have their children taken from them.
Or would they?
Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary is mounting. According to a disturbing editorial in the Weekly Standard, “From Blessing to Curse: The evolution of ‘wrongful birth’ lawsuits,” society is not only accepting such behavior; it is rewarding it.
On March 9, a jury in Oregon ruled that the Legacy Health System must compensate Deborah Levy and her husband for a presumed mistake related to the birth of their daughter, Kalanit. The problem was not that they let the child die, but that they let her live. Specifically, Kalanit was allowed to be born.
The Levys, you see, were both 34, had two children already, and were concerned about possible chromosomal abnormalities in the new addition. (Some 92 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome, according to recent research, are aborted.) So Legacy performed a test, which showed that the baby had 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell—a normal reading. So the Levys went ahead and had the child.
But on the day Kalanit came into the world, she looked like she had Down’s, and a blood test a week letter uncovered the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. Kalanit in fact had Down syndrome, and the Levys did what any self-respecting American couple would do in such circumstances: They sued.
“They argued that the [test] had been incorrectly performed and the results incorrectly analyzed and communicated,” the Standard summarized, “that had they been provided correct information about Kalanit’s chromosomal composition, they would have aborted her; and that they deserved monetary compensation for the harm Kalanit’s birth had caused them.” The initial amount they sought for the “wrongful birth” was $14 million. A jury of their peers awarded them $2.9 million.
The doctrine of “wrongful birth” got its start in 1934, when a Minnesota man sued over a botched vasectomy that resulted in a child. The state supreme court denied his claim, saying that the birth of any child is a “blessed” event. As Psalm 127:4-5a says, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!”
Yet as the biblical consensus has broken down, the concept of wrongful birth has gained a hideous strength. The Standard says that two landmark decisions regarding sexual freedom—Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973)—unintentionally provided momentum. Griswold discovered a broad right to privacy for contraception, while Roe invented the constitutional right to an abortion. Both effectively severed the link between marriage and procreation, putting the emphasis on individual rights over individual responsibilities.
In the years since, the wrongful birth doctrine has continued to develop, encompassing the births of both “normal” and disabled children. According to the Standard, “In 1982, five wrongful birth cases reached state supreme courts. All of them were decided in favor of the plaintiffs, and the decisions went a long way toward standardizing a legal approach.”
While 10 states have enacted statutes against the doctrine, all the momentum appears to be going in the opposite direction. “The vast majority of states allow limited damages when healthy babies have been wrongfully born,” the Standard notes. “Some of these draw a line at recovering the costs of raising the child; others muddle along in confusion.”
How did we come to this pass of moral confusion? The Standard faults Griswold for inventing a legal right out of whole cloth, as well as a culture that made sure that parenthood “had evolved from a communal duty to an act of self-fulfillment.” And while there is much truth in this analysis, we need to look deeper. After all, the trend was well under way before Griswold.
Let me humbly submit that the reason we have abandoned selflessness for selfishness in childrearing—leading to monstrous doctrines such as wrongful birth—is because we have jettisoned belief in God, at least when it comes to our marriages and families. From the book of Genesis on through Jewish and church history, marriage was seen as a covenant relationship—not between man and woman primarily, but between man and woman and the Lord.
And in the context of this sacred covenant, children were seen as gracious gifts of God: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” That is, children are blessings from God—even disabled ones.
In the face of this truth, we are confronted by two questions: Do we really believe that all children, in whatever condition, are God’s blessings, and do we really want God’s blessings? If we do, then we will never be able to say to any child, “I wish you’d never been born.”
Stan Guthrie is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.