by Justine Toh
“These are excellent results. You could not expect anything better — really,” she said. I was relieved, but also unsettled at where this was headed. Perhaps I didn’t look suitably convinced, because she stressed the point again: “Really, if this were the Olympics, you’d get the gold medal.”
I wryly observed that I couldn’t be further from an athlete. But if she’d crunched the numbers right and I was something of an Olympian in the field of baby-making, then sharing the podium with me would be my baby, whose high chances of turning out normal would see me triumph in the race to genetic success.
It was my 12-week scan, and I’d been increasingly anxious at its approach. I have a tendency towards catastrophic thinking; strangely, it comforts me, since I’ve already forecast the worst that I think could possibly happen. So I’d been preparing myself for the words, “There’s a problem with the baby.”
My disastrous daydreams didn’t come to pass, but I didn’t expect to feel so conflicted by the language of the genetic counsellor. With talk of achievement measured in Olympic gold, this baby — no bigger than a lime, rolling innocently about in my womb — was regarded as worthy to play the game of life. Which raises the question: what if my results had been different?
Perhaps my husband and I could have bypassed the scan entirely. It’s designed to pick up chromosomal abnormalities that signify, for example, Down Syndrome, so as to give parents the option of terminating a pregnancy if the baby doesn’t quite pass genetic muster. And, according to ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, pre-natal screening prevents some mothers from becoming emotionally attached to their babies until they know they’re going to keep them. This commonsensical attitude holds that parents should only be obliged to raise the children they want, and that it’s more compassionate to prevent suffering — of child and parent alike — if at all possible.
Such a line of thought appeals to me more than I might like to admit. Why else would I have been so anxious? But it also betrays a failure to raise our perspective beyond the horizon of this world, with its all-consuming concerns for comfort and ease. Of course, such concerns are entirely reasonable, if this world is all that there is.
But God’s extravagant love and grace overwhelm this kind of reason. He welcomes all of us unconditionally. In his eyes, none of us passes muster of any kind: all, we’re told in Paul’s letter to the Romans, have fallen short of the glory of God. And yet God, the ultimate parent, wants us nonetheless.
This is a crazy, thrilling thought — as is the Bible’s claim that every human bears a familial resemblance to God. No matter how frail or lowly, all of us are made in God’s image. That tiny baby inside me, squirming in the blackness, carries something of the divine spark that first lit its life. Whatever becomes of this child — its strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows — nothing could add to or undo its already infinite worth.
Of course, none of this guarantees that life will run smoothly. But even in our vulnerability, God meets us and pours out his life and love. I saw this in a family who decided to keep a baby whose life was only expected to be measured in minutes. She ended up living four years. The love devoted to such a short life — and a life so apparently useless in the eyes of the world — is staggering. But it’s that kind of love with which God embraces us, no matter what games we might lose or win.
Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University. Baby Olliffe will be her and husband Vaughan’s first child.