When death comes before life

Martin Luther, mindful of the trials and blessings of family life, offered balm to women suffering one of its sorrows: the death of a child before birth.  He counseled pastors “not to frighten or sadden such mothers by harsh words because it was not due to their carelessness or neglect that the birth of the child went off badly…. inasmuch as one cannot and ought not know the hidden judgment of God in such a case—why, after every possible care had been taken, God did not allow the child to be born alive and be baptized—these mothers should calm themselves and have faith that God’s will is always better than ours, though it may seem otherwise to us from our human point of view.”

Such losses were dishearteningly common in Luther’s day and, in parts of the world still, in ours.  Miscarriage ends between 10-20% of recognized pregnancies.  A 2011 series published by prestigious British medical journal The Lancet revealed that 2.6 million stillbirths occur annually across the globe, 98% of them in poorer countries.  Death before birth brings a profound grief to a family. It blunts hope and forces mothers, in a very immediate, physical way, to confront death. It is a problem of public health, but also a theological problem, and a searing one in the lives of many parents and families.

Christian churches have been strong defenders of the unborn, with Catholics particularly active in opposing abortion and embryo destruction. These positions demonstrate a strong commitment to life before and after birth. But perhaps insufficient care—both in teaching and pastoral settings—has been given to the puzzle of children not aborted who nonetheless die before birth. Churches that locate life’s beginning at conception ought to meet these losses with gravity, both for the benefit of grieving families and for the witness to life it demonstrates. Difficult questions of science and theology stand in the way of easy answers or comfort. Yet the problem is big enough and occurs frequently enough to require more sustained attention. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this as a theological problem and offering liturgical and pastoral support to those affected by it.

To read more, here is a link to my article in the current issue of Commonweal.


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