Defiant Birth; Women who resist medical eugenics

By Megan Reynolds

The book Defiant Birth argues against foetal eugenics via a collection of birth stories – some which evolve into death stories. In this book Melinda Tankard Reist, an Australian journalist, correlates a number of moving stories about women who decided to continue their pregnancies, when advised not to and women who get pregnant against medical and social advice.

Apart from being uplifting and demonstrating these woman’s will for their babies to live life to the fullest – even if their lives are short, it also illustrates that ‘terminating’ abnormal babies has become normative social policy. Maybe this is another example of our throw away society; abort the babies with a risk of abnormalities and then make a new (better) one.

In the introduction the author offers a well referenced 70-page discussion on the development of foetal eugenics. She documents the mounting pressure, not only to abort, but also to undergo prenatal screening in the first place.  Screening is now seen as “routine” medical procedure, and many woman are not aware that it is – or should be – elective, and not compulsory. Yet as one study has shown, prenatal diagnosis was only right in 39 per cent of cases.  Some woman may welcome the reassurance of “routine” prenatal screening while others may face a choice (and pressure) they may not even have contemplated. Before screening parents should ask themselves “what is this test going to find out – and what will I do with that information?” 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. Medical professionals are often encouraging the latter.

Defiant Birth includes the case histories of nineteen women who were advised to terminate their pregnancies for a variety of reasons including; Downs syndrome, measles exposure, dwarfism or a chance of abnormalities detected during ‘routine screening’. Many of these stories ended in the medically predicted death of the baby – others defied the predictions with resulting healthy, happy babies in loving families.

A memorable example is that of Teresa Streckfuss who had not one, but two, children die of anencephaly (a neural tube defect where the top of the spinal cord fails to fuse and the brain is missing or incomplete). Her son lived for 24 hours after birth, while her daughter lived six days. Teresa wrote “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.”

This book is food for the thought and the soul. It is a celebration of women who demonstrate resilience, determination and love by having a Defiant Birth.

“Defiant Birth; women who resist medical eugenics”, Melinda Tankard Reist, Spinifex, Melbourne 2006. Available Christchurch Public Library.

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