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Giving Birth, Raising Children – The Ultimate Exercise in ‘Space for the Unexpected’

Giving Birth, Raising Children – The Ultimate Exercise in ‘Space for the Unexpected’

Ellen Van Stichel

“Reality is always different – and more – than we could have expected.” (E. Schillebeeckx)


When writing this blog, it is only a few more days before our third child will be born. Although parents imagine their children already even before conception, the real child will always be different – and more than we could have imagined, to paraphrase Edward Schillebeeckx. Conceiving, carrying, giving birth and raising children thus is an excellent exercise in leaving ‘space for the unexpected’. At a time of easy prenatal testing, we even decided to make this space for the unexpected as big as we could by not wanting to know whether it is a boy or a girl. A deliberate choice, which reflects our openness for welcoming this baby unconditionally.  But a strange choice, especially in a country where the non-invasive prenatal test (NIP-test) was chosen as ‘the product of the year 2017’.

With this NIP-test, one can check through the maternal blood whether the unborn child has certain anomalies. The main reason why it is popular is because it predicts whether the child has Down Syndrome, with 99% certainty and at a very early stage in the pregnancy: already by 14 weeks, parents know the result. While Belgium was at first more hesitant than its northern neighbor, the Netherlands to even introduce the test in 2013, it is now a standard part of the prenatal procedure because, since 2017, its high costs are refunded by the social security system. While parents had to pay about 400 euros before, they now hardly pay 10 euros. The reason for this is on the one hand legitimate: since the test was offered anyway, it was considered unfair that only the rich could afford to do the test and thus refunding the cost of the test was seen as democratic. (On the other hand it is also very painful to realize that the costs of this test are so expensive, while there is hardly any money invested in research on Down syndrome and the medical expertise in this area is disappearing.) These questions should have been the object of public debate before introducing the test in the first place, but as commercial companies were the first ones to introduce it, thus making profit from it, the hospitals and later the government couldn’t do otherwise than to allow the public access to the test.) The result does not come as a surprise: in 2016, 31 children with Down Syndrome were born, a decrease of 30%.

Parents, like close friends of ours, who have deliberately chosen to ‘keep’ their Down child, feel like they constantly have to justify their choice. ‘Didn’t you know beforehand?’, people silently think or explicitly ask. It puts the notion of ‘responsible parenthood’ in a completely new light: as if the only responsible choice as parents seems to be to abort when confronted with a positive NIP-test. As our friend put it:

I fear a society where there is only the fake appearance of freedom of choice. (…) Aren’t the really naive people the ones who believe human beings are manufacturable? We talk a lot about social media, which projects an ideal image of people who are not all that happy behind their screens. At the same time, there is no space for those who seem weaker. If I gave birth to one of the last children with Down, I’m happy that the pressure was just not big enough yet not to dare to.

The debate on the test and whether this governmental funding is a good or a bad thing, reached its lowest point when Etienne Vermeersch, an atheist ethicist and in public opinion considered as the ‘conscience of Flanders’, claimed that ‘we hope that in the end they (Downers) will become extinct’.

‘Do we really hope so?’, a Flemish comedian publicly questions in his one-man-show. ‘Do we really want less Downers? Don’t we need more? For what characterizes these persons is their empathy, compassion and positivity – three capacities which would change the world if some of our world leaders including Trump and Kim Jong-un had  them’. ‘Moreover’, he continued,  ‘if they saw our lifestyles – getting up early to be trapped in traffic, to go to a job we never thought we would do for a living for 8 hours a day, then returning home, caught in traffic again, spending some precious time with the ones we love just before we go to bed early enough to be able to go through the same boring routine the day after – they would probably look at us and call us “morons”’.

Just in case you wonder, yes, we also we decided to do the test, but with the agreement between us that we could never – especially not after the birth of the boy of our friends – choose to abort. (Which is not to say we condemn people who do.) But just to be a bit prepared for the ‘unexpected’, while not aiming at mastering or controlling it.