The difficult decision

The letter arrived at our home on December 22, 1955—some 48 years ago. It was sent to us from the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada and began with this sentence, “I believe that there is a definite chance that Mrs. Schultz’s third child might be afflicted in a similar manner as her two previous ones, who are now deceased.” The final paragraph of the letter literally took our breaths away. It read, “I believe that if you were our patient, we would recommend termination of pregnancy with sterilization.”

In 1953, two years prior to receiving this letter, our first child, Michael, was born, and early in 1955, Timothy, our second child, joined our family. They were both healthy and robust babies for the first months of their lives. When each of these children reached six months of age however, they suddenly became seriously and profoundly ill, and, in time, passed away. The doctors were baffled by this illness but eventually made the diagnosis of  “Schilder’s Disease,” a genetic condition.

Once the diagnosis was made,  we consulted doctors at the University of Minnesota and genetic specialists at the Montreal Institute. The doctors told us that the conditions were a genetic anomaly, and the chance of it recurring in future pregnancies was small. This was the message we had been praying to hear! A few months later, after my wife proudly announced the exciting news of her third pregnancy, we received the specialists’ opinion recommending aborting our third child.

Now, what should we do? Should we follow the recommendations made by the genetic specialists? If their findings were correct, having an abortion would avoid putting us once again through the emotional anguish, stress and guilt of bearing a third child that was predestined to a slow, painful and agonizing death. Was it fair for my wife to carry such a burden for a third time when it could be avoided? On the other hand, the doctors at the University of Minnesota offered us hope and were much more optimistic. It certainly was a possibility that the specialists were wrong. We hoped that with a little luck and a whole lot of prayer, maybe the odds of having a normal, healthy child were in our favor.

We were also painfully aware of the Church’s opposition to abortion. As Catholics, we supported the Church’s stand, but with the genetic specialists actually recommending an abortion, we felt that we might be considered an exception to the rule. We shared our dilemma with a number of Catholic priests and found them to be very sympathetic and understanding, but not one of them ever mentioned “making us an exception to Church rule.” On the other hand, if we had taken a poll of our friends and even our relatives, most would have told us that we were indeed an exception, and that we proceed with the abortion.

To make a long story short, we decided against an abortion. At birth, Patrick seemed healthy, but six months later, he began to exhibit the full symptoms of Schilder’s Disease: irritability, choking  and eventual paralysis. He died two years later. To add to our ill fortune, the stress of three Cesarean sections resulted in the rupturing of my wife’s uterus. Not only had we lost our third child but, at 26 years of age, our hopes for ever having a family were lost.

Over 45 years have passed since that tragic time in our lives. My wife and I are now both retired, in our mid-70s, and this past year celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Fortunately, retirement offers a wonderful opportunity to look back and perhaps take a more mature look at some of those key decisions we made earlier in our lives. Did we make the right decision by not having the abortion and following God’s rules? You bet we did! Did God answer our prayers? More than we ever could have imagined. It just took a period of time and a bit more maturity for us to realize that prayers aren’t always answered on the spot, or in a dramatic fashion, or in just the way we expect—but they do get answered. Since that tragic period, our lives have been enriched over and over again by our three adopted children and five wonderful grandchildren.

The celebration this past year of our 50th wedding anniversary was certainly a highlight in our lives. My wife and I are both convinced that those tragedies faced early in our marriage served as a means to strengthen and reinforce our relationship. It’s interesting that this is in contrast to so many marriages that have floundered or broken apart after family tragedies. To put it very simply, the first five years of our marriage presented us with life’s most difficult challenges and we survived. The next 45 years have been simply a “piece of cake!”

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About the author

Vernon Schultz

Vernon Schultz is a retired vocational rehabilitator who lives in Prior Lake, Minn.