Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced on Facebook (of course) the good news that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are expecting a baby girl. He also revealed that the couple experienced three miscarriages before this pregnancy and expressed the desire that sharing their story would give hope to others in similar circumstances. “Most people don't discuss miscarriages,” he wrote, “because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you - as if you're defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.” Zuckerberg’s call for more openness about miscarriage is important and needed, and the outpouring of condolences, congratulations and general support for the couple has been encouraging.
This story is providentially timed, as ongoing exposé videos have detailed Planned Parenthood’s grim trade in fetal tissue and body parts, causing America to once again wrestle with the reality of unborn lives being willfully lost to abortion.
I can’t help but think that the contradictory ideas society holds about unborn children (who are considered babies when wanted and something else when not) owes in part to our tendency to conceive of child bearing as product- rather than process-oriented. The very term reproduction reflects such thinking. Our tendency, even within the church, to think with the product - rather than the means - in mind has dulled our understanding of a crucial distinction between potential life and actual life.
Consider the chickens: as a backyard chicken hobbyist, I’m often asked if it takes a rooster to get eggs from my laying hens. I explain - with equal parts patience and amusement - that, no, just as the human female requires no male to produce eggs, neither does the female chicken. No rooster, no fertilization. No fertilization, no chicks. My small brood of hens delivers each day a handful of unfertilized eggs, ready-to-eat, unassisted by any cockscomb. If I wanted chicks, not just eggs, that would be a different story. The general confusion about how chickens operate reflects, I think, some of the way our culture thinks about the creation of human children. An egg isn’t a chicken. But a fertilized egg is, albeit in embryonic form.
This story is providentially timed.
This distinction between potential and actual life also applies to matters of infertility and miscarriage. As an infertile woman (an experience I recently wrote about), I have never conceived a child. The loss I have experienced through infertility is of potential, not actual, life. While I wonder what kind of persons might have been made from the mingling of my husband’s and my genetic material, and what names we might have given any children that might have been conceived, these are theoretical questions, ones never attached to a physical, existing being.
This sense of loss is categorically different from experiencing an actual death, one I can only imagine but not feel. This is how Zuckerberg describes the loss of actual life:
You feel so hopeful when you learn you're going to have a child. You start imagining who they'll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they're gone.
These are haunting words of a personal, painful loss.
They are even more haunting when applied thousands and thousands of times over to the actual lives of willfully aborted children, a reality the Planned Parenthood videos have forced us to face. It is not the remains of potential lives that are being sifted through, as described in the videos, but the remains of actual human beings. These are babies who, like miscarried children, were once here but now are gone.