Prevention is One Thing, But Take Care with the Cure

Ingrates. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind when the Canberra lesbian case is raised. That, and some vital misapprehension of what parenting – at its core, and in its specifics – is all about.

Sadly, the fact that the parents involved happen to be lesbians has impeded our capacity to get at the heart of what bothers us about this case. And trust me, this is irrelevant. In the recent Australian past, other parents – a single straight woman from New South Wales, an older heterosexual couple from Queensland – have sought compensation in the courts for medical negligence that resulted in a child being born where none was wanted.

Courts have traditionally frowned on compensating couples for children “wrongly born” because doctors failed to diagnose a pregnancy when abortion was still an option, or incompetently performed a sterilisation, or any other act of medical negligence resulting in the birth of a healthy child where all reasonable attempts had been made to avoid just this outcome. The reason was that they believed, and felt all of us out here in TV land should believe too, that the birth of a healthy child is always a “gift from God” or a “blessing.”

But this is rubbish. Every time we use contraception or, when contraception fails, seek abortion we frankly acknowledge that we don’t wish to be “blessed” that way.

And the truth is that if – as was the case for so long – gross medical negligence resulting in the birth of a healthy child is consequence-free for dodgy doctors, it’s hard to see how they’ll not be more dodgy doctors in the future. Not to mention the legitimate need some suing parents have for compensation monies to feed, cloth and educate a child they’d not planned to have, and are missing out on educational and employment opportunities to raise.

Yet such cases do leave a bad taste in the mouth. One reason is the image most people can’t help but get of the child involved – in some cases old enough to read the papers or listen to the news – discovering that they had not been wanted, and the precise details of what their birth had cost their parents in emotional, physical and monetary terms. The fact that such children also have to cope with the fact that others know they weren’t wanted adds to the sense that parents who bring such suits – through their betrayal of their child’s trust and failure to protect their child from hurt – fundamentally misunderstand what parenthood is about.

Which is, in my view, unconditional love. A number of years ago a childless-by-choice colleague expressed amazement at people’s willingness to make commitments to live with, love and nurture for several decades a person they don’t even know. To volunteer, in other words, for the duties of parenthood.

He is right. Parental volunteerism is amazing, and points to what – when it is done well – is so morally admirable about those who raise children well. From the first sighting of those double lines through the plastic test window until the car with the tin cans and streamers drives away, the experience of parenthood confounds expectations, preferences and even heartfelt desires. You wanted a natural birth but ended up with a C-section, hoped for a girl but got a boy, intended to breastfeed but ended up bottle-feeding, wished for an athletic kid to take to the rugby but wound up with a bookish one who preferred Scouts.

That your children sometimes disappoint, that the experience of parenting was not what you expected is par for the course and clearly spelled in the small print in the implied parental contract that accompanies each bundle of joy. The challenge is not just to accept the unpredictability of the experience, but to revel in it. To demonstrate the virtues of good parenthood not just by having the grace to accept the unexpected, but to make the best of it by showing a love devoid or strings or reservations for your child each and everyday, whoever that child turns out to be.

Difficult? You betcha, but then nothing that brings joy, engenders self-respect and earns the admiration of others is easy. And done properly, parenthood is one of the mot rewarding and respect-worthy undertakings in the world.

Perhaps where the Canberra couples, and other parents who sue for children “wrongfully born” fail is not knowing where to draw the line. Yes, parenthood today is not what it was yesterday and most of us feel it is justified, even morally required, to exercise control where we can by contracepting, screening prenatally, choosing abortion. . To avoid or refuse the hefty responsibilities of parenthood when we feel we can’t manage them and be the kind of parent we wish to be.

But at some point in the proceedings a line is crossed. The line beyond which control – responsible or otherwise – can no longer be exercised. Where the only moral option is to quit kicking and accept the outcome – the living, breathing, feeling, vulnerable outcome – with good grace and hand in hand, to step into the dark in search of light.

To say a child has been born. Let us rejoice.

Publication history

Prevention is One Thing, But Take Care with the Cure  Sydney Morning Herald