The million-dollar fetus

Posted: Apr 07, 2006 8:05 PM

The question of choice in abortion just got complicated in ways that would furrow Solomon's brow.

Imagine you're pregnant and injured in an accident that results in your needing surgery that could be harmful to your fetus.

In fact, the doctor says your baby already may have been damaged by radiation from X-rays and may suffer more from both X-rays and drugs used during surgery.

Such was the predicament Michelle Williams of Chicago faced in October 2002 after the car she was riding in ran headlong into another car that turned left in front of them.

It was an accident, just like hundreds of others, but this particular collision posed the sort of questions that leave you breathless. The doctor told Williams she had three options:

- Abort the baby and have immediate surgery.

- Postpone surgery for 12 or so weeks when the fetus would be at reduced risk from drugs and radiation exposure. Waiting, however, would mean that doctors would have to re-break Williams' bones, which might not heal properly.

- Or, have the surgery now and not abort, but risk giving birth to a damaged baby.

Anyone can sympathize with the pregnant woman's quandary.

Pain and loss in various combinations were her only choices, buffered by the high risk that the child she saved and ultimately gave birth to might be deformed or otherwise damaged. The alternative was unrelentingly bleak - no child at all.

Even the most conscientious pro-lifer would find such a choice daunting, but not the judge in Williams' wrongful death suit against John Manchester, the driver who caused the accident. The lower court judge denied Williams' claim for $1 million in damages, saying that Williams decided to receive medical treatment at the expense of her fetus.

From the court's perspective, Williams selfishly opted to repair her own bones and abort her child - for whom she had bought clothes and toys - and then seek $1 million from the man whose careless driving led to her complications. Attorneys argued the case before an appellate court Wednesday, and hope for a ruling in the next few weeks.

This is one of those times when one would not wish to be a judge. There's apparently no question that Williams intended to carry her baby to term, so that the lower court judge's insinuation that she selfishly put her own life before her baby's seems unconscionably cruel.

At the same time, the idea that a man who misjudged the rate and distance of an oncoming car now should be liable to the tune of $1 million for his human fallibility seems, to me at least, equally cruel. Williams and Manchester already settled for Williams' personal injuries.

No one's argument lends comfort.

Manchester's attorneys contend that because the abortion was a choice - there's that word again - their client wasn't directly responsible for the pregnancy's termination. In fact, the accident did not directly injure the fetus, which is considered a person under Illinois' wrongful death law.

It's easy to feel sympathy toward everyone. The pregnant woman's quandary surely meets the standard for nightmarish. The driver, if not innocent of carelessness and poor judgment, certainly had no intention of causing anyone harm, least of all an unborn child.

Will $1 million make it all better?

Is the driver culpable in that amount, or should the amount be a penny less or a million more? How much is a life worth? What's the price tag on pain and suffering?

Williams' hope for compensation is perhaps understandable, but that's for the court to decide. Meanwhile, the case casts an unintended light on some of the abortion questions that continue to trouble us.

First, abortion clearly ends a life. If a fetus is a precious life worth $1 million or a nickel in damages when an accident forces termination of a wanted pregnancy, then a fetus is a precious life in cases of unwanted pregnancy.

Second, the decision to have an abortion is rarely simple, nor is it so easy - or appropriate - to judge another's decision to terminate a pregnancy. In seeking $1 million in damages, Williams has invited the courts to judge her, which is both unfortunate for her and fair to Manchester.

What is most clear is that injecting the filthy lucre into an issue of such sublime importance makes things murky and diminishes the purity of justice sought. Sometimes an accident is just an accident, for which there is no satisfactory compensation.