On Thursday night, Michelle Duggar gave birth to her 19th child via emergency C-section. Michelle had been suffering from gallstones and elevated blood pressure last weekend, and at some point her health made it necessary to deliver Josie Brooklyn three months before her due date and at only 1 pound, 6 ounces. Michelle is reportedly resting comfortably, while Josie is stable in the neonatal intensive care unit, but neither is necessarily out of the woods.
Unfortunately, only time will tell how the extremely premature baby will fare. In the meantime, as OpenSalon blogger LadyMiko put it, "One question is going off in my head like a strobe light: Even in the healthiest of circumstances, how many children can a woman have, before it becomes a danger to her health? I'm not asking this as a judgment, but as a sincere question." Luchina Fisher and Lauren Cox at ABC News asked the same question of Rhode Island OB-GYN Joanna Cain, and learned that "women who've borne more than five children risk hemorrhage and even the loss of their uterus because repeated pregnancies sometimes thin the walls of the uterus." Furthermore, "women such as Duggar, after their child-bearing years, are also at greater risk of incontinence and even uterine prolapse, in which the uterus falls to the pelvic floor."
Vyckie Garrison, a former member of the "Quiverfull" religious movement that's spiritually responsible for the Duggars' enormous brood, suffered a partial uterine rupture during one of her seven pregnancies, and doctors told her that for the sake of her own health, she shouldn't conceive again. But according to her religious beliefs at the time, using contraception or even abstaining from sex when she was ovulating would be defying God's will. In a recent post on her "No Longer Quivering" blog, Garrison reprints a letter she once wrote to a 21-year-old mother of two who wondered if there were any circumstances under which it would be all right for a woman to "abstain during her fertile time." When she wrote it, Garrison was stull fully committed to the Quiverfull lifestyle.
I know you are well aware that often when a doctor tells a woman that future pregnancies might jeopardize her life -- it is simply not true. It is rare that pregnancy is actually life threatening to the mother. In many cases, when a woman's health is severely compromised, infertility goes along with the health condition (i.e. amenorrhea due to extreme weight loss or gain, etc.) -- this most likely is God's way of protecting the woman from the risks of pregnancy during that time. But what about the cases when the woman's reproductive system continues to function normally in spite of her other health conditions, or in the (very rare) case of a woman whose health is otherwise fine -- it is only pregnancy which puts her at risk?
Many would argue that in those cases, a couple ought to trust God to supernaturally close the woman's womb. After all, she cannot get pregnant outside of the will of God -- and He knows whether a pregnancy will endanger her life, so He can be trusted to do what is best for the woman in her situation. Abstaining during the woman's fertile period would be a lack of faith and therefore, the couple should not expect to receive God's protection for the woman's health.
Got that? If you abstain just because some doctor told you pregnancy could kill you, God will get mad and wreck your health anyway -- so what have you got to lose? Garrison adds a postscript written recently, years after she left the Quiverfull movement and her abusive husband, admitting that even that wasn't as extreme as what she truly believed at the time. "I didn't come right out and say that I honestly doubted that for some women, pregnancy is a life-threatening condition. (My years as a staunch pro-life advocate taught me that the 'life of the mother' argument was really only a convenient fallacy promoted by the pro-aborts.)" Chillingly, Garrison says she still refused to believe it after that uterine rupture nearly killed her and her son. Because if God personally authorizes each pregnancy for a specific purpose, why would he greenlight one that would leave a child -- or six or seven or 18 children -- motherless?
Enduring a dangerous pregnancy, then, is simply a test of faith. In an e-mail, Kathryn Joyce, author of "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement," told me, "What may be more disturbing than these potentially deadly health effects is the response that Quiverfull women might get from the movement's leadership, many of whom emphasize that women's duty to bear many children should be viewed as a 'missionary' calling, with all the risks that traditional missionary work entails." And if you don't survive all those risks? Well, we know God doesn't fuck anything up, so it must have been something you did. Says Joyce, "Other leaders have said that women's health problems during or related to pregnancy are the result of unrepented sin -- in other words, their own fault." And yes, this God would, in fact, punish a woman for sinning by leaving her children motherless. In an interview for Salon, Vyckie Garrison told Joyce that after doctors advised her not to conceive again, her religious leaders told her that if she died doing her maternal duty, God would care for her family."
According to MSNBC, while Michelle Duggar was hospitalized last weekend, a reporter asked what she'd do if doctors told her that future pregnancies might be life-threatening. Her reply was as heartbreaking as it is mind-boggling to most of us: "I don't know. I'm not at that place. I guess we would just cross that bridge when we got there. If there was something that were life threatening for me, that would be a matter of prayer."