By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

I saw a story this morning that created a conflict between my heart and my head. An imminently dying man and his pregnant wife wanted him to be able to hold their baby before passing. And so, doctors agreed to induce a two-week early birth to make that happen. From the AP Story:

Diane Aulger was about two weeks from her delivery date when she and her husband decided there was no time to wait: Mark Aulger had only days to live, and he wanted to see his child. Diane Aulger had her labor induced and gave birth to their daughter Jan. 18. When tiny Savannah was placed in his arms, Mark Aulger “cried, and he just looked very sad,” his wife said. He died five days later from complications related to his cancer treatment.

My heart is very glad Mark was able to hold his baby. My head says that doctors were wrong to induce an early birth for a wholly non medical reason.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this. The last two or three weeks of pregnancy are not superfluous. They have a purpose or birth would come at 38 weeks instead of 40. Here’s a general overview. From WEB MD:

Week 38

Baby: Your baby is about 21 inches from head to toe and weighs about 6.8 pounds. Most of the baby’s downy hair, lanugo, and whitish coating, vernix, is disappearing. Your baby is getting its antibodies from you to protect against illness. Baby’s growth is slowing, but fat cells under skin get plumper for life outside the womb. Almost ready for birth, your baby would do well if born now…

Week 39

Baby: Your baby is about 21.5 inches long from head to toe and weighs a little more than 7 pounds. Toenails and fingernails have grown to tips of toes and fingers. Muscles of your baby’s arms and legs are strong, and he’s practicing lung movements. Baby’s head has dropped into the mother’s pelvis if he’s head-down, which allows you to breathe a little easier…

Week 40

Baby: Your baby’s length is about 21.5 inches from head to toe and it weighs about 7.5 pounds. Boys often tend to weigh a little more than girls. Reflexes are coordinated so the baby can blink, close his eyes, turn his head, grasp firmly and respond to sounds, light and touch. More lanugo falls out, but some may remain at birth on shoulders, folds of skin and backs of ears.

My focus here is on the doctors. Was it wrong for them to agree to a non therapeutic inducement because of the high emotional quotient? Or, let me put it another way. Would they have been open to a malpractice suit if something went wrong? I think so because they agreed to do the procedure, they weren’t forced. Indeed, I think they should have said no because there was no health benefit to the baby whatsoever and a small chance that some harm could result.

But if I am wrong about that, where should the line be drawn? What if a family asks for an early delivery so they can take a cruise? I think most would say that doctors, as medical professionals, should say no. What about to allow a soldier deploying overseas to a war zone for a year to see his child “just in case?” At what point do doctors deprofessionalize themselves and become mere technocratic order takers? This case, as understandable as it might be, I think crosses that line.