Recently an article was published that ignited outrage in the pro-life community, the baby loss community, and beyond. Twin babies were born alive at 22+ weeks, and medical intervention was not an option offered to them. As I read the words, and the ensuing comments, my heart ached for the family…and for the medical staff of a very respected hospital. Sufficient Grace Ministries has been honored to work alongside the compassionate team of nurses and physicians at this particular hospital many times. While I do not want to get into the logistics of the article, and I was not part of this story, nor do I know all the details, I do want to clear up some misconceptions about medical intervention in cases of premature infants for the public.
We provide bereavement support and remembrance photography for families facing perinatal loss throughout the state of Ohio and train medical personnel throughout the country on providing support for patients experiencing perinatal loss. It is common practice in the majority of the hospitals we work with that families who experience the birth of a baby prior to 24 weeks (occasionally 23) are not offered medical intervention as an option. For various reasons. One example is the premature rupture of membranes. In those cases, babies are often born alive and live for minutes to a couple hours. It is the policy of most hospitals in Ohio to not attempt life saving measures prior to 24 weeks. Some hospitals may go by weight or other indicators…(500 grams is a weight for some hospitals). A baby may be assessed and an exception may be made. But 24 weeks is the current accepted age for intervention/viability. This may vary slightly. Obviously we all hear those rare cases where intervention is done prior to 24 weeks. And a miracle happened. But many times, these little ones are just too tiny to survive, even with intervention. So they are given to their moms to hold and love on until they pass.
Why would a hospital not offer medical intervention prior to 24 weeks:
Many hospitals are not yet equipped to perform life-saving measures on babies under 24 weeks.
Although there have been a handful of cases of babies who miraculously survived at 21-23 weeks gestation, it is still very rare. The age of viability is still considered to be 24 weeks.
In the majority of the cases, we still do not have the technology to consistently provide life-saving measures for babies born under 24 weeks gestation.
Babies born at very early gestations who do survive face many debilitating health issues.
According to an article published on the Very Well Family website and reviewed by a physician: “In many hospitals, 24 weeks is the cutoff point for when doctors will use intensive medical intervention to attempt to save the life of a baby born prematurely.” This is accepted throughout the country, not just in the state of Ohio.
We have found this to be the case in our work as well. And, while as bereaved parents and birth professionals, we understand the pain of watching a child born alive but not being able to save the precious little one, we also understand the limitations of medicine.
One of the misconceptions put out into the media frenzy was that the staff was not supportive of life or compassionate because they did not intervene to save the babies. While I understand at first glance, that may seem the case, and I was not present for that family’s situation, nor do I know the details, I do know the hearts of most of the labor and delivery nurses we encounter.
Nurses and doctors, almost universally, are healers. Nurses, especially are wired to be caregivers. Everything in their nature and everything in their training leads them to want to fix what is broken…to heal the sick…to save a life. Everything.
The cases when a mother’s labor cannot be stopped and a baby is born too early to save are incredibly difficult for medical personnel. I have held many nurses in the hallway, who tearfully proclaim, “It is so hard to do nothing. Everything in me wants to rush to save this life.”
Most of the time, families with babies born prior to 24 weeks experience comfort care. Comfort care can still bring great emotional healing when families are offered support and options. Comfort care honors life, too. It is not doing nothing. It is filling whatever time we are given with our babies with love. I have stood beside many mothers and fathers as their babies born from 19-23 weeks have quietly passed in the arms of their parents, surrounded by the love of family. Even in the midst of the broken, there can be great beauty. It is peaceful. Babies do not suffer. They are put directly into their mothers’ arms and loved from this life into eternity. We marvel at their tiny feet and hands, as we create mementos and capture the moments of their brief lives. At Sufficient Grace Ministries, we honor all life and believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of human life. We view comfort care just as life-honoring as intensive medical intervention…whether a baby is given a life-limiting diagnosis in pregnancy or whether a baby is born too early to save.
In the cases when families who receive a life-limiting condition are given the choice of medical intervention or comfort care…they weigh the options for their family, their baby, their diagnosis. They may pray and agonize over what is best. There are no right or wrong answers for these impossible situations. But, we must be careful about making snap judgments. Both families who choose intervention and families who choose comfort care are honoring the lives of their babies and valuing human life. Medicine does have limitations, and sometimes peaceful, gentle moments with a baby are the best a hospital can offer.
We send our prayers and stand in love and solidarity with all families grieving the loss of their sweet babies…and with the beautiful nurses and physicians who offer their best and many times carry grief in their hearts for the ones that couldn’t be saved.
For support and/or Dreams of You Comfort/Bereavement Resources, visit our website.
Originally Published at Sufficient Grace Ministries
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly’s journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here: www.sufficientgraceministries.org.