Except To Save The Life of The Mother

Mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with this account of an unborn baby who saved her mother’s life.

by F.R. Duplantier

Early in December of 1947, Dr. J.A. MacDougall promised a young woman dying of tuberculosis that, if she lived long enough, he’d let her leave the hospital for a few hours to celebrate Christmas at home with her husband and their only child. Having tried numerous medical procedures in a vain effort to seal a tubercular cavity in the lower lobe of his patient’s right lung, he had given up hope and did not expect the 23-year-old woman to last much longer.

“Amazingly, she was still alive on Christmas Eve, but just barely,” Dr. MacDougall recalled, so he kept his promise. She was grateful for that brief respite, but continued to decline. By the end of February, she was down to 80 pounds, and “new complications developed. She became nauseous — even without food in her stomach.”

Dr. MacDougall dismissed as “ridiculous” a colleague’s suggestion that his patient might be pregnant. “Everything I knew about medicine added up to one conclusion: she was so ill, so weak, that she couldn’t possibly have conceived. Her body wasn’t up to it. Nevertheless, I ordered a pregnancy test. To my astonishment, it was positive.” The doctor and his colleagues were confronted with a moral dilemma. “Legally, medically, we could have taken the child through abortion; it imperiled a life that was already in jeopardy. But we didn’t do it,” Dr. MacDougall confided. The doctors shared the woman’s religious objections, but they also were convinced that “the operation would kill her [and that] her body would reject the child anyway.”

Somehow, the woman clung to life — her own and that of her unborn child. “And in late June, 1948, an incredible thing happened,” said Dr. MacDougall. “She began to eat, and to gain weight. A chest X-ray showed that the growth of the TB cavity had stopped. Not long after, another X-ray showed why: the diaphragm was pushing up against the lower lobe of her diseased lung to make room for the child she was bearing. Nature was doing exactly what we’d failed to do: it was pressing the sides of that deadly hole together. The child was saving the mother.”

What prompted Dr. MacDougall to recount the details of this amazing incident for the first time — forty years after it occurred — in the December 1987 issue of a Canadian magazine called Family? “I’m concerned about the liberalization of abortion laws and the growing clamor for even greater liberalization,” he explained. “I’m against it on medical grounds: a doctor doesn’t exist to take life, but to save it. I’m against it on religious grounds: I believe that human life is sacred, that only He who creates life has the right to take it away. I’m against it, finally, because of the case I’ve described. The child didn’t destroy the mother. It saved her. Call it the will of God; call it human love; call it the mystical quality of motherhood . . . call it what you will. It happened.”

Week of: Jan. 17, 1999