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Rebecca Loretz and her husband Michael with their "miracle" daughter Philomena.

July 17, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – Rebecca Loretz and her husband Michael were accustomed to defying doctors’ advice in pursuit of their dream of having a large family. But this time was different.

After their second child had been born via c-section, doctors had strongly advised the couple not to have any more, due to the risk of uterine rupture. But the couple instead read up on all the relevant medical literature, and found out that the risk of rupture following repeat c-sections in a developed country is less than 1%. That was a risk they were willing to take, and they went on to successfully have six more children, all via c-section.

However, after their eighth child was born the couple realized they weren’t getting any younger, and the pregnancies were becoming progressively harder on Rebecca. After consulting with their spiritual director, they decided to delay having any more children for the foreseeable future.

But their efforts to use Natural Family Planning, which the Catholic Church teaches is the only moral method of spacing children, apart from total abstinence, didn’t go as planned. In May of 2013, they learned that they were expecting their ninth child.

“It was a real surprise to us,” Michael told LifeSiteNews. “It was a really pleasant surprise for us, because we assumed that the course of that pregnancy would follow more or less the others.”

But that was not to be. A scan early in the pregnancy came back with a diagnosis of “scar ectopic” – the baby had attached itself to the scar tissue from Rebecca’s previous c-sections. The risks of carrying such a pregnancy to term, the couple was told, were catastrophic.

“We were told by the doctors that there was no hope for this baby,” says Michael, “that it was ectopic and that it needed to be aborted.” 

Ectopic pregnancy is an extreme case that pro-life ethicists have wrestled with, with most concluding, based upon the so-called “principle of double-effect,” that it can be morally licit to remove the part of the woman's body where the baby has implanted – typically the fallopian tubes – as a treatment to save the life of the mother. Although this treatment will certainly result in the death of the child, pro-life ethicists argue the treatment is moral, as long as causing the death of the child is unintentional. It would not, however, be permissible to directly abort the baby, such as by taking Methotrexate, a drug that expels the baby.

Working with their spiritual director, Michael and Rebecca refused the Methotrexate the hospital offered them, and also decided to fight for their child against the odds, telling the hospital that in case of complication, they should work to save both mother and child, or, in the worst case, one or the other.

However, the hospital had no plan B to using Methotrexate, as no other couple had ever refused the abortion. The doctors checked Rebecca into the hospital, and began intensively monitoring her, while putting heavy pressure on the couple to agree to the abortion.

A leap of faith

Over the next several days, various doctors and nurses came into Rebecca’s room, both singly and in teams, and tried to convince her to take the drugs that would end her baby’s life.

Michael recalls: “One doctor said to me, ‘You have a zero chance of this pregnancy ending in a baby and a very likely chance you could face the death of Rebecca. Is that what you want? You just don't want to face facts and so you don't want to listen to us.’”

Finally, after it became absolutely clear that there was no way the couple would ever budge, Michael recalls that medical staff actually became quite supportive, with some of them praying for them and their baby.

Rebecca and Michael received a brief ray of hope during a subsequent scan when the sonographer informed them that the pregnancy had been misdiagnosed. The baby was not scar ectopic, but rather cervical ectopic – the baby had actually attached itself to Rebecca’s cervix.

“Is that better?” Michael asked the sonographer hopefully. He still remembers the painful answer: “No. That’s actually worse.”

But a third scan, much later in the pregnancy, did finally provide them with real hope, as the sonographer discovered that the baby appeared to be in the uterus, just very low down, and not necessarily on the cervix as originally thought. This lessened the danger somewhat, though not by so much that they were any less anxious.

The couple admits that the pregnancy was “very, very scary.” For Rebecca, the only thing that got her through was the knowledge that people all over the world were praying for her.

“I had to spend five weeks in the hospital before she was born,” recalls Rebecca, “because they were scared that everything was just going to explode. And when I went into the hospital I was, ‘Please God, please God, give me this baby.’ And then by the end of the five weeks, I was like, ‘Ok Lord, it’s your will. This is what I want, but I’m going to follow your will.’”

Finally, on November 1, 2013, after several bleeding scares, five weeks spent in the hospital, and a four hour surgery during which surgeons had prepared for the worst, their little daughter Philomena, their “miracle” child, was born – perfectly healthy.

In the process of delivering Philomena, the doctors were forced to remove Rebecca’s uterus, due to the fact that the placenta had grown right through the uterus. Although there would certainly be no more children in Michael and Rebecca’s future, the couple, and the baby they had fought, suffered and prayed for so much, had defied the seemingly impossible odds.

Rebecca was safe. And so was Philomena.

'Dumbfounded' by Pope’s c-section remarks

The devout Catholic couple credits the intercession of St. Philomena – a young girl who is believed to have been martyred in the Roman empire in the early 300s – for their daughter’s survival. The couple prayed to this saint throughout the pregnancy, and even promised to name their child after the saint, if she turned out to be a girl – a promise they gladly fulfilled.

In fact, they say that throughout their married life, they have striven to follow God’s will for their family, and have tried to be as “generous” as possible – often in the face of severe criticism from friends and family.

At the same time, says Michael, they have tried not to be reckless. With each pregnancy they have prayed, consulted with their spiritual director, and they have always intensively studied the medical literature to determine the risks involved, often finding that they were not as high as what their doctors had told them.

This, says the couple, was why they were so dismayed when on January 19 of this year, on a plane ride home from the Philippines, Pope Francis had singled out a woman whom he had met, who had had eight c-sections – one less than Rebecca.

The pope told reporters on the plane that he had “rebuked” the woman, saying, “But do you want to leave seven orphans? That is to tempt God!” Later during the in-flight interview, Francis returned to speaking of the woman, adding, “That is an irresponsibility. [That woman might say] 'no but I trust in God.' But God gives you methods to be responsible.” 

Rebecca remembers her reaction when she first heard what the pope had said. “I was a bit dumbfounded,” she says. “I thought: ‘Oh no, that can’t be right. He must have been misquoted.’”

The reaction was shared by some of Rebecca’s friends, also mothers of large families. “We were all really quite stunned, because the women I was talking to also had challenges with pregnancies. They believed, like us, that we were open to life, and that was what we were meant to be.”

When it became clear that the pope had not been misquoted, Michael says it felt as if they had been “kicked in the gut.” He admits, “we’re not particularly holy, so the first thing you think of is how that affects you.”

“I sort of just felt straight away, ‘How on earth do I now defend the existence of my family to others who already think that my life’s decisions have been not only wrong, but a sort of tyranny over the others?’”

Any parent of a large family is accustomed to receiving insensitive and sarcastic remarks about their family size. Michael said in his case this has been exacerbated because of the risks that his wife had taken during their pregnancy. People, he says, can’t imagine that there might be a “complicit, fruitful love there,” but assume that “here’s a traditionalist guy, who’s forced something on the family.”

“My first thoughts were when I’m in those sorts of conversations, what do I appeal to because now the leadership of my church, who usually provides a sound philosophical basis for what we’re doing, has sort of said similar things?” asked Michael. “I felt isolated and sort of abandoned by the person who should be giving me the most support.”

While the pope subsequently apologized for the “confusion” that his remarks caused, the couple said they found the apology strangely unsatisfactory, since there was no clarification or backing away from the substance of his remarks.

The problem, says Michael, was the way the pope “cordoned off” even the possibility that a couple could prayerfully discern that God is calling them to be generous even in difficult circumstances, as well the lack of a clear guiding principle. “If eight is too many cesarean sections, what is the number of cesarean sections that is acceptable? If this woman was irresponsible, what particular circumstance made that an irresponsible choice?”

For Rebecca, the effect has been to color the way she receives the pope’s statements. “In some ways I kind of look at what the pope says now and think, I have to kind of work out what he’s trying to say now. It might not necessarily mean what he says, because he might come out and clarify it later, or he might apologize for something later.”

Unnecessary abortions?

In the meantime, says the couple, they are simply striving to pass on to their own children their convictions about the meaning of vocation, and especially the married vocation.

“We’d really like them to be open to life and be as generous as they can be with God in their marriage,” says Rebecca. “We educate our children about the meaning of marriage and the purpose of marriage. And being open to life and seeing it as a sacrament and as a source of their happiness.”

They are also left wondering about whether their case might not be so abnormal, were medical science to view both the mother and her baby both as patients who deserve care, even when their interests seem to be in conflict.

In his efforts to absorb the medical literature, Michael was stunned to find out that of the 60,000 or so similar diagnoses since 1967, 99.7% of those have ended in abortion. The number of those women who hadn’t gone through abortion was “so small that they couldn’t really say what the outcome is.”

“With Philomena having come through, absolutely a fine, healthy baby, and my wife surviving what they predicted would be terrible, I wondered how many babies have been unnecessarily aborted.”

Science may never find out. But in the short time, their case had one positive result, as a sonographer with whom they dealt told them that he had presented their case to a medical convention, arguing that “hospitals need to be more accommodating of a conservative wait and see approach, even with diagnoses of this kind of ectopic pregnancy.”

And, of course, there's their daughter Philomena, who is thriving. 

See related article: ‘What have we come to?’ Pro-life leader compares Francis and John Paul II on moms with C-sections