‘We never stopped trusting’: expecting triplets, couple was advised to make a horrifying choice
October 24, 2011 (NCCatholic.org) - It’s 10 a.m. in the Holly Springs, North Carolina home of Erin and Jennifer Conley, and it’s breakfast time for their triplets, Jillian, Rebecca and Sarah. The three nine-month-old girls sit in identical chairs as their mom spoons vegetables and cereal to each in turn. Erin and Jennifer’s 3-year-old son, Adam, sits in the living room with their Labrador Retriever, Madison, surrounded by baby toys.
As the girls have grown, their individual looks and personalities have started to emerge. Rebecca, who was the smallest of the three at birth, is now the biggest, while first-born Jillian, who was the biggest, is now smaller than the other two. Sarah is focused on breakfast, while the other two seem happily curious about the visitors who have come to hear their parents’ story.
What is more heartwarming than the sight of a happy baby? And here there are three! It’s impossible to imagine that anyone could ever have wished them harm. Yet, not long ago a doctor who specializes in pregnancy and childbirth had suggested that one of the girls be “sacrificed.”
At twelve weeks, when it became clear that Jennifer was expecting triplets, her obstetrician referred her to a specialist. The ultrasound showed that the babies, now known as A, B and C, were all doing well. So the parents were shocked when the doctor began to paint a frightening picture.
She recited statistics about the special dangers of pregnancy and fetal development with triplets, the potential birth defects and complications that could attend multiple births. “The glass was always half-empty,” Erin recalled, “never half full.”
“Is there anything wrong with the children?” the parents wanted to know.
“Not at this point,” the doctor said. “But triplets are dangerous. And you know, if they all survive to term, it takes parents more than 24 hours a day to care properly for three infants.”
After listing all the things that could go wrong, the doctor proposed a solution: “Selective reduction.” By aborting one of the children, she said, there would be more room in the womb for the other two, improving the chances for a “healthy” pregnancy and delivery.
“It didn’t really sink in on me until later,” Erin said, “what she was really suggesting. We had three babies who were doing fine. The doctor recognized that they were living children, our children; they had letter ‘names’ to distinguish them. And she was advising us to kill one of them!”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Jennifer said. “I let her finish, and then I said there was no way I could permit something like that. It was against my faith.” Not just against her Catholic faith, Jennifer realized, but against her and Erin’s faith in God.
“We didn’t do in vitro,” Erin explains, referring to a procedure where several eggs are fertilized outside the womb and surgically implanted. The Church opposes this procedure because it “dissociates the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2377). “We expected one child. That we had three, they were God’s gift to us. All of them.”
The doctor hadn’t given up, though. “If it developed,” she said, “that one of the babies was threatening the health of the others, would you consider ‘reduction’ at that point?”
Jennifer reiterated her opposition to anything that would harm any of the triplets. “We came out of the office traumatized,” she says. “I don’t think Erin had completely digested what she was saying. Later he called me from work and he was crying.”
“That was my first reaction,” Erin said. “And then I felt incredibly angry.”
The parents returned to the referring physician. “I said that if they couldn’t find a doctor who understood how much these children meant to us, I’d find one myself. My babies were healthy!” Erin said. “Fortunately they referred us to a second specialist who remained totally positive throughout the pregnancy.”
As Jennifer carried the triplets in the ensuing weeks, “God was with us every step of the way,” she said. “My friends at work said, ‘If there’s anyone we know with a strong faith in God, it’s you two, and we know you’re going to make it.’”
Hadn’t the warnings from the first doctor made Erin and Jennifer fearful? “Those things were still in the backs of our minds, of course,” Erin said, “but we never stopped trusting that God would be with us.”
“I’d think of those things,” Jennifer said, “but it would be just passing thoughts. Our faith in God is so strong. We believe in Him and depend on Him in good times and bad, and we thank Him for both, because everything we have is because of God.”
Jennifer also began attending support meetings with Triangle Moms of Twins and Triplets. “It was great going there and seeing what was possible,” Erin said. “I thought if they can do it, why not me?”
When a mother is pregnant with multiples, especially with three or more babies, “making it” comes with slightly limited expectations. The babies will probably be born early, and often require some hospitalization after birth. When Jennifer talked to a nurse about scheduling a C-section, the nurse suggested a “pretend date” at 32 weeks of gestation. “No one makes that,” she said, “but it’s a goal. If it’s sooner, we can handle it.”
Jennifer made it easily to 32 weeks, then 33 and 34. At 36 weeks, she walked into the hospital. Hours later, her daughters came into the world. Jillian was first, at 6 pounds, 3 ounces; then Rebecca, at five pounds; and finally Sarah, a few ounces short of six pounds.
At home, their family suddenly doubled in size, Erin and Jennifer gratefully welcomed the help of her parents, who came to North Carolina from their home in upstate New York and spent three months helping. They also hired an au pair, Vanessa Fernandez from Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Her journey to the Conleys was an answer to Vanessa’s prayers. After signing with an agency that finds employment in the U.S. for au pairs, Vanessa, a devout Catholic, found more than one couple eager to hire her. “We chose her because she was Catholic,” Jennifer said.
While Jennifer was carrying her children, Vanessa was praying for guidance in choosing a family to work for. “When I saw that they would have triplets,” Vanessa said with a smile, “I wasn’t so sure I could handle that.” But when she learned the scheduled date for Jennifer’s C-section in November, 2010, it had a special significance for her. Her father had passed away four years before. She still missed him and prayed for him, and Jennifer’s delivery date turned out to be his birthday.
Erin, Jennifer, Vanessa and all their children make it to Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Cary each Sunday, but they find each day, with its ups and downs, an occasion for thanks, and an affirmation of the trust they continue to place in the Lord.
“It’s kind of strange sometimes, isn’t it,” Jennifer said, “the way God speaks to us? We just have to open our ears, our hearts and our souls and listen.”
Note: Rich Reese is the editor of NC Catholic, the online magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. This article originally appeared in NC Catholic and is reprinted here with the generous permission of Reese.