A mother’s courageous response to a fatal fetal diagnosis: “Doing the best for John-Paul while we had him”

By Dave Andrusko

Cliona Johnston at her home in Loughlinstown, Dún Laoghaire.
Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Perhaps it is because the pro-abortion Irish Times’ conscience was bothering it for its wildly unfair coverage leading up to the referendum that gutted Ireland’s protective 8th Amendment. (The story appeared just before the referendum.) Or maybe they thought they’d throw a bone to what remains of their pro-life readership.

Whatever the newspaper’s motivation, Kitty Holland’s story headlined “Fatal foetal diagnosis: ‘I had a choice about his life, a choice to know him’ Cliona Johnson’s son John Paul lived for 17 minutes after being born with anencephaly” is an incredibly powerful, life-affirming story.

Who could not relate to Johnson’s first response in 2006 when an ultrasound showed her baby “would not survive outside the womb”? She thought

to “run, get away, hide.” She feared she “couldn’t possibly” get though the pregnancy.

Her unborn baby had been given a fatal diagnosis. Anencephaly—a serious neural tube defect in which the skull, scalp and brain do not develop properly. The baby is typically missing much of his or her brain.

She told Holland that

“The obstetrician told us our options were to travel to England and have a termination or continue the pregnancy. He said the hospital would support us either way.”

Johnson said she knew “instinctively” that abortion was out of the question. But the story is totally honest. It would be sometime before she was “at peace” with the pregnancy.

After all, she had five other children at home; she worried that people would ask about her about the baby; and she “worried her unborn son, later named John Paul, would suffer if born.”

“It was horrendous, like the world had ended and a black hole had opened instead of the life ahead I had imagined for our child. I was so confused and heartbroken,” she says.

“But neither of the choices was going to avoid the pain of losing this child. So, where did I have choice? I had a choice about his life, a choice to know him, to not be afraid of him and to let him show me who he was. That made me feel, ‘This is really the only thing I can choose’.

“Looking back now I realise the denial and the instinct to run were the first stage of grief, and grief is a process. But I moved through the stages, from ‘I can’t possibly do this’ to ‘Right now, he is safe and okay, and I am okay’. Things realigned in me and it was like a like a new door opened, and it was the child I did have rather that the child I thought I was going to have. With that came a new sense of purpose.”

I will end here because there is much more and I do not want to spoil what is a remarkable story that you should read in its entirety.

Her response to the routine pro-abortion response—the child is going “to die anyway”—is one that should be shared with any family facing a diagnosis of a fatal fetal anomaly. Her final sentence perfectly illustrates what we sacrifice when we abort a child because he or she will live only briefly.

“When we shift culture so that we have choice at the expense of life, we have it the wrong way around.”