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Grace and Faith

When Christian parents refuse to abort a child with a fatal condition, the result is a powerful witness

Grace and Faith

ANOTHER CHANCE: Daniel, Faith, and Crystal. (Handout photo)

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.—Daniel and Crystal Artran married in 2010 and rejoiced when they found themselves pregnant several months later. But behind the rejoicing was concern: As dwarfs of the same type, their children have a 25 percent chance of inheriting the abnormal gene from each of them, a condition called “double dominance” and incompatible with life. Still, the Simi Valley, Calif., couple knew that three out of four times they would have a healthy child. Daniel, 38, already had two preteen children from a previous marriage.

When Crystal, 27, reached her second trimester, they met with a geneticist who specializes in dwarfism. During the ultrasound, they learned they were having a girl and marveled at her distinct profile. But their countenance changed as they saw concern on the geneticist’s face. Her voice turned cold and clinical. A week later, the couple’s doctor called. Crystal’s amniocentesis test confirmed their worst fears: Their daughter was double-dominant. The doctor recommended an abortion. Or, if they acted soon, he offered to trigger labor naturally. Crystal’s birth canal is so small that the baby would die during labor.

The Artrans found themselves in the strange world of fetal testing and abortion pressure. At conferences for “little people,” they had met couples who aborted their double-dominant babies. Mothers terminate nine out of 10 Down syndrome pregnancies. In Europe, the numbers are higher: A 2011 report from Denmark even predicted the country would be Down syndrome-free within two decades. Some in the field of reproductive ethics say parents have a duty to use advanced forms of pregnancy screening and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure medically “flawless” children.

But the Artrans opted to keep their unborn daughter even though she was expected to die at birth.

Daniel and Crystal asked their local church congregation to pray for them. They confessed that when they were dating four years earlier, they had aborted their first baby out of convenience and fear—a decision they kept secret and painfully regretted. “We couldn’t go through that sadness again. We felt like with this pregnancy we were given another chance,” Daniel said. Telling others about their abortion and the healing that followed led them to name their daughter Grace.

In the coming months, Crystal’s 4-foot-2-inch frame ballooned with baby weight and an abnormal amount of amniotic fluid, a common symptom of problematic pregnancies. The extra fluid meant she felt no flutters or kicks. Sleeping, eating, and even breathing felt increasingly uncomfortable. But they got to know Grace via regular 3-D ultrasounds: “She looked normal. It was encouraging. We could see her little hands and feet and Daniel’s pouty lips,” Crystal said.

As Crystal’s scheduled C-section approached, the Artrans met with the neonatal doctor to ensure that Grace would be put on life support immediately after birth, “so we could have time with her and say goodbye,” Daniel said. But 48 hours before the delivery, the neonatal nurses protested, citing their “ethical rights.” They argued it was cruel to allow Grace to adjust to life support only to take her off, causing her more struggle in death.

Alone in the doctor’s office, Daniel and Crystal had moments to decide whether to protest. As they prayed, Daniel realized, “We tried to believe Grace wouldn’t be double-dominant. We tried to control this pregnancy. We made this pregnancy about us.” They chose not to protest, putting Grace’s life and the amount of time they would have with her “in God’s hands.”

On the day of Grace’s birth, a handful of friends and family members circled around Crystal’s hospital bed, quietly praying. An hour later, a squeaky cry filled the room, followed by a collective gasp and tears of joy. The doctor quickly put Grace on Crystal’s chest, forgoing normal newborn procedures. Both grandmothers had a chance to hold her. As Daniel wheeled Grace to their room, she peeked one eye open as he hit a slight bump: “She obviously didn’t like that.” In the room, they dressed her in frilly pink pajamas. Slowly her heart stopped beating as she slept on Crystal’s chest. An hour after her birth, Grace died.

On a hot Indian summer day, fans whir and closed shades darken the Artrans’ neutral-toned home. A pink patchwork quilt made by Daniel’s mother covers a dwarf-size table, brightening the living room. On it are three porcelain angels next to a black-and-white framed picture of Daniel, Crystal, and tiny Grace. A white book opens to her imprinted footprint. Daniel reminisces, “She woke up in the hands of God. Granted, we go through the pain of losing her, but she didn’t have to go through any pain.”

Six months later, Crystal was pregnant again. When she went for an amniocentesis, Daniel thought, “What are the odds of having another double-dominant baby?” Regardless, they decided they “would do everything exactly the same.” A week later, Crystal came home from her pharmaceutical job to a car-filled driveway. Friends, family, and their pastor gathered for support as Daniel broke the news: They had another daughter—she was double-dominant.

Crystal fought her insurance company to have a second test performed: “I really thought they had made a mistake.” She had friends who had aborted their baby for scientific research when an amniocentesis revealed double dominance. Later, a research lab came back with startling results: They had aborted a healthy dwarf boy.

As the Artrans prayed and sought counsel, they were able to trust God. They named their daughter “Faith.” Crystal concluded, “If God is going to do a miracle, why would we need a second test?” She focused on eating healthily and making baby preparations, shopping for baby clothes and reading aloud to Faith in utero. Again, she swelled with amniotic fluid. She had it drained once—but within a week the fluid was back. Toward the end, she spent much of her time in a stiff wooden chair, the place she felt most comfortable. But she says, “It’s all worth it when you hear that cry.”

Last July, friends and family again filled Crystal’s delivery room for support. The moment Faith was born, she went straight to Crystal’s chest, even giving her “a little pirate eye.” But her weak fuss indicated, “This wasn’t going to be the miracle we had hoped for.” Within an hour, Faith passed away. In their room, Daniel recalls, “The minutes seem like seconds and before you know it, you hear that quiet knock. You know it’s time to say goodbye.”

Now on the Artrans’ pink table, wooden cut-out letters spell “Faith.” Her hospital bracelet dangles off one side. Crystal says, “I really thought Faith was what we were waiting for. Then I realized, OK, that’s not the end of the story. It’s still going.”

The Artrans say the experience has strengthened their marriage and their spiritual walk. As people they hardly knew prayed for and supported them, they learned about Christian community. Recently they began sharing their story with others. Some people ask why they put themselves through the grief—why not just abort? Daniel answers, “That’s not our call to make. God is the only one who can decide who lives and who dies. And besides, I’m proud to talk about our girls.”

An agonizing path

My wife Jennifer and I were the parents of two children, a son and a daughter, when Jennifer miscarried—a heartbreak for both of us. 

Then, six years ago, she gave birth to our daughter Carissa, who had Trisomy 13, a serious genetic anomaly. Carissa had lived only eight days when doctors told us it was time to remove her from life support. After consulting a wise seminary professor, we agreed, hoping and praying for a miracle. We sang and prayed as Carissa (a derivative of the Greek word “grace”) slowly stopped breathing.  

We had another healthy son and in 2010 discovered that Jennifer was pregnant with twins. Surely, I thought, this was God’s blessing for our faithfulness with Carissa.  

About 13 weeks into the pregnancy doctors told us our twins had a potentially life-threatening condition called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. Prenatal laser surgery could eliminate the offending arteries that caused the condition, and doctors said they needed to perform an amniocentesis to see if the twins had a chromosomal problem like Carissa’s that would disqualify them for surgery.

The amniocentesis showed one twin to have an extra Y chromosome, a mild trisomy condition that many men and boys have without even knowing it. The doctors asked if we wanted to continue. We said yes. We are pro-life and these were our boys! The laser surgery was successful, and doctors assigned Jennifer to bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. The six-week follow-up appointment showed everything was great.

Then a routine checkup revealed that the larger twin, Ezekiel, had died in the womb. The other baby was also in danger. Zeke’s death seriously challenged my faith: We had made all the right “life” decisions, and God was going to rip away from us two more children. He seemed to be answering “No!” to all my prayers.

A week later, we went to the hospital because Jennifer’s water had broken. They admitted her and tried to delay the surviving twin’s birth. Days and nights passed and finally, on June 17, 2010, Jennifer went into hard labor. After four hours, doctors performed a cesarean section. Zach’s eyes fluttered open as nurses carried him to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). 

Meanwhile Jennifer had complications from infection, forcing doctors to perform an emergency hysterectomy. A clotting issue required units of blood and plasma. After four more hours of surgery, they wheeled her to the recovery room. Four hours later she was finally in her room, waiting with me to hear news about little Zach.

In the NICU, Zach struggled. He weighed about 1 and a half pounds and was full of infection. Doctors inserted tiny lines into his blood vessels to administer medication. They alternated between a respirator and a tiny hand-squeezed model to help him breathe.  

Just before midnight the phone rang from the NICU: I should come down to see Zach. The combination of trauma, infection, and prematurity was too much. Doctors removed him from the machines to see if he could survive on his own. Although Jennifer came down on her bed to see Zach, she was too weak to hold him. Numbly, I held him and watched as the time between each breath increased, and he died. He lived less than 24 hours.

Back up in Jennifer’s room, nurses worked feverishly on my wife, who had started to bleed again. More blood, more plasma, and more care later, she slowly began to recover.  Jennifer didn’t want to attend another funeral or memorial service, so I scheduled it while she was still in the ICU.  

It is now two and a half years since these events took place. Jennifer has recovered physically and normal life goes on—but we are different. God gave us three children to raise and four others to carry and say goodbye to. Like Job, we are sometimes called to worship God at the hardest moments of life.  

The world says we could have taken a shorter, less agonizing path, but we made the decision to protect the life of the unborn, bearing the loss and going through the grief. Like others who chose life and lost it, we long to hear Christ’s commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77