Edmonton Archdiocese needs a Catholic perinatal hospice


Mark Pickup

February 27, 2012

I do not know what it's like to lose a child and I hope I never do. All my children, and now grandchildren, are healthy and strong. My family is truly blessed and I try not to forget that fact.

However, there are expectant parents who face the terrible reality that their babies will be born with terminal conditions. They are usually told after a prenatal test.

They have the choice of continuing the pregnancy or aborting their baby. The prospect of continuing the pregnancy without supports can seem too daunting.

Parents are often pressured to make their decision quickly, particularly later in pregnancy, given possible complications that can arise. The problem is that they are overwhelmed by the devastating news; they are hardly in a position to make such a heavy decision.

According to Bill Saunders of Americans United for Life, only 20 per cent of couples will bring their pregnancy to term without support in what is sure to be a difficult journey.

Saunders also reveals that parents who choose abortion have deep regrets and can experience great psychological harm. This was confirmed to me by the coordinator of a perinatal hospice service that has been operating for 11 years in Wichita, Kan. Their experience reveals that parents who bring a terminally ill baby to term handle their grief much better than parents who opt to abort the child.


Perinatal hospice can provide options that comfort, nurture and support parents and also honour the humanity of their babies during the pregnancy, throughout the delivery process and after delivery. Where perinatal services are available, 80 per cent of parents facing a lethal fetal anomaly will take their baby to term.

Perinatal hospice provides a continuum of medical, emotional and spiritual support and nurture for families faced with a terminal fetal anomaly. Perinatal hospice helps ensure interdisciplinary plans are in place to support the family before, during and after the baby's birth and death.

Working in concert with the obstetrical team the parents have come to know and trust, a perinatal hospice team supports the family as much as they choose. The parents are always in control; the hospice team supports them in their decisions.

When baby is born, perinatal hospice ensures the infant is treated with the same unconditional love, respect and nurture that every child deserves.

Hospice staff or volunteers can help to prepare for the baby's death and assist with funeral arrangements, answer questions and concerns, or help to create memories that will comfort the family in their loss.

This may include ultrasound images during the pregnancy, video recordings, making cast impressions of the baby's hands and feet or taking snippets of hair for a memory box or scrapbook, and involving siblings and grandparents.

Perhaps a professional photographer of the parents' choice will be present to capture images and memories of the baby's birth. A priest may be on hand to give last rites.

The ultimate goal of perinatal hospice is to empower grieving parents to prepare for their baby's birth and death then move toward healing. Their baby may live for hours, days or months, but the commitment to serve never waivers.

Time between the family and baby is respected. Even when the baby dies, nurture for the parents does not stop as they say goodbye to their infant. Any fears of abandonment are removed as perinatal care continues to encourage healing.

This is a dramatic contrast to the sudden separation that occurs when the pregnancy is terminated by abortion.


A Catholic perinatal hospice in this archdiocese would be a wonderful witness of Christ's love for hurting parents. Our cue comes from Christ himself. He said, "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (John 13.34).

Christ loved the sick as well as the healthy, the flawed as well as the whole, the losers and those the world so readily abandoned. That is the unconditional love Jesus calls his followers to show. That is how the world recognizes us as Christ's disciples. Love is our most effective witness. Like the old hymn says, "They will know we are Christians by our love."

Psalm 139 says God's loving presence is with the unborn child. We should be present too. I happen to believe that service to the dying and the broken-hearted not only brings comfort to people who desperately need love and compassion, but it also refines the humanity of those who serve.