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From the July/August, 2007 issue of Touchstone


Angels in the Wilderness by Gilbert Meilaender

Angels in the Wilderness

Letter to a Daughter About Giving Up a Child

Dear Hannah,

Yes, I can understand the question you raised when we were talking on the phone the other night. There is something frightening about bringing a child into the world, and I’m not sure we’d ever do it if nature didn’t just get the better of us. I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job of replying on the spot to your comment, so I thought I’d try to organize my ideas better by putting them down on paper.

When taking up the topic of abortion in class over the years, I’ve often wondered: Why would a pregnant woman rather snuff out the life of her unborn child than complete the pregnancy and put the child up for adoption? I’ve asked precisely that question countless times, and the same answer always comes back from a good number of students: “I couldn’t bear to go through life not knowing what happened to my child.”

I understand this, yet I don’t understand it. Here’s what I don’t understand: How can we miss the fact that we are subtly making ourselves rather than that child (whose young life is to be snuffed out) the victim? Is this a way of avoiding the unpleasant truth that we are indeed attached to this child?

For, after all, if we were not, uncertainty about the child’s future could not touch us so deeply. There’s an egregious act of bad faith involved in failing to see and reflect upon this—in failing to see our own attachment and in forgetting who is really the victim here.

Still, there is also something that I do understand: It is frightening to be so deeply attached to one for whose life we can offer no assurance or guarantee. As the old minister, John Ames, reflects in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead:

It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.

(Did you catch the biblical allusion? Have a look at Genesis 21.)

This is true even for all of us who do not give up our children but try, instead, to raise them. We too “can secure so little . . . even in the best of circumstances”—and often circumstances are far from the best.

Realizing this, we should think seriously not only about the bad faith I noted above but also—perhaps even more—about our desire to shape and mold the next generation. We don’t want to bring home just any baby, much less a baby with obvious “defects.” So we test prenatally, we screen in advance, we refine our ability to determine not only illnesses but also characteristics, such as sex, earlier and earlier in pregnancy.

And then, if nonetheless we find ourselves in the wilderness, we do not expect to meet angels there. Our plans derailed, feeling ourselves victimized, we try again to take charge of the next generation by eliminating it.

I don’t think a person even has to be “pro-life” to see this. I remember how struck I was by an observation of Barbara Katz Rothman—a sociologist and not herself opposed to abortion—who noted how prenatal screening, though used to relieve the anxiety of a pregnant woman about the health of her unborn child, is really relieving anxiety it has largely produced in the first place. It is, in considerable measure, the ability to screen that makes us fear what we cannot control.

Still more, screening is poor preparation for parenthood, in which we “can secure so little” for our children “even in the best of circumstances.” Or, as Rothman puts it: “The possibility of spending the rest of one’s life caring for a sick or disabled child can never be eliminated by prenatal testing. I worry about women who say they only dare have children because prenatal diagnosis is available. Motherhood is, among other things, one more chance for a speeding truck to ruin your life.”

I’ve even found myself wondering whether, in some complicated ways I can’t entirely trace or fathom, this desire of ours to secure the next generation is related to our society’s increasingly desperate attempt to ward off death and stay alive as long as possible. Having children reminds us of our mortality. I’ve never forgotten how—it was quite some time ago—the birth of my first child (your older brother) gave me an entirely different angle on my relation to my own parents.

There’s an undercurrent to parenthood that makes us uneasy. “Even in the best of circumstances,” we will eventually have to leave our children behind. We will die. However desperately we would like to secure their future, would like all to be well for them, that future will be taken out of our hands—because, for us, it will be no more.

It is, then, no small act when we hand these children over in baptism. In doing so we acknowledge that we cannot guarantee their future. No more than a mother who hands over her child for adoption can we know what the future will hold for them, do anything more to shape it, help them to face it, or deflect the speeding trucks that may be coming.

Perhaps the first thing a genuinely pro-life sensibility needs to recapture is this sense of our own limits. The gift of the child, precisely because it is a gift, is ours to care for but not finally to secure. There had better be angels in the wilderness, who can say to us as to Hagar: “Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad.”


Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. His books include Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (Encounter Books) and Should We Live Forever?: The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans). He is a Lutheran.

“Angels in the Wilderness” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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