Termination

Mr Brown paced up and down impatiently; how much longer would they have to wait? His wife looked up at him lovingly; this was even more difficult for him than for her. She'd already had one child, Ross, by her first husband, but David was childless, and because he was so much older than her, this would be his last chance ever to have one. He wanted it to be a boy, a son and heir, but she knew that even if it weren't, he'd be thrilled. If she were allowed to bear it.

The new statute had been passed barely four months before the birth of Ross: the infamous Clause 31; she trembled when she thought of it. If she'd become pregnant a year earlier...she shuddered when she thought of what would have happened. Ross was fourteen now, and she was so proud of him. She visited him at the Centre every weekend; they both visited him. She wanted so much to bring him home, but that wasn't permitted. The Christian Democrat Party said they hoped to eradicate all genetic diseases within the next generation. Among other things, Clause 31 had made amniocentesis compulsory from the 14th week of pregnancy on. The bill had been passed unanimously with barely a whisper of dissent from either the original opposition or from any of the fringe parties; most had given their enthusiastic support.

Mrs Brown closed her eyes an visualised her son. It was Friday today, so they'd be visiting him tomorrow. Over the years, David had come to love the boy as though he were his own, but it wasn't the same, he knew that, so did she, and he knew that she knew, that was what made it worse. Suddenly she felt his hand on her shoulder; she smiled up at him as he sat down next to her, catching his breath.

“I must be older than I though,” he said, as he put his arm round her.

“We're none of us getting any younger,” she replied.

He opened his mouth to speak again, but before he could, the swing doors in front of them burst open and a white coated figure appeared. He held a pen in one hand, a clipboard in the other, and, looking down at Mrs Brown, said, “Mrs Brown, and Mr Brown?”

“Yes,” they answered in unison.

“The consultant will see you now,” he said, without betraying the slightest trace of emotion.

They followed the male nurse down the corridor; it was bright, clean, and had the familiar antiseptic smell one associates with hospitals. Their escort stopped in front of the second door from the end, rapped on it, then thrust it open without waiting for a reply.

“Mrs Brown and Mr Brown, sir,” he said, then, stepping back, bade them enter and closed the door behind them.

Mrs Brown studied the consultant's face; last time they'd met, he'd seemed hard, impassive; now though, he smiled at her benevolently. That was a good sign, she thought.

He stood behind his desk and held out his hand to her, “Mrs Brown, take a seat. And Mr Brown, I don't believe we've met before.”

Mr Brown held out his hand and shook the consultant's after his wife.

“No, I was in Japan on business.”

“Please take a seat, both of you,” he said, resuming his.

Mrs Brown sat down opposite him, and her husband drew up the other chair from the far wall.

“Now, Mrs Brown,” he said, shuffling with the files on his desk, “how have you been feeling since we last met?”

“Oh,” she was nonplussed, “fine.”

“Good, good,” he said, opening the file.

“And Mr Brown, I believe you are your wife's second husband.”

“Yes,” he replied, “Julia, my wife was married before, but her first husband died in a car accident.”

“Yes,” said the consultant, “it's terrible that some people have to die so young without realising their full potential.”

As he said that, he smiled at Mrs Brown, who took this to be another good sign.

“Still, something good always seems to come out of every tragedy; we can't bring back the dead, but we can enjoy the living.”

He nodded to each of them in turn, implying that their union was the good that ha come out of the tragedy of the death of Mrs Brown's first husband. He opened the top file on his desk, shifting the others around slightly.

“The state,” he continued, “also feels that some good should come out of every tragedy. Since the turn of the century, when the first significant breakthrough was made in human genetic engineering,l we have been looking increasingly at the problem of the quality of human life. We have a population of some seven billions now in spite of global planning and several pandemics which have decimated certain populations, AIDS for example. Our masters feel that it is not possible to continue this expansion unchecked, so in their wisdom they have decreed that only children who are healthy and without any physical or mental impairment should be born. The Department or Race Hygiene recognises first the rights of the human species, second, the rights of individual human beings. None of us has any rights except where those rights do not infringe on the rights of others, and the right of the human species is, first and foremost, to survive.”

“Yes, we understand that,” said Mrs Brown, as indeed they did: TV documentaries nowadays were seldom abut anything else.

“Though this is regarded by the state and by the United Nations as a right, we in the medical profession see it more as a duty. Just as every citizen has a duty to become literate and numerate, to earn his or her livelihood as best he or she can and the maintain his or her health so as not to be a burden the state and thereby on his fellow men, so it is the duty of the deformed, the handicapped, those with no meaningful quality of life to make the supreme sacrifice so that other, more capable people will have a better chance.”

He moved the file to one sidle, and as he did so, slipped out a blue form, ticking it with his pen.

“That probably sounds very callous,” he said, staring directly at Mrs Brown.

“No,” she said, “I do understand.”

“We both do,” said her husband, reaching out and taking hold of her hand.

“It would be if we didn't draw the line at the unborn. Your son was born just after Clause 31 became law, I believe.”

“Yes,” said Mrs Brown, thanking God.

The consultant nodded thoughtfully, “You weren't aware of his impairment of course; screening wasn't mandatory then, and even if it had been, they would still have missed him. Today, however, screening is mandatory, and the state of pre-natal technoscopy is such that we never make mistakes;. In fact, it's eleven years since a handicapped baby was born anywhere in the world. Isn't that remarkable?”

“Yes,” said Mrs Brown.

“Amazing,” said her husband.

The consultant held his pen with both hands and tensed his fingers as if to snap it like a twig. “God was kind to you, Mrs Brown,” he said.

She looked at him, shocked; that was not the sort of thing a consultant was meant to say; all doctors were atheists, she knew that.

“Y-yes, he was,” she stuttered.

There was a pregnant silence; she clenched her husband's hand tighter. She'd been wrong, they'd both been wrong; she knew now what he was going to say.

“I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.”

She closed her eyes tightly and clenched David's hand even tighter.

“I'm afraid your baby is impaired.”

She opened her eyes, and David moved his seat closer to hers

“Under Clause 31 it will have to be aborted; it might be some comfort if I tell you that this is best for both you and the child.”

“Best,” said Mr Brown, “how can it be best?”

“If it were to be born, there wouldn't be anything we could do for it; it would survive only for a few hours at most.”

They both stared at him with a mixture of hurt and relief.

“It's the brain, you see - it isn't properly formed.”

“The brain?” said Mr Brown.

“It would be a vegetable, literally; we could put it on a machine indefinitely, but it would never have any consciousness. Best to let nature take its course.”

They sat in silence; Mr Brown felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“After you've had the termination I would advise you to think seriously about sterilisation. I'm afraid you can never have a normal child.”

“It's me?” she asked.

“Yes, but you mustn't blame yourself. Your son, his name is...”

“Ross,”said Mrs Brown.

“Our son,”said her husband, firmly.

“You don't know how lucky you are, Mrs Brown, both of you. It was a thousand to one chance that you were able to bear him.”

She looked at him, surprised.

“They didn't tell you before?”

“No,” she said.

“Treasure him,” said the consultant, “he's very special.”

“Yes, he is,” she said, no longer having to fight to hold back the tears.

“Was it, would it have been a boy, doctor?” asked Mr Brown.

“Yes,” he replied, “but not in any meaningful sense.”

The male nurse escorted them to the main entrance and bade them farewell. On the way he told Mrs Brown that she would shortly receive an appointment card through the post, from the termination department. Probably she would have the termination and the sterilisation the same day; the hospital would telephone her some time next week to make the necessary arrangements.

In the consulting room the phone rang. The consultant picked it up and said tiredly, “Room one-oh-one.”

“Hello, Jim?” said the voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes. Harry?”

“Yeah. I've been chasing you all afternoon; how are you for tomorrow morning?”

“Er, golf, you mean?”

“What else?”

“Better make it nine holes.”

“Fair enough. See you at the club about eleven.”

“Right. Sorry about the hassle; I did; leave a message at the clinic but they switched me at the last moment.”

“Not terminations again?”

“I'm afraid so. I've just seen my last couple now.”

“Rather you than me; I don't know how you can face them.”

“I tell them it'll be encophalic.”

“Was it?”

“This one? No, but they took it well.”

“Still rather you than me. I think it's a terrible waste, making them ditch a kid because of a club foot or a hare lip, especially with what we can do nowadays.”

“I can't say I disagree, off the record, of course. But this one was better off dead; it wouldn't have been of any use to anyone.”

“Would it have lived?”

“Oh yes, maybe until it was forty or fifty. It was above average intelligence too but it would have been totally paralysed, poor little sod,”

“Male or female?”

“A boy.”

“Well, maybe that's no so bad. See you tomorrow at eleven.”

“Right.”

He hung up and gathered up his files, muttering to himself under his breath, “Yes, stuck in a wheelchair for life, impaired speech, no movement at all bar the left foot. You wouldn't have been any use to anyone, Christie Brown.”

Back To Short Stories Index