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A 'Brave New World' of Genetics Leaves Clergy Fumbling for Answers

October 20, 1985|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

When their child was born with a life-threatening genetic liver defect 22 months ago, the Rev. Jim Mishler and his wife, Jan, looked to San Diego's religious community for moral and spiritual support.

Mishler is executive director of the San Diego Ecumenical Conference and Jan is an active lay person in the United Church of Christ. If ever a couple could count on receiving the support, prayers and embraces of friends and fellow religious, it would seem to be the Mishlers.

But the comfort and support they sought did not come.

"We didn't need this; we didn't want this," Jan Mishler said of their son's defect. "It was a very stressful time. And while we know a lot of preachers very well, none of them called us--including the one who baptized David the day before we took him to the hospital for surgery."

Jim Mishler said: "I would have expected the religious community to be able and capable of responding to our need (for comfort). But our spiritual leaders had great difficulty in responding to us. We needed them to help us deal with the pain we carried around, not only during the crisis period but during the low-level anxiety afterward."

And while their voices still carry some tinge of bitterness over the experience, the Mishlers say it points to a real problem with today's clergy, rather than a specific indictment of their friends:

"They didn't call us for a reason," Jan Mishler said. "They were desperately afraid of what we were facing and were afraid to face it with us."

"They're more comfortable with the Bible and writing next week's sermon," her husband said, "than dealing with the brave new world of genetics."

Indeed, while priests, ministers and rabbis may be able to effectively homilize on their holy days and offer premarital counseling, sympathetic words to the sick and soothing remarks at funerals, many are afraid or ill-prepared to offer comfort to parents of children born with birth defects.

That was the consensus of a two-day conference in San Diego last week, sponsored by the March of Dimes, in which about 50 doctors, geneticists, social workers and clergymen, including Mishler, discussed how they can better work together in counseling parents faced with the news that their child will come into the world with a birth defect.

If physicians of the body and physicians of the soul have long been bedfellows, their partnership is entering an era of new challenges.

As doctors and geneticists, with remarkable advances in science, are better able to tell parents about the likelihood of their children being born with defects, the clergy is being asked to help those parents cope with the knowledge and to offer guidance in making decisions about that child's future.

In the extreme, newlyweds and couples engaged to marry, who have reason to believe their future children may be born physically--and perhaps lethally--defective, are asking their clergy for advice on whether they should attempt to have children. Some clergymen wonder if premarital counseling should include a genetic background check of the man and woman, to alert them if their future children may be genetically flawed.

More typically, the clergy's guidance is being sought by heart-sick parents who have been told by geneticists that their unborn child will be born with birth defects, and are considering aborting the child even though theirs was a wanted pregnancy.

That's an uncomfortable position for a clergyman, especially one whose church is staunchly opposed to abortion, said the Rev. Robert C. Baumiller, a Roman Catholic priest who also is chief of genetics at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.

Yet, it's an unescapable position if the clergyman is asked to counsel a person confronted by an unsettling genetic issue, he said.

"If you have a pastoral bent, you must first listen to the person to sort out what he will do (about the unborn child), despite whatever you may say about it," Baumiller told the conference. "As a human being, we sympathize with anyone who faces a difficult decision of trying to do the right thing."

It might be too easy, he said, for a clergyman to advise a woman bearing a defective child to heroically keep the baby so the newborn can at least be baptized.

"But I have to recognize that the woman is simply not capable, at that moment, of doing a truly heroic act," he said. "People who select to abort know they are not doing the optimum thing, especially if it was a wanted pregnancy. Their pain is great, and sympathy for them should be great.

"In the Catholic tradition, we don't say that what she would do is a good thing. But you have to recognize that she is doing the only thing she can do. So while you can't approve her action, you can offer her reconciliation."

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