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Inside Looking Out: The dilemma about Debbie

My high school philosophy students loved debating moral dilemmas. One in particular was about a girl named Debbie. I provided details about her situation from my personal experience.

When I was 12 years old, I was in Jerry’s house one day when he asked me if I wanted to meet his sister.

“I didn’t know you had one,” I said.

He took me into a back room where there was a baby crib. Inside the crib was his 11-year-old sister, Debbie, who Jerry said had been born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that in her case, left her with no muscle control, no ability to speak and confined to a crib for the rest of her life, which doctors in the 1960s had said was about 15 years.

For however long Debbie would live, she had to be diapered and fed baby food as she had no ability to chew. Her body had to be turned frequently in her crib to prevent bed sores, and when she had difficulty breathing, her mother gave her oxygen through a tank and a tube. She had to be monitored for frequent seizures. She was administered medicine accordingly. Her brothers were quarantined from her when they got sick. If Debbie caught a cold or ran a fever, it could kill her.

The medical costs of caring for Debbie were astronomical, putting the family in severe financial hardship and leaving Jerry and his older brother wearing secondhand clothes. They also didn’t get the sports stuff, bicycles and other things boys their age had.

Although Debbie couldn’t speak, when her father, who worked three jobs to help pay for her medical care, would come into the room and call her name, she seemed to know his voice and responded with a guttural groan.

When Jerry’s mother was pregnant with Debbie, doctors told her that her child would be born with such a severe disability that there was no chance at any quality of life and the family would likely suffer emotional and financial hardships. Yet Jerry’s mother decided to have her baby.

I asked my philosophy students this question. Was it a selfish decision by her mother to give birth to Debbie, knowing the gravity of consequences the child would bring upon the rest of her family?

At first, students believed Debbie’s dilemma was an abortion debate. Some said due to their religious beliefs, Debbie must be given life. The topic became more complicated when one student said that in most abortion decisions, the health of the baby is not in question. Then a girl in my class adamantly pointed out that whether she was raped or knew beforehand she was having a child like Debbie, she would never have an abortion. Another girl replied, “It’s easy to say that when you’re sitting in this class now. Nobody here knows the horrible physical and emotional trauma of being raped and no one except her family can fully realize what consequences come with having a child like Debbie.”

The students all agreed that they couldn’t empathize with Debbie’s mother because her circumstances were far beyond what their young lives had experienced.

The issue of extreme family hardship caused when Debbie was born was debated. One point raised was her mother was absolutely selfish because her husband had to work three jobs and her two sons would be deprived of the things most kids their age were fortunate to have.

This opinion was counterpointed. “You can’t put a price on love,” said a student. “Debbie’s mother loved her. Her father and her brothers loved her, too.”

“Maybe so,” said another student, “but bringing a child into the world who has no chance at all to live outside her crib is like putting her in a prison for her whole life. That’s a selfish decision her mother made.”

Still another counterpoint was that Debbie was incapable of knowing there was a world outside her crib.

Pro-lifers stayed their course, saying God wanted Debbie to be born and the family suffering was not to be considered as a reason to abort. Others argued how unfair this was to Debbie’s father, whose three jobs meant he wasn’t home much to be a dad to his sons.

During the debate I reminded my students to respect everyone’s opinions and keep the discussion on the topic. Don’t insult anyone who disagreed with you and never say things like, “You’re an idiot for thinking that way,” or “Really? How stupid are you?”

I also reminded them we were not debating Debbie’s dilemma to have one side win and the other side lose. We were opening our minds to discuss all the different issues that her family had faced.

Of course, the students wanted to know how it really played out with Debbie and her family. Her mother and father, despite the round-the-clock attention Debbie required from them, refused to place Debbie in a facility where she would be cared for until she died. They fell into serious debt, some bills were left unpaid and even more so after her father became ill for a long time.

Doctors had said Debbie would not live into her adult years; however, she developed all the physical features of a young woman, except her body remained the size of a 5-year-old.

Debbie died in her crib at the age of 41. At that time, her mother and father were well into their 60s and their two sons were married and had their own children.

Doctors agreed Debbie living so long was nothing short of a miracle, but to those who knew her family, they believed that it was the family’s unconditional love and extraordinary sacrifices that kept her alive for such an incredible length of time.

Rich Strack can be reached at katehep11@gmail.com.