'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

Shane Francis Haley's life lasted less than four hours, cut short by a birth defect. Yet he and his parents reached hundreds of thousands of people through social media -- people who were first touched by the "bucket list" of experiences they gave their son before he was ever born.

That's one marvel of the drama that played out in Media, Pa., as Jenna and Don Haley updated their 700,000 Facebook friends over the prenatal months. Another marvel: the simple news narratives by Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor that tell the story without adding some religio-socio-politico-economic payload.

With a story about a doomed infant, it's hard to resist the urge to add tear-jerking prose. Remarkably, the writers of these stories do resist. In the best tradition of journalism, they let the details carry the emotional weight. Closest to any gimmicky writing is the headline on the Monitor article: " 'Bucket list baby' inspires thousands. Here’s what his parents did."

When the Haleys heard the diagnosis of anencephaly -- in which the baby lacks part of its brain and skull -- they knew it was a death sentence for Shane. Yet instead of planning an abortion, or sinking into grief or rage at God, the parents decided to give their son the time of his life before he was even born.

From the Monitor's account:

Meticulous scrapbook entries document days with their unborn, spent at Strasburg Railroad, a Zac Brown Band concert, a boardwalk, numerous sporting events, and in true Philly fashion – cheesesteaks. There is also a collage of photos from a “shower of love.” On Mother’s Day, Jenna wrote in the book: “This was the best day ever. Thanks to Shane I am the luckiest mommy in the whole wide world.”
Each photo they posted – at the pumpkin patch, an aquarium, meeting Phillies players, at landmarks in New York City – received thousands of Likes and hundreds of comments of encouragement and hope.
“Bless you guys you are both so brave!!” wrote one commenter. “No matter what happens he knows he is Soooo loved in these Lil 9 months that he has already spent with you guys.”

Reuters typically favors a newswriting style that may be even terser than the Associated Press; but its story on Shane was evocative enough for McCall magazine to use it. Perhaps it was for personal details such as:

In one post, the family celebrated Halloween in September by painting the mother's belly to look like a jack-o-lantern.
Shane's parents, who live outside Philadelphia, started the page to raise awareness about anencephaly and to ask others to pray that they might be given as much time as possible with the baby.

Religious "ghosting" is minimal: Both articles have the Haleys asking for prayers, even naming their Facebook page Prayers for Shane. The Monitor quotes one comment of admiration for the parents' courage, whose writer adds, “I pray for you and your baby boy, and I am truly hoping for a miracle. God bless.”

I say minimal because neither story reveals why the Haleys lavished so much love on someone that, in many peoples eyes, wasn't even a someone yet. Why didn't the couple just abort the fetus -- a term, BTW, that doesn't appear in either article? Why did they instead name it and give it a range of family-type experiences as if it were a full-fledged human?

You'll no doubt guess the answer when you learn that Shane had a Catholic baptism. The Roman Catholic Church, through both its Catechism and its magisterial teachings, says that a human life starts at conception, not birth. This may well be the basis for how the Haleys treated the unborn Shane. Reuters and the Monitor should have found out.

{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}The hoped-for miracle, of course, didn't come: Shane was born by induced labor at 2:25 a.m. Oct. 9, then died shortly thereafter. Both articles carried the family's report: "Today at 6:15 a.m., after meeting his entire family and being baptized into the Catholic faith, baby Shane died peacefully in his Mother's arms." The parents thanked their many readers for their prayers and support.

You could, if you wished, grind several axes with this sweet, tragic story. Some might use it as a parable of the value of abortion to reduce neonatal deaths. Some might say it shows the personhood of the fetus and the need to fight abortion. Some might retell it as an example of the need to fund more medical research. And some would dust off the old "Why would a loving God ...?"

At the risk of sounding callous, I would answer to all of it, "So what?" Those questions are always with us. Shane Francis Haley is not.  His parents showed him all the love and joy they could for the scant nine months they had them. They were buoyed by prayers and good wishes from 700,000 friends, which they returned with gratitude.

The Haleys took the road of compassion and bittersweet consolation. So did their friends. So did Reuters and the Monitor. This time, they all took time to be human.

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