It has been said that an unborn baby contacting HIV whilst in utero should be aborted to prevent the "child suffering terribly later." However, such questions do merit serious contemplation in order that we can develop a truly compassionate pro-life stance on the issue.
Firstly, let us look at the evidence. The risk of an unborn child contacting HIV virus from a positive mother is only 25% (Centre for Disease Control, USA, March 1987). However, all babies born to HIV positive mothers will test positive at birth, not because they themselves have the virus, but because they are passive recipients of their mothers' antibodies. (Remember a diagnosis of HIV status is made on the presence of antibodies produced by the baby to fight the virus, not on the basis of the virus itself).
In time, as the infant's own immune system develops, 75% of them will no longer need their mother's antibodies as they do not have the virus. This is why it is especially important for women to be tested for HIV early in pregnancy. Research for the National Institutes of Health Report (1996) that the HIV anti-viral drug AZT could keep a mother from passing HIV onto her unborn child. (Gorman, Time).
In this study, three times as many HIV-infected babies were born to untreated mothers as were born to mothers given the AZT medication. Preventing HIV in unborn babies is important because their immune systems are very immature when they are born. HIV makes them sicker than adults at a faster rate.
This, of course, leads us to the unfortunate babies in the 25% category. Even in this instance, the outlook is far from bleak. In 1995 a study carried out by the Department of Health and Human Services in the US, showed that by administering the drug AZT to pregnant women during the 14th to 34th week of pregnancy and again after the first 6 weeks after birth, the risk of infant ingestion is reduced to as little as 8%.
For the babies in the 8%, there is still room for hope. Children have always proved more resilient than adults when it comes to fighting illness; in the case of AIDS it is no different. With early detection and prompt treatment many life-threatening illnesses can be prevented, thus improving their life expectancy and quality of life. Early detection is also vital to prevent an unsuspecting mother passing on the virus to her baby through breast milk.
Recent revelations have proved to be downright miraculous! Contributors to a world-wide AIDS conference in Vancouver have reported cases of children who have completely thrown off the HIV virus. According to Dr. Jay Levy of the University of California, of 36 infants who had the virus at one time, 18 were completely clear at the time of reporting. He announced this during a worldwide AIDS Conference held in Vancouver, Canada in July 1996.
An earlier case was reported in the Financial Times on 31 March 1995. AIDS specialists at the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the New England Journal of Medicine what they said was the first well documented case of a baby who showed clear signs of infection soon after birth and none at all when a year old. The boy, whose mother is HIV positive, remains uninfected at the age of five.
A new drug course means that babies are being saved from AIDS even before birth. The success of the new drug treatment has meant that it is almost four years since a HIV positive baby was born in Ireland. Dr. Karina Butler who treats pregnant women and babies said it was "fantastic" that babies were being born infection-free after their mothers were treated during pregnancy.
The Dept. of Health has agreed to introduce ante-natal screening for HIV to ensure that all pregnant mothers who have the virus are treated. In America Dr. Stanley from California suggested this treatment to stop the incidence of babies born with HIV. He was attacked savagely by those who seek to make a political agenda of the AIDS debate. Let's hope that the Irish will not allow babies to die for an "agenda."
Advances in AIDS research are occurring all the time. New drug therapies are improving the victim's life expectancy and quality of life. There is growing evidence that certain people in the world are immune to the HIV virus, that in effect the antibodies they produce actually kill the virus. These people are periodically donating their blood for experimentation in the hope of developing a vaccine.
Hopefully, the age of AIDS as a death sentence are numbered. Therefore, the future for children infected by HIV is far from bleak.
However, what difference does it make, if a child is infected with the virus and has a short life expectancy? Does a person's health status detract from the value of their life? This is a question posed by a pregnant mother who was HIV positive in an interview with the New York Times "so what if my baby only lives 5 years. Who's to say that because it is a shorter life, it was not a life worth living." (New York Times, 9/5/1995).
The truly compassionate answer to the issue of babies with HIV is to identify those at risk as early as possible and start life enhancing and life saving treatment as soon as possible.
As reported in Morning Edition, 14 July 2000, better care for infected newborns is being granted.
Scientists are learning more about how to prevent pregnant women from transmitting HIV to unborn children. But the treatments aren't cheap, so they rarely translate to the developing world, where they are most needed. Still, researchers note many hopeful developments.