You have to imagine, first, the seven babies curled and fitted around each other like puppies in a basket. Each has his or her separate water-filled sac, and within these sacs they rest or exercise, sometimes jostling their neighbors. At this age their limbs appear long and fingers bony, because acquiring baby fat is next month's job. If there had been more room to grow, each would be about 10 inches tall.

There is not enough room; it's not good for there to be so many. But the mother wanted children so much that she used drugs to get them, and she wound up getting as many as she could hold. The doctor offered to terminate a few lives in order to enhance others, but she refused. She wanted all her babies.

Now add something to the picture: the babies are diseased. An infection spread from the mother to her children, and bacteria races through their frail bodies. No medication can heal them. The illness teeming in the mother's womb makes her weaker day by day. Death is in sight--for eight, or only seven.

The mother, it is said, will recover. It is one of nature's cruder jokes that at a minimum we imagine she will feel empty.

An extraordinary situation like this lies so far outside the typical abortion scenario as to stall reflexive polarization. Twenty-seven years after Roe v. Wade, we have our default switches pretty much set; at the very word "abortion" we click into position-defense mode.

But here are unique, almost bizarre variables, to confound even the most programmed thinker. The concept of seven unborn babies in itself is simultaneously appealing and unsettling. Add the information that all seven are wracked with infection--the womb itself bursting with illness--and the image becomes revolting. Yet we could also empathize with the misery of these sick children, each suffering in a separate capsule, never in this life to touch another human being.

The concept of "choice" has no significance here: the mother's firm choice was to have seven babies. What denied her that choice was beyond her control.

The concept of "life" is likewise irrelevant. As in any pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, the only pro-life course is to save as many lives as possible. In later months, a premature birth can end a pregnancy without killing a viable child. In earlier months, only the death of the baby can save any lives at all. How could it be otherwise? If the mother is allowed to die, what's the baby supposed to do? Rent an apartment?

Now is a good time for abortion proponents and opponents to shut up. Our reflexive nattering at each other is irrelevant and annoying, and precludes the good, solid thinking that the nation needs to do.

I speak as a longtime fount of nattering, most recently on the pro-life side but many years ago as an advocate of legal abortion. But stories like this, full of bewildering and conflicting detail, give the lie to our tidy, laminated rhetoric. It's not that this is a unique situation; every situation is a unique situation.

It is sad when a woman entering a clinic reads zealotry in the faces of sidewalk counselors who meant to offer her help. It is sad when a woman weeps on the abortion table, praying her husband will burst through the door and say, "Stop, I changed my mind."

It is sad when a woman goes through the procedure cavalier and impatient, hungry to get back to her street corner. It is sad when she has the baby but abandons him in the hospital, bludgeoned by drugs. It can be sadder still if she takes him home.

It is sad when a woman grieves in the night but is afraid to tell anyone, for fear that pro-life friends will think her a murderer, and pro-choice friends think her a traitor.

It is sad when tiny broken bodies are slipped into plastic bags and labeled as medical waste. It is sad when this happens 37 million times-so chokingly sad that the mind rebels and all we want is never to think about it.

Ignoring messy details like these, clinging to our designated poles, seems the most comfortable plan. The roller coaster ambivalence prompted by these countless tumbling stories need never trouble us.

But troubled is what we ought to be, so that the subtle voice of conscience can emerge, perhaps provoking compassionate new solutions. Now is a good time to risk uncertainty and ambivalence, and allow the details of these unique stories into our barricaded minds. Now is a good time for a moment of silence.

I try to imagine details of the end of the story. Did the mother slip into a drowsy fog where thoughts of her babies floated away like helium balloons? Was the room cold and the blood of first incision hot? Were seven dying babies removed, then laid side by side on a steel table like gray bananas?

Why do I feel revolted? Why do I also feel like mourning?

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