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Pressured to abort one baby with spina bifida and one with Trisomy 18, they trusted God instead

by | Jun 13, 2024

By Nancy Flanders

Henry Jernigan and his wife Elizabeth learned they were expecting their first child just two days after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. It was a time when Americans lived in shock and worry, and the Jernigans wondered what it would mean to bring a child into such a world. They could never have known the full depth of the challenges ahead and how their family would grow and thrive.

A prenatal diagnosis

Baby Pierce

At 16 weeks, Elizabeth went to a routine appointment for a blood test to check the baby’s risks for health conditions, as well as a level 2 ultrasound. Elizabeth and Henry learned two things: They were having a boy (whom they named William Pierce) and he would be born with spina bifida, a condition in which the baby’s developing spinal cord is exposed and fails to develop properly, affecting different organs and functions, including the use of his legs. Legally blind from a degenerative eye disease, Elizabeth had been concerned her baby would have the same eye condition she had, but spina bifida was never on their radar.

Elizabeth told Live Action News, “[The doctors asked], ‘What do you want to do? You can terminate the pregnancy or continue the pregnancy with a scheduled C-section at 38 weeks and then surgically close the baby’s back after he is born or you can do the fetal surgery to repair the exposed spinal cord in the womb.’”

Since surgery in the womb for spina bifida was still experimental at the time with limited positive results for kids whose levels were similar to Pierce, and since there were risks to both mother and baby, including death, the couple chose to wait until after Pierce was born to do the surgery. Thankfully, the plan was for Pierce to have the same doctors and surgeons who pioneered the prenatal surgery whether he underwent surgery before or after birth.

“We felt it wasn’t God’s plan for us to do the fetal surgery,” explained Henry.

He said that after they chose life for Pierce, they were still under pressure from some family members to go through with an abortion. Comments ranged from, “How dare you bring a child like that into this world” to “We will totally support you if you choose to terminate this pregnancy.”

“Abortion was never really a choice for us,” said Henry.

“Abortion at its foundation is man’s attempt to fix a problem. ‘Here’s a problem, we can fix it!’ The problem with this scenario is that it leaves God out of the equation. When you take away God, that’s what it is. But when God’s part of the equation, it’s not a problem. Doctors may say it’s going to be a long hard road and your son or daughter may not be able to do this or that, and they may be right. In our case, they were right — it has been hard. I believe they truly think they’re helping [when they offer abortion] but what they don’t take into account is God’s plan and purpose for every human being.”

Henry and Elizabeth recognized that if they had chosen to abort their son, they would have denied God’s plan and purpose for Pierce’s life, as well as their own lives.

Despite their desire to choose life and move forward with a care plan for Pierce, it was an emotionally challenging time for the couple. They were told Pierce wouldn’t walk — and after looking up information about spina bifida, they saw all the complications that can occur. It was a lot to process.

“We’ve literally gone through everything we saw on that screen day by day,” said Henry, “which is a lot different than looking at it all at once.”

Leading up to Pierce’s birth, Henry, Elizabeth, their church, and their community prayed for him — including that he would someday be able to walk. After his birth, Pierce had three surgeries before going home, but over time it was clear that he was not going to walk as they had prayed. Once at home, Henry and Elizabeth had to provide Pierce with round-the-clock care.

“One of my favorite stories is about a friend from church who was a nurse at Vanderbilt,” said Henry. “Pierce was a month old, and I couldn’t get the catheter in. He was bleeding. We’re fighting. Pierce was crying. And at 4:00 am, the doorbell rings. [The nurse] was there and we were like, ‘Hi.’ And she said, ‘I was just praying for y’all on my way to work and I saw your lights on. I felt like I needed to come by here and make sure everything’s ok .’ And we said, ‘Well, no. We can’t get his catheter in.’ And she came in and was able to help us.”

During his 22 years of life so far, Pierce has faced numerous medical emergencies and has had over 20 surgeries. There were times when they didn’t know if he would survive. “You could go from absolute normal to ER and then to ‘is he gonna make it’ with not a whole lot of time in between,” said Henry.

“One time when he was little and having a medical emergency, I was able to figure out what was going on. I adjusted some meds and it changed things and he was stabilized and we drove to ER and it was ok. We came home later that day. My adrenaline is up, I’m pacing around, getting mad. Elizabeth was like, ‘Everything ok?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not okay, it’s not okay. He’s never not gonna have spina bifida. … There’s no ending to this.’ And I said, ‘His life is so on the edge.’ And then it was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Everybody’s life is on the edge.’ Some of us are just more aware of it than others.”

One day, when Pierce was very young, Henry thought his son was dying in his arms. Henry later realized that at that moment, he had no longer been praying, “Oh God, let him walk.” Instead, he was praying, “Oh God, let him live!” Henry began praying for Pierce to live and have the abundant life the Bible talks about. He realized that you don’t have to walk to live!

Henry told Live Action News, “There are walking people who aren’t happy, there are walking people who are depressed and who don’t want to live. Why is Pierce in a wheelchair? Pierce is in a chair for other people,” explained Henry. “God wanted to use Pierce for His glory and whatever His plan was for Pierce, it didn’t require that he walked. I think He uses him more [not walking] so other people can see his joy, and his whole purpose in life is to point others to God.”

Pierce grew up a happy, funny kid and his joy helped his parents change how they view struggles in life. Henry began to experience the power of sharing their pro-life message through Pierce’s story and the details of what God continues to do in and through Pierce’s life and the lives of their family.

More children

It was 10 years before the couple welcomed their second son, Darcy, now 12. In between their births, Elizabeth suffered two miscarriages, but just 20 months after welcoming Darcy, they welcomed their third son, Rhys. Elizabeth then went on to have two more miscarriages.

When they learned they were pregnant with their first girl, Vivianne, they were “over the moon,” said Elizabeth. But at 12 weeks, doctors told them Vivianne had Trisomy 18 and was “incompatible with life.”

“Doctors said most babies with Trisomy 18 don’t live outside the womb even if they make it to term,” said Elizabeth. “But I came across several Facebook groups of families that the kids with Trisomy 18 that had lived and had several surgeries. They were medically fragile but some lived into their 30s thanks to medical care at the right hospital.”

The doctor asked them what they were going to do — and without hesitating, they chose life.

The couple met with pro-life doctors who care for children with Trisomy 18, and made plans to provide Vivianne with care rather than let her die. But sadly, during an ultrasound at 18 weeks and 5 days, they learned Vivianne no longer had a heartbeat.

“All in all, it really broke our hearts because we wanted to do everything we could to give her life and show people that you can do this,” said Elizabeth. “But she is completely healed and whole with Jesus. That was not how we wanted that prayer to be answered, but looking back, we got to the point where we were at peace and content with having our three boys.”

After the loss of Vivianne, family members suggested Henry should have a vasectomy. But the couple “wanted to have the family that God wanted us to have,” said Elizabeth. And soon after, they welcomed daughter Corrine, now seven.

The future

Henry has gone from doing comedy, drama, and music at youth camps, churches, and conferences to speaking at churches and fundraisers for pregnancy resource centers, helping to raise money to assist women facing challenges during pregnancy. As a family, the Jernigans create and produce content for their family’s YouTube channel and social media accounts celebrating and promoting life.

Pierce plays guitar at church every Sunday and plans to become more involved with leading worship with music and helping pregnancy centers. He loves visiting pregnancy centers with his dad Henry and listening to him share their story.

“People look at Pierce and might see brokenness,” said Henry. “But he doesn’t feel broken… We just have to do things differently. You don’t have to walk to live. That’s our big family motto. That’s our prayer for Pierce, that he would always live that abundant life.”

Editor’s note. This appeared at Live Action News and reposted with permission.

Categories: Pro-Lifers