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Issue 1


Read the other book reviews in this issue:
The Little Locksmith

Life Prints


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Adam's angels

A review by Lisa Blumberg.

Lisa Blumberg writes about eugenics issues.

EXPECTING ADAM: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic, by Martha Beck. New York: Berkley Books. 328 pages, Paperback. $13.95.

In l987, Martha and John Beck were doctoral candidates at Harvard. Driven to excel, they were eager to be everything they thought Harvard wanted them to be. Classes, dissertations and teaching duties kept them always busy; they traded off toddler Katie from one to the other between classes, often making the switch several times a day. Then John takes a consulting job that requires constant commuting to Asia.

Read the review of Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights.

It is not the right time for another child. Yet when Martha learns that she is pregnant, she realizes she wants the baby.

Although only 25, she is urged to have amniocentesis when a blood test indicates there's a one in 895 chance her fetus has Down syndrome. Pro-choice Martha finds she's pressured to think of abortion starting even before prenatal diagnosis: Hurry and have the testing done so there will still be time to terminate, her nurse practitioner tells her.

Amniocentesis shows that Martha is indeed carrying a Down syndrome fetus; and when, despite her fears and prejudices and the misinformation she has been given (her nurse practitioner warns they'll never get a babysitter), she decides to continue the pregnancy, she crosses a line and becomes too pro-choice for Harvard. "The doctors I would interact with," writes Beck, "would have considered it wiser to do away with the baby they were helping me protect."

Before the pregnancy has come to term, the Becks will have angered John's faculty adviser, ruffled the students in Martha's Sociology of Gender class and defied most of the obstetricians at Harvard University Health Services, including the eminent and appropriately dubbed "Dr. Grendel," who compares the fetus to a malignant tumor. During delivery, she feels that the somber and regretful medical team attending the birth "would have rather have delivered Adam dead than alive."

Back in class, carrying Adam in a baby pack, Martha Beck gets no congratulations from student or teacher on his safe arrival. Six months later, the Becks abandon Harvard for a university in the West, on the road to a calmer, more grounded lifestyle.

As an account of the ferocious community pressure placed on a young couple to do away with a fetus deemed "a detriment to society," Expecting Adam raises valuable points. But using a child's disability to explain why two academic whizzes ended up in Phoenix, Arizona smelling the flowers makes Beck's book preachy and saccharine.

An engaging read about engaging people, Expecting Adam falters in trying to cover too many themes. Beck wants to debunk the myth of perfection at Harvard, describe the pressure placed on women to make certain choices, show that a family with a disabled child can be a happy family and suggest that there are angels among us.

The angel agenda wins out. Coping with constant nausea, with John away more than at home, Beck is sustained during pregnancy by what she comes to think of as ethereal beings, crediting them with giving her the resolve to trust her own judgment. While she acknowledges the beings may be imaginary ("It makes good sense to me that the human brain would cook up a few reassuring fantasies in conditions of extreme duress," she writes), there's a supernatural gloss to the book, with Beck implying that Adam is a magnet for angels.

Martha Beck is not quite the protagonist I would have liked. Adam clearly has been integrated into the Beck family, which now includes three children, and some of her stories about him are funny, such as when Adam puts one over on a psychologist giving him innumerable tests. But others are mawkish and sentimental -- Adam refuses the chance to buy candy so he can buy a flower to present to his mother with his first spoken word. Beck refers to him as "retarded" a little too much; and there is nothing in the book to indicate Beck fully realizes that Adam may someday chart his own course as her daughters will.

Beck, who lets us know that she is of pioneer stock and sees herself as a pioneer here, too, doesn't seem to realize she could benefit from native guides on the new frontier. Though published in 1999, the book seems dated. Since Adam was small, Beck has lectured on medical ethics. But she gives no indication she's aware of work done by women with disabilities on the topic. She seems strangely naive about why pre-natal testing was developed. Expecting Adam, with its intermittent focus on angels, does not deal as much as it should about the earthly concerns generated by prenatal diagnosis, for women or for people with disabilities.

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