Adapted from an Interview with Christianbooks.com
about False Positive
How did you two get together and decide to begin a writing partnership?
Sandra: I started out as Dr. Bill’s infertility patient. He referred us on to a reproductive endocrinologist and after that, my husband and I were invited to go on a mission trip to Belarus with him and his wife and another team. We ended up going back there twice, then took three trips to Mexico together. Through that missions orientation we forged a friendship, so when a publisher asked me to write my personal journey of infertility and pregnancy loss to address current bioethical issues, I asked him to co-author it with me (When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden, Broadman).
Often churches would ask him, as “the doctor,” to talk with their members about marital intimacy. He had a lot of lecture tapes and notes from those talks. So when we finished the first book, he asked if I’d co-author a book on sexual intimacy (Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, Kregel).
Later we wrote a chapter on genetic engineering for a Kregel book and in the process determined that the information was a little bit too dry for the average audience. We could see that most Christians were not going to pick up a non-fiction book about something like stem cell research and we wondered how we could present such important information in a way that the average person could be informed and entertained at the same time. So we asked the question: “What would Jesus do?” When asked “Who is my neighbor?” He didn’t get out his Webster’s scroll to define it. He told a story about a good neighbor. So we decided to give storytelling a shot, and we wrote Lethal Harvest (Kregel). We later wrote a sequel, Deadly Cure (Kregel). And we just released False Positive (WaterBrook), which has a whole new cast of characters. We like to say that we write for “edu-tainment.”
Did you have any background in writing fiction at all before doing this?
Sandra: I had already developed the characters in the first three chapters of Lethal Harvest in a media arts class at Dallas Seminary. In fact I pitched an idea for that novel in my initial conversation with the publisher who had asked us to do the infertility book. My background was journalism and writing, but not in fiction per se. I had learned the principles of setting, plot, characterization, and narration, but I had not yet put them to use much in my professional writing.
Bill: My background is more in telling stories. When teaching residents we use case histories to engage them. They’re often true cases, and then when they figure out the true one, we put little twists in to make it more complicated. It turns out that the storytelling of “making matters worse” works great in fiction.
Sandra: We used plenty of Bill’s case studies to make the characters’ lives miserable! We’ve often said that if Ben and Marnie (from Lethal Harvest and Deadly Cure) ever met us they’d kill us for what we put them through!
Bill: My daughter threatened to leave me if we killed them off!
Well, I think most people want that happy ending even though it isn’t always realistic.
Bill: I think so, but then I’m a hopeless romantic.
Sandra: Well, we didn’t let all our characters have happy endings. Characters like Dorie and Tim don’t get happy endings. There were people who griped at us for that, but we wanted that balance between leaving the readers happy and portraying real life in a few cases.
How does dealing with bioethics in a fiction format allow people to better understand certain issues and discuss them?
Bill: Well, by playing the true issues out in life situations, it takes stem cell research and things like that out of the science room and gives people the opportunity to see how someone might face that. For this particular book (False Positive) the abortion issue had sort of been put on the back burner a bit until RU-486 came out. Now with all the publicity about partial birth abortion, people are going to think a little more about them. We’d like for them to think more about the lives that are affected—not just the babies—but the moms and the doctors and the counselors and everybody else involved. We thought that if we could paint some pictures of characters who were winsome, then put them in tough situations, people would really get into the issue and better understand it.
False Positive focuses on the abortion industry. What has been your involvement with women who are facing unwanted pregnancies or who have already had abortions?
Bill: My involvement began back in medical school when I actually witnessed an abortion. In my spirit I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t want to be doing it. Our chief of service, who was kind of my hero since I was heading for obstetrics, was performing the procedure on a fellow med student’s wife. So I kind of got interested then but didn’t know what a medical student could do. As I went through my training I began to see complicated cases come in from abortion clinics—perforations and hemorrhages just like you read in the book—and I had to take care of those folks. So since the eighties I’ve volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers. I did some of the praying and picketing at hospitals, but that didn’t seem an effective use of my skills. So now I’m a medical director at a pregnancy resource center much like the one in the book. When I was in Dallas, I worked at one where I taught nurses how to do sonograms as well as doing them myself. So we’re involved in that way, trying to meet women at their point of crisis in order to support them and encourage them through. Then we have trained counselors there who are in post-abortive situations and can warn the ladies what it’s like and hopefully provide a safe place for healing for them.
Sandra: Some people who are very dear to me have had abortions. The deep damage I’ve seen in their relationships has been quite apparent. In two cases the couples were married and then split up.
In another case my husband and I were getting ready to adopt and a friend overseas was going to give us her baby, but because she was not able to get through to us on the phone, she went ahead and had an abortion. We got over there on a mission trip with Dr. Bill, and all of this unfolded, so I was pretty torn. Part of me was angry because her choice meant we couldn’t become parents when we’d been trying so hard to adopt, and yet it was obvious that she was completely devastated by her decision. So Bill got her the medical care she needed (she’d gotten an infection during the procedure), and we later sent over some post-abortion information because she was clearly suffering due to her decision.
Then I’ve talked to a lot of women experiencing infertility issues who are sure that they are infertile because God is punishing them for an abortion they had. Even if they don’t think it’s God’s punishment, they are regretting that perhaps the one chance they had to have a child ended through abortion.
Before I became a Christian I was very pro-choice—mostly due to lack of information. I had always been told that it was just a blob of tissue and that the issue was my right to choose rather than the fact that it was an actual baby who would be killed. When my friend showed me the Silent Scream video I was shocked. Do you think if people were better informed about exactly what happens in an abortion and about how perfectly formed the baby is even at such a young age, it would impact the attitudes of people toward abortion?
Bill: Oh, absolutely, and I think the point that you raise is one we tried to paint in Dorie in the book. Some of my colleagues are very articulate and very well educated, but they have a different point of view. Some of them—even when they see what’s going on inside the uterus—don’t change their minds. But we know that statistically over 90 percent of women, if we can show them their baby with a sonogram—heartbeat, arms and legs, etc.— won’t abort because it’s no longer just a blob of tissue. It’s not a theoretical issue anymore. This is their baby. Then we provide them with finances, a home—whatever it takes to put away some of those other objections—and help them either to place the baby for adoption or support them through the raising of the child.
The basic teaching in the abortion clinic that’s across the street from me is that it’s riskier to go to term with the pregnancy than to have an abortion and that it’s not a baby till it can live outside the womb. So if a young girl who’s looking for a way out goes there, there’s no way she’s going to know what’s happening inside her.
As science and technology enable babies to be viable at earlier and earlier ages, do you think it will change peoples’ perspectives on the issue of when life begins and whether it’s ethical to abort?
Bill: The whole issue of viability is what the government standards are. It’s such a moving target. “Until the baby can live by itself.” What does that mean? Till it can get a job? Human infants are quite dependent for a year or two after they’re born, but if we can just make people see that there’s not much difference between a one-pound baby and a two-pound baby in terms of humanness, maybe we’ll give a little more respect to life in its tinier stages.
Is the tank that was used with Christina in the book something that really exists?
Bill: You mean the tank that I invented? Two of the ideas in the book—the tubal pregnancy surgery and the tank—were my inventions. In my dreams when I always wished we could save ectopic pregnancies, I’ve wondered if that would work. Then the tank—if we had the technology to circulate through the baby in a low resistance system—it’s possible. When I first started medical practice, fifty percent of babies died at thirty-two weeks. Now the fifty-fifty rate is down to twenty-six and some are surviving at twenty and twenty-one weeks. The babies aren’t getting any stronger, God is just letting us learn a little more technologically. So I have no doubt that we’ll get babies to survive at twenty or eighteen or maybe even sixteen weeks when somebody comes up with a clever way. And that’s exciting!
I understand that you have recently experienced some “friendly fire” from people in the pro-life community who don’t think your books are strong enough in their anti-abortion stance. Would you talk a bit about that?
Sandra: One particular caller whom we’ll call Doug felt like we were soft. Here’s the example he gave: using the woman in Texas who drowned her children. He said, “If you are in the room and she’s drowning her children, you’re going to stop her. You’re going to do everything in your power to stop her. And that’s what we’re doing by picketing and trying to stop women from entering clinics. You wouldn’t just sit on her couch and pray.” To which Bill replied, “You’ll save her on Monday but on Tuesday when you’re not in front of the clinic, she’ll go back.” We often come away with an inflated view of what we’ve done, when what we’ve done is not necessarily prevented a murder but only delayed one.
Bill: Maybe a better illustration would be that you can’t physically stop that woman, all you can do is talk to her. What is it that you would say or do that would make a difference? The law would allow us to stop someone from drowning their babies, but the law really isn’t on the side of those of us who speak for the unborn. There may be a place for picketing, but I don’t think we are ever entitled to violate God’s law by doing things like killing a doctor or blowing up a clinic. I don’t object to those who stand around and pray and try to counsel people on the streets, I’ve just found that I am more effective by calmly talking to women and doing sonograms for them. Then I can say, “Here’s your baby and these are ways we can help you with this child.” To me, that’s my calling, but I don’t say there aren’t other ways to approach it.
Sandra: Our goal isn’t to say that they’re wrong, it’s just that most of our readers don’t identify with picketing. If that’s their perception of how you get involved in the pro-life cause, there’s no way they’re going to go down there. But if they can see that by giving maternity clothes, or volunteering to work the front desk at a pregnancy resource center, or by giving funds or a zillion other ways… As they see the Center in the book, they see that people can be involved without having to be so “in your face,” and they just might give it a try. Many women faced with unwanted pregnancies feel like their lives are over and they have trouble seeing how taking one life is different from losing their own lives. We need to help them see that their lives will not be over if they carry to term. There is help available.
Bill: You can be pro-life for the moms as well as the babies and help them not just at that point of crisis but for the months and years down the road.
Cloning is one of the newer advances in medical technology. What are your concerns about this process?
Bill: Well, certainly, the way I understand Scripture, humankind is given authority and dominion over plants and animals, so cloning Dolly the sheep or Fred the cow or making plants produce more is not a problem. But when we get to the issue of human cloning where we’re trying to duplicate a living being, I think we’ve crossed over dominion. That is assuming we could do it successfully. It took 277 tries to get Dolly the sheep, and she’s not normal. Are we willing to take the chance with a much more complicated genome to make embryos, take them to a stage of maturity, then kill them to harvest those cells in hopes of helping folks? If you understand life as I do—that it’s a human being from the first cell onward—then you’re killing one individual to help others without ever getting that person or embryo’s consent. That is ethically problematic.
If adult stem cells can be used for research, why is there such a push to use the cells from embryos?
Bill: You’ve asked the right question. First of all, there are two separate schools or camps working on it. Obviously whoever comes up with a cure for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or whatever, is going to be rich beyond their wildest dreams. So there is certainly the financial issue involved. At first the scientists didn’t think the adult [stem] cells were as plastic—that is you couldn’t make them into as many stem cell lines or different kinds of tissue like heart, liver, spleen, etc. But it turns out that the more they work with it, the more they’re finding they are very plastic. There are 15,000 successful stem cell therapies using adult stem cells every year now, and there are zero embryonic ones so far. So we’re taking an ethical risk to go in a direction that is totally unproven in the hope that they’re more elastic—and they are—but are they more controllable? Sometimes the so-called elasticity—where they can make anything—is what we call a cancer cell, one that divides itself into oblivion and has no rules or regulations. I think we need to know what we’re talking about. Once Christians understand that adult stem cell is perfectly ethical, very viable, and is available from all sorts of sources such as placentas, umbilical cords, fat cells, and from bone marrow (which is where most of it is being used from), with no ethical issues, we can make that the focus. The president got good advice and is trying to lead the country down that pathway without slamming doors in the face of science.
Sandra: We have often joked that it shouldn’t be too hard to find fat donors. Kill human life or give up your fat for science? This is not a hard decision!
Do you think the Christian community can influence the scientific community to change their perceptions of what is morally ethical in dealing with embryonic life?
Bill: It’s happening. We have an international organization—the Christian Medical and Dental Association, which has a real strong activist arm—that has good science and good minds who have not been drowned out. They’ve been on the Hill, they’ve gotten the word out there. They are some of the really solid folks on radio and TV. I think the information about adult stem cell research would have gotten totally washed away if it wasn’t for some good voices up there saying, “Wait a minute. There’s another way to do it.” The trouble is the embryonic stem cell side has Mary Tyler Moore, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, and some very popular public people. I hope they all get well; I would just like the cures to come by an ethical pathway. And there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t.
Do you have any plans for further novels?
Bill: Go ahead, Sandi. I’ve thrown her three or four different plot lines, but we haven’t found one that we’ve fallen in love with yet.
Sandra: We kind of had one that was set in the Middle East, but then September 11th happened. It had to do with racial bigotry so we decided we didn’t want to go there.
Bill: I would like to write one about spousal abuse and domestic violence, laying that out in a way that people could better understand what a lot of women are suffering through. But I haven’t quite figured out how to put that in novel form.
Sandra: We have some ideas. We also have a two non-fiction book deal with Zondervan that we plan to finish before we do any more fiction.