Alison, 39 years old, is twice-divorced, with three children, on the verge of moving in with a man called Bobby. Her breast is sore and she is afraid it's cancer. Her mother tells her it's more likely she's pregnant. She says she uses contraceptives; her mother tells Alison that she was conceived when a condom broke.

Alison considers abortion, recalling her last pregnancy. Having given birth to a child with Down's Syndrome who died at three months, she had had amniocentesis and was told that she was carrying twin boys, both normal. When the twins were born, though, one turned out to be a girl. One twin, it seemed, had been tested twice. Although the female twin did not have Down's Syndrome, Alison began at that point to worry about luck and the uncertainty of medicine (and of life).

So now, pregnant again, she asks her mother what she should do, and is told to "trust to luck." But she is afraid that her luck has run out and she must take control for herself. A scan shows that she is carrying twins again. Only now does her mother tell her that she is in fact a twin, that her sister had Down's Syndrome and died shortly after birth--in fact, her mother admits, the midwife "did away with" her. (The euphemism carries the senses both of euthanasia and of murder.)

Hearing this, Alison decides she wants to have an abortion right away. Her doctor, thinking the problem is that she wants only one child, gives her the option of selectively terminating one fetus and carrying the other one, but tells her she wouldn't be able to choose which to keep and which to abort. She rejects the idea, imagining how she'd tell the surviving twin about her decision later on, and decides instead to "have them both and trust to luck."

As she leaves the clinic, she begins to bleed and miscarries. Later her mother tells her that she, too, once miscarried twins, and tells Alison she'll have better luck next time, because of the bleeding: "Blood, " her mother says, "is the libation the God of Chance requires."


This story, ironic and comic in tone, very serious in intent, explores the relationship between chance and autonomy, testing the way each plays a part in both decisions and outcomes. Alison at first wants to live in "a world of cause and effect, not just luck" (132). After having the twins, she blames the hospital for her anxiety, for "making what was blind and instinctive somehow rational and required, so the mind cut in and observed the body, just when it shouldn't" (134).

The availability of knowledge (prenatal testing) puts a burden on her, first to know, and then to choose whether or not to act. When the test turns out to have been in error (about the babies' sex) and therefore the good outcome lucky rather than chosen, her faith in her own autonomy (and medicine's support of it) is shaken.

With the new pregnancy, Alison is presented with a new set of choices: to abort both, to choose to terminate one (randomly selected) fetus, or to give birth to both--with the added unknown variable of trisomy. As soon as she decides to carry both to term--a decision she frames as trusting luck rather than choosing--"luck" intervenes with an outcome, miscarriage, that is beyond her control.

Alison's mother captures the story's incisive view of the vertiginous interplay of autonomy and luck: according to her theory, chance is a kind of god, controlling things justly, since after you've suffered (paid the "libation of blood"), then "things go better." Her evidence is that, despite failed contraception, the danger of miscarriage, and a dead twin, she is "pleased" she gave birth to Alison.

There is a flaw in this reasoning: the twin's death was deliberate, not an act of chance. Luck never acts independently of our decisions, and we can never trust that luck will not intervene between cause and effect. The reader is left with a disconcerting (but illuminating) sense of the fragility of all our decisions--and, in this case, of medical decision-making in particular.

Primary Source

A Hard Time to Be a Father



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