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A Donation of Spirit

By Katrina J. Zeno
A "problem" pregnancy leads mother and all those around her to a deeper life in Christ.

Our Sunday Visitor -

The extraordinary story of Fr. Michael Scanlan's niece's decision to carry to term her seriously deformed child who would die within hours of birth. Over the objections of co-workers and some family members, Dawn Scanlan chose life rather than to abort her baby boy. As expected, the baby died 90 minutes after birth—but not before being baptized, and touching everyone around him, especially concerning the sanctity and beauty of every human life. Most deeply touched was Dawn herself, who went from a "straddling the fence" Catholic to one who knows deeply the power of the Gospel of life.

She was the first person I ever met who wore black leather and lipstick to match. It was 1983, and I was a freshman at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. The young woman in black, Dawn Scanlan, was the University president's niece. She had been "entrusted" to my small, faith-sharing group for the weekend with the hope that we would be a good influence on her.

Much to my surprise, and to the delight of her uncle, Dawn enrolled at Franciscan University the next fall. Leaving behind the racy life of a Long Islander, she tried to give God and her Catholic faith a fair shake.

She half succeeded. After a year of less than spectacular grades, the probation committee at the University informed Dawn she couldn't continue. She got a job with British Airways, moved to Atlanta, Georgia, married a Lufthansa airline employee, and settled down to a mediocre Catholic life.

"I continued to straddle the fence," Dawn says. "I went to church on Sunday, taught my two daughters their prayers, but still compromised in many areas."

But in August of 1997 the fence began to crack. Five months into her third pregnancy, Dawn received some disturbing news: Her baby had a rare and fatal form of dwarfism (only 100 documented cases) in which his lungs would never develop. If he made it to term and was born, he would die within hours.

Additionally, he had no arms or legs, just hands and feet, and he was hydrocephalic.

"I was very confused and didn't know what to do," Dawn says. "Some of my friends suggested I have an abortion. I wanted the Catholic position, so I called Uncle Mike."

Uncle Mike, a.k.a. Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, president of Franciscan University, listened to his distressed niece and then gave his advice: wait and pray for 24 hours, and then he'd call back.

"It was the best advice he could have given me," Dawn says. "Within two hours, I knew what I would do. I would continue my pregnancy and shower my baby with love. I made the decision with God's help. It was my decision. It wasn't Uncle Mike's decision."

Immediate peace flooded Dawn's soul, and she resolved to give the baby's life some tangible value by donating his organs. Over the next three months, she contacted a number of organizations and made the necessary arrangements.

Still, many of her friends and co-workers were baffled by her decision. "They couldn't understand why I would go through sickness and endanger my life for a child that wouldn't live," she says.

December 11, 1997, dawned crisp and clear, and on the eve of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 4-pound, 4-ounce Jack Lawrence was born. "When I saw him, my heart leapt for joy," Dawn says. "He had my first daughter's curly red hair and my second daughter's round face. I knew he was my son."

As her husband, sister, friends, and nurses gathered around, Dawn baptized Jack Lawrence just as Uncle Mike had instructed. Then Jack spent the next 1½ hours of his short life in non-stop affection. After Dawn reassured him he could go home to heaven, Jack Lawrence died in the arms of his father.

"I never knew someone could teach me so much in such a short time," Dawn says. "I always wondered, if I experienced persecution, if I would have the courage to stand up for my faith. Now I know. God was carrying me the whole time. I don't have to look back to see his footsteps. I know it was Him."

Not only did Jack leave his imprint on Dawn's life, but on others as well. About 40 family members and airline employees attended the graveside funeral, many of whom had openly criticized her decision. "It was a surprisingly meaningful occasion for everyone," Fr. Scanlan says. "At most funerals, people are grieving or trying to comfort the family. But at Jack Lawrence's funeral, everyone was rejoicing at the rightness of the decision and the proclamation of life."

That short life eloquently witnessed to a longer one. "Everyone grasped the beauty of life in heaven, the joy of celebrating a family member who was there, and the value of life even when lived for only a few minutes," Fr. Scanlan continues. "Jack didn't have the opportunity to personally sin and, therefore, baptism made his soul perfect for heaven."

The beauty of heaven captivated even the youngest family members. For a few weeks later, Jack's three-and-a-half-year-old sister, Shay, asked during church: "How do I get to heaven?" She also sent a message to her dying grandmother to take care of Jack Lawrence "until we get there."

The transformation in Dawn was also apparent. "She was radiant during the funeral," Father Scanlan says. "She went from someone who was trapped in anguish, to someone of clear decision, to someone of radiant joy. She's a different person."

Dawn, too, acknowledges the difference. "People are surprised that I'm so happy," she says, "but I can't help it. Jack brought me so much clarity. I'd done straddling the picket fence. I can't do it any more."

That same spirit of clarity echoed in the comments, letters, and cards Dawn received from acquaintances and relatives. "One of the nurses in the labor room was Catholic, but she hadn't been to church since she lost her son many years ago," Dawn says. "As she held Jack, I told her I'd see her in church the following Sunday."

A co-worker at British Airways acknowledged that Jack's life had changed her view on abortion. A friend's father, who is upper-level management at AT&T, couldn't express the depths of his sentiments in ordinary words, so he wrote the following poem:

"Hush! The baby's sleeping in the tender arms of God. An angel now so bright and complete to sing the praises of the Lord. All of heaven is his playground as he romps with Cherubs and Seraphim. Come Jack Lawrence, and join us in the melodies of Paradise, for time means nothing in this place, and you will soon be reunited."

Perhaps most striking of all was a letter from a distant aunt: "The Church's position on abortion has always seemed hard-nosed to me," she wrote. "I understand the abuses people have made using abortion as a method of birth control, rather than using self control. It's the gray areas that always bothered me. … and I'm not sure being put in your position I would have opted for the same choice.

"Thank God it was you who were Jack's parents! For nine months, he received your love and attention. You made the correct decision to love and nurture your child at whatever cost to you emotionally or physically. We feared for your life, Dawn. I guess we should have trusted in God's wisdom more. You are a much stronger and loving person than we ever imagined, and we admire you. … You taught us all that life is precious, no matter how short, or how difficult the path."

Admittedly the path was difficult, and Jack Lawrence's life was short, but a year later, Jack's greatest gift remains. "The most important part of who Jack is will always go on," Dawn says, "because Jack donated his spirit."

Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, January 17, 1999. Visit their website at (

Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats.  Her articles and interviews have appeared numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.

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