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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

When We Can’t Remember Why Wrong is Wrong

May 14th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Maria Baer

In episode five of The Retrievals, a 2023 podcast produced by Serial productions and The New York Times, a woman says she spent the first night of her newborn son’s life convinced he wasn’t hers.

“They took my son’s blood, and they told me that his blood type was B positive. And when they gave me this information, I said… that can’t be. I’m O negative and my husband’s O positive… my mind immediately went to, ‘the clinic messed up and they gave me the wrong embryo, and this is not my baby,’” she said. The show used only her first name: Allison.

The Retrievals is a true-crime framing of an awful case at Yale University’s fertility clinic in 2020. A nurse began stealing vials of fentanyl that year, taking them home, using the drugs, and then re-filling the vials with saline and bringing them back. As a result, doctors at the clinic administered saline when they thought they were giving fentanyl. That means several women — dozens, maybe? they’re not really sure — underwent egg retrieval surgery without anesthetic.

Even during these procedures, over the din of panicked protestations that the women could feel all of this, clinic doctors didn’t do much more than shrug their shoulders and hypothesize that maybe some women just have a really low pain tolerance? Or maybe fentanyl just doesn’t numb some bodies like it does other bodies?

But when a doctor finally noticed a vial of fentanyl with a broken seal in the fall of 2020, the clinic called the authorities, launched an investigation, and fired the nurse, 49-year-old Donna Monticone. They also sent letters to the patients who may have been impacted.

Allison, the one who became convinced that her son might not be her son, says this terrible breach of trust made her second-guess everything the clinic had done.

I thought… this woman I’m supposed to trust, I mean, what did she do? Did she mix up the vials, did she label the wrong thing, like, whose baby is this?…that’s the impact it had on us, right? We didn’t trust them enough to even think that the baby that we had was ours.

The baby was theirs, mercifully. And he was healthy, which was the point. It’s a throwaway detail mentioned casually during Allison’s introduction, but it turns out Allison had pursued IVF not because she was infertile but because she carried the genetic marker for muscular dystrophy. She wanted to be able to test any embryos before carrying them to term, she said, the implication being if any of these tiny children “failed” the test, she would discard them.

The Retrievals is not subtle about its overarching message: that being a woman is a paradox of unfairness, that mothers are vulnerable to a particular kind of injustice, and women who are not mothers are just as vulnerable to a different kind, and we can’t win. But the show’s accidental and more pronounced theme is something else: that critical theory, radical individualism, and a worldview blinded by “power dynamics” has left us so morally dizzy that we can’t identify evil anymore, even when we see it, or feel it, firsthand. Even when we feel it violently.

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Early in episode one, The Retrievals host Susan Burton interviews Katie, another Yale victim. During her surgical procedure, Katie remembers yelling, making unintelligible sounds, pleading with the nurse to stop the pain. “It felt like someone was ripping something from the inside of your body,” she told Burton. The nurse held her hand and told her they’d already given her the maximum amount of fentanyl they were legally allowed to administer.

But they hadn’t, of course. Because what they thought was fentanyl was essentially water. Through Katie’s and other victim’s stories, The Retrievals deftly and effectively introduces listeners to the utter terror of being operated on without anesthesia, and the way the pain was psychologically compounded when doctors and nurses refused to believe the women. But by episode two, Burton quickly muddies the waters (or at least seems to believe she does) by introducing us to the culprit. Donna was having a really tough time, Burton says. Her husband was volatile, he threatened her with violence, he might have had COVID once and had not social distanced from their kids. After that, Donna refused him visitation until he could “prove” he wasn’t sick. So he filed a motion against her in court.

In an official transcript, Donna said she had become “overwhelmed by the sense that she would never be free.” That’s when she started using fentanyl. She’d had an addiction a few years earlier, to painkillers, which she was prescribed for pain in her foot. She remembered what it felt like to use.

Burton calmly instructs listeners that we’re allowed to have “empathy” for Donna’s addiction but still find her actions “chilling.” The disturbing and graphic stories of the victims’ excruciating procedures “raised questions,” Burton says, “about how profoundly dissociated [Donna] would have needed to have been, how deep in her addiction… In a way, these stories speak to the suffering of both parties.”

Once, when a woman woke up in the recovery room after her excruciating procedure and asked Donna if it was normal to be in so much pain, Donna coldly replied with a simple, “yes.”

Nevertheless, Burton treats Donna timidly, with an excruciating gentleness that borders on patronizing, and not just in the way she narrates with that insufferable Ira Glass-esque flair for the dramatic (‘The patients. The patients and their pain. The patients and their pain that no one believed.’) But Burton also really wants us to know that she tried to contact Donna so that she could give her side of the story, but to no avail. Burton reminds us, again and again and again one more time, that Donna has her own version of events. That she has her reasons.

The false dichotomy is implied: either we have compassion on people with addiction, or we impose consequences for their actions. Supposedly we cannot do both. Because everyone in this story is a woman, and women are marginalized, and women can never win, and there’s a special place in hell for women who criticize other women.

Culturally speaking, we used to know this kind of reasoning was silly. We’ve decided to stop knowing it.

Katie, the patient who said the pain of her procedure felt like “something was being ripped” from her body, is a neuroscientist who studies addiction. She says she approached her egg retrieval with professional curiosity — she’d never used fentanyl before. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the chance.

After the scandal broke, however, Katie decided she didn’t want Donna to go to jail. “It was more important to me that the nurse got substance abuse treatment,” she said. “I don’t really believe in prison for drug crimes.”

Instead, Katie wanted “the system” at Yale to be put on trial. “My immediate take was more about… Yale’s responsibility, and what kind of system was in place or not in place that allowed this to happen.” Of course, ‘systems’ are designed and implemented and carried out by individuals, but it is certainly emotionally easier (and at least gives the impression of logical consistency) to blame “a system” for something when blaming a person just feels so… gauche.

Another victim, Leah, a guest lecturer at Yale University who said she teaches about “injustice, incarceration, and trauma,” simply could not bring herself to say that maybe Donna should face jail time. “There’s this whole abolition movement going on,” she said. “So you have to think, like… do I want to see this person in jail?”

Leah’s wavering is fascinating, in an anthropological sort of way. But it is like nails on a chalkboard to hear someone sympathetic to the concept of “prison abolition” wrestle, in real time, and clearly for the first time, with the idea that victims of crime would probably appreciate a sense of justice for their perpetrator. Did it really take her own personal victimization for her to realize that most crimes have victims, and that those victims feel victimized?

These women tied themselves, needlessly, probably performatively, into ethical knots because they didn’t want to say things that should be easy to say: that Donna is a human being, with inviolable human dignity, and that Donna did something really, really awful. She violated the moral law, and the civil law. She should face the consequences, which will serve multiple purposes: to communicate to society that no one should do the things Donna did, to protect others from the fallout of any of Donna’s future bad decisions (which we now know she is statistically prone to make), to motivate Donna to stop using drugs and to stay within the law, and, frankly, to collect the moral and existential debt that Donna owes society.

It’s widely considered the polite opinion that the criminal justice system shouldn’t be punitive but restorative. But a criminal justice system only concerned with restoration will be just as dehumanizing as one that’s myopically punitive. C.S. Lewis, in his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," argued essentially that to do anything short of imposing consequences on someone like Donna for the expressed purpose of promoting moral justice would be degrading. To Donna:

To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we "ought to have known better", is to be treated as a human person made in God's Image.

People can be more than one thing. We can make bad decisions and also have our reasons. Sometimes victims in one situation can be perpetrators in another, like a woman who feels so confidently entitled to casually “discard” any of her babies with muscular dystrophy that she’ll shout her story from the Serial Productions mic without a sense of even the tiniest shame, and then is put under the knife with no anesthesia because a nurse stole her drugs and lied about it. Second-graders understand this; mostly because they’re watching it play out in the world in front of them. (Bobby let me borrow his crayons, and then he pulled my hair at recess.) Second graders also sense, even if they don’t have the words for it yet, that the alternative — making moral judgments (and thereby cultivating moral expectations) contingent upon the ‘identity’ or the circumstances of the actor — is chaos.

What’s the limiting principle on moral-calculation-by-power-dynamics? Where’s the episode of The Retrievals dedicated to Donna’s husband’s story? Where’s his sympathetic arc about how he’s only abusive because his dad was abusive, or his grandfather lived through the depression, or he was addicted himself? And then where are the episodes about the drug dealers, the Big Pharma execs, the sadistic police officers whose fathers abandoned or abused them? What if Donald Trump has his reasons?

Wisdom is accepting, without shame or panic, that we are all perpetrators, regularly, frequently, even if it’s not the story we’re telling ourselves. Grace is knowing that when and where it really counts, if we put our faith in Christ, we aren’t treated as perpetrators. That should make us patient with each other but calm and clear-eyed about justice, because we’re not needlessly paranoid that saying “you did something wrong” and “you are bad” are the same thing; and because facing some hard consequences here and now cannot make us any less human, cannot make our lives any less worthwhile, and cannot make our future hope any less secure.

Of course, this means forfeiting the moral superiority people feel when they say things like  ‘people with addiction, though they may act erratically or deviously or dangerously, should not have to face the legal consequences of their actions.’

Maybe I buried the lede: Donna was sentenced to four alternating weekends in prison. They were alternating so that she could take care of her kids. Her nursing license was suspended, but she got it back later.

To have a functioning society — by which I mean, a place where people can generally move around freely in relative safety, can make peaceful lives for themselves, can learn about the world and contribute to the lives of others — this requires a certain kind of common fidelity to a social contract. That contract can shift and widen; but the common fidelity to it can’t. Otherwise things start to fray. It’s trendy now to call the social contract “oppressive” — mainly because so many people for so long have accepted it as a given, which is inherently suspicious to us. But sooner or later, real life in the real world among real human beings will remind everyone that without it, human suffering compounds. In a fallen world, that kind of order can’t rely only upon consensus. So-called “gentle parenting” doesn’t work, not because kids are inherently worse people, but because kids don’t always know yet what makes a decision good and not bad, let alone how to make the good one.

The Retrievals, like so many other stories our culture is telling itself right now in podcasts and movies and TV shows and books, made a very sad, multifaceted tragedy much more complicated than it really needed to be. And while going sober into surgery is objectively terrifying, what’s even scarier, existentially speaking, is the prospect of living in a world that can’t really find the motivation or the moral justification to condemn the actions that put patients in that situation in the first place.

Maria Baer

Maria Baer is a reporter, writer, and podcaster. She is the co-host of the weekly Breakpoint This Week podcast with John Stonestreet and a writer for Breakpoint. She is also published regularly at Christianity Today magazine, WORLD magazine, and The Gospel Coalition. Maria is based in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from the Ohio University Scripps School of Journalism in 2009.