The Current

ENCORE: Parents explore medical frontier of micro-preemies

Born in the grey zone. Micro-preemies are babies born so premature, they're on the edge of viability. Modern medicine means these babies can increasingly be saved. But with the advances, come thorny new questions about where life truly begins.
Inside the neonatal intensive care unit, Juniper's parents faced tough decisions. 'Our daughter's diaper was the size of a pack of Trident," Kelley French says of her micro-preemie baby, Juniper. The story of her birth and survival highlights the disruptive force of our medical technology and forces the question of when life begins. (Courtesy of Kelley and Thomas French )

Read story transcript

Juniper French weighed one pound four ounces — a little over half a kilogram —when she was born five years ago in a Florida hospital.

"Exactly the weight of a Gatorade bottle," Kelley French tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. Her diaper was the size of a pack of gum, says French.

Juniper was born at 23 weeks and six days gestation, in what doctors call the grey zone — at the edge of viable life outside the womb, forcing her parents Kelley French and Thomas French to make a series of impossible decisions. 

When Kelley went into labour early, the doctors gave them the choice: it was up to them to decide whether to let Juniper live or die.

"We're journalists, we're used to doing some reporting," Thomas French tells Tremonti. But what Kelley and Thomas found was there was almost no research online to guide them.

"You can find out a lot more information when you're picking out a toaster than trying to decide whether to fight for your daughter's life," says Thomas.

The couple have written a book called Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon to share their experience and what they have learned.
Doctors call babies who once would have died outside the womb at 23 weeks and are saved, the grey zone - the nebulous line between life and death. (Courtesy of Kelley and Thomas French )

The Frenchs decided they wanted to give their daughter a chance.

"I wrote in the book it's like you're seeing something you're not meant to see. You're peeking into God's pocket," Kelley tells Tremonti.

"She was alien and to a degree frightening but it was also sacred."

Kelley says that if Juniper had come one week earlier, some hospitals would have refused to save her -  raising a number of fundamental questions on babies born at the edge of viability. 

"Is a 23-week baby a fetus or a baby? Does a baby at 23 weeks have their own rights as a person because the decision of whether to resuscitate her was left with us," says Kelley.

Juniper has just started kindergarten. Physically Juniper will be small her whole life. (Courtesy of Kelley and Thomas French )

"The doctors couldn't make that decision because there were so many uncertainties, they wouldn't have to be the ones to bury her or take her home."

Both Thomas and Kelley have also thought about how micro-preemies fit into the heated abortion debate in the U.S.

"It's an astonishing thing to see a 23-week-old baby and I don't have any doubt that's a baby and not a fetus," Kelley tells Tremonti.

When Juniper was born at 23 weeks, she was the weight of a Gatorade bottle. Now she's a thriving and ferocious five-year-old. (Courtesy of Kelly and Thomas French)

"But that doesn't change my politics one bit. And it never made me wish that a politician had been involved in the conversations between me and my doctor."

Today, Juniper is a thriving and healthy five-year-old.

"In a lot of ways she's exactly like she was at 23 weeks. She's feisty and she's tough and she's strong,"  says Kelley.

"She's also funny and more full of joy than you can ever possibly imagine."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.