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|June 4 - June 10, 2009
• See Letters page
• Jim Hightower
Why we need late-term abortion doctors
by Christina Eisert
The murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few remaining providers of very late-term abortions, has certainly touched a nerve. So much for President Obama’s naïve plea for a fair-minded debate on the abortion issue.
I have always been pro-choice. A solid progressive. I once stood beneath a sign in Washington, D.C., that bellowed: FREE ABORTIONS ON DEMAND, if that lends me a little street cred.
To my great surprise, however, my own beliefs were challenged and reorganized when my darling youngest child was born with a chromosomal abnormality called Trisomy 21, commonly known as Down syndrome.
This is relevant, as an estimated 90 percent of pregnancies with a diagnosis of Trisomy 21 are terminated. The truth is, a lot of late-term abortions are performed on women carrying children like mine. It’s a big pill. I haven’t fully swallowed it yet.
The challenges my family has faced since our little guy was born have been monumental. Born with heart defects, he has never learned to eat. Pronounced “severely failure to thrive,” he was 12 pounds at 14 months old and still relies on a g-tube for sustenance.
Knowing what I know now, if given the choice, I still wouldn’t change a thing. But would I force this difficult and sometimes overwhelming experience on another family? Ah. The plot thickens…
Welcome to the greyest of all the moral grey areas. Late-term abortion is arguably the single most explosive topic in our society. Mired in murkiness, just pinning down a definition of the term seems elusive.
Our court system tries to handle the grey area by focusing on “viability,” or the ability of the fetus to survive (with medical assistance) outside the womb.
In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that once a fetus becomes viable, the court has an interest in protecting the life of that fetus. Therefore, abortions at this stage are limited except in cases where the life or safety of the mother is in jeopardy, when there is a fetal abnormality or in cases of rape or incest. The Court is still inconclusive, though, on exactly how to determine the moment when viability first occurs.
Physiologically, no pregnancies are viable before the 21st week of gestation, and nearly all are viable after the 27th. In reality, there is a medical grey area between the two points, and it is destined to grow as medical advances allow for potential viability before 21 weeks. By current definition, only about 1 percent of abortions are performed “late-term,” or after 21 weeks of gestation.
Abortion rates have steadily declined in this country since 1990, when nearly a million and a half were performed. While I’d like to attribute that change to solid advances in health care and education, a more likely factor is the utter lack of access to the procedure that most women face today.
Nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider. Tiller was one of only a handful of physicians — along with Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder Abortion Clinic — who perform very late-term abortions. What makes these doctors unique is their ability and willingness to provide their patients with abortions after the fetus is viable.
Why would a doctor, a taker of the Hippocratic oath, abort a viable fetus?
As a radical pro-choice activist, I admit, we all let the question hang there. It was, perhaps, a necessary evil, a stake in the game, a line in the sand we were not willing to cross, lest we lose one inch of hard-won battleground.
But as the mother of a beautiful baby with sweet eyes who lives with the joy and the difficulties of a chromosomal difference, that line in the sand expands into a porous and diffuse grey area, where I begin to ask myself, “At what point would I knowingly pull out?”
My son’s condition is on the list of fetal anomalies considered fair game for late-term abortion. Yet, because of my experience I think I can better understand why a family handed a profound diagnosis might take stock of their choices.
Our family feels blessed everyday. I would love to see more families choosing to bring up a child with Down syndrome, and I would love to see the number of abortions generally decrease.
But I would live in great fear if that number were to drop to zero.
With so few doctors women in this country can turn to in the third trimester if their lives are endangered by their pregnancy or if they discover, tragically, that the child they’re carrying is developing in a way that will cause profound suffering and lead to a stillbirth or death, it is a reasonable fear.
Perhaps the activist and the mother are converging. I know society is better off nurturing families than demonizing medical procedures. I know access to birth control and health education does more to lower abortion rates than protesting outside abortion clinics. I’m still rock-solid pro-choice. But I’m also rock-solid pro-life, in that I am for life. It is a pro-choice I can live with.
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