Thirteen years ago I became an unwilling pawn in the first matches
of the national debate on late term abortion. The experience has afforded me a
personal perspective that few share. Unfortunately, for myself and a small
percentage of other affected women, proximity to an issue has never been a
requirement of opinion.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama recently clarified his position on late term abortion to the publisher
of Relevant magazine:
"…I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate
for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there
is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t
think that "mental distress" qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it
has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are
real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term.
Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we
can prohibit late-term abortions."
It was 13 years ago that a Democrat-turned-Republican Florida
congressman named Charles Canady held a meeting with Keri Folmar, a lawyer on
his payroll, and Douglas Johnson, a lobbyist for the National Right to Life
Committee, and the trio first coined the non-medical phrase "partial-birth
abortion" that is now written into legislation.
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At roughly the same time as that fateful meeting, I sat in my
obstetrician’s office and listened without fully understanding as the doctor
repeated the medical term "anencephaly" over and over in reference to the child
More than a month later I sat in a university hospital with
obstetrician number five as he patiently and painstakingly presented ultrasound
scans from "normal" pregnancies and then scans from my own pregnancy. Each of
the multiple anomalies present — omphalocele, spina bifida, anencephaly and
others — were explained and, for the first time I fully understood why the
child I already deeply loved and wanted would never survive outside of my
Several days after that appointment my husband and I, in
consultation with the doctor, made the decision that we would not attempt to
carry to term and would terminate.
Because there were only potential and no immediate threats to my
physical health, there are many who would stand in judgment of our family’s
decision. To be honest, there are many who have and still do. One thing that has
stood out, however, is the fact that other families who have faced similar
choices — even those who made the opposite decision — have never wagged an
accusatory finger in our direction. There’s something about the process of
deciding between Option A and your child’s death, Option B and your child’s
death or Option C and your child’s death that tends to put things in
perspective. A perspective, it seems, of which Senator Obama has absolutely no
On one hand, I’d like nothing better than to take Obama’s hand and
force him to walk each and every step of that experience with me. I want him to
know the bittersweet feel of a child that will never live outside of the womb
against his insides. I want him to wake up in the middle of the night and just
for a moment know peace before the reality of what’s taken place comes crashing
down again. I want him to have to sit and look at pictures of contorted infant
cadavers as a doctor does his best to explain the anomalies. I want him to
understand the force of a parent’s sorrow and prayer as one life is offered on
behalf of another. I want him to feel the nation’s war of words in relation to
abortion as personally and as raw as I do. I want him to understand that
psychological wounds leave horrific scars.
On the other hand, the dismal truth is that I’m not that cruel.
Even if I had the ability to force my memories and my experiences on Obama…
even if by doing so I could virtually guarantee that he’d never again utter such
an ignorant (at best) or politically-motivated (at worst) response… I couldn’t
do it. What I’ve experienced is something I’d never wish, much less willingly
give, to another person.
One thing I can provide, however, is a first-hand glimpse into what
Obama’s policy clarification would have meant in my real-life situation.
By the time I had the appointment with the fifth obstetrician, my
body was retaining far more amniotic fluid than the pregnancy required, an
uncomfortable condition known as polyhydramnios. The doctor told me that because
of the excess fluid it was more likely that the pregnancy would not come to term
before the child died. If the child died, and my body didn’t begin a spontaneous
abortion, there were risks of infection.
Although we had made the decision to terminate the pregnancy, we
first had to deal with state law requirements in relation to late term
abortions. When our waiver was denied, our doctor referred us to another
physician in a nearby state. An ultrasound the morning of the two-day procedure
showed that our child had already died. Further tests concluded that I had
already developed an infection.
Obama’s policy clarification states that he would require a
"strict" health exception. It’s doubtful that the possibility of early fetal
demise resulting in an infection would fit the requirements. Most likely, under
his policy, I would not have had an option to terminate. I would have continued
the pregnancy and, given the known outcome, would have received minimal prenatal
care. As a result, instead of the fetal demise going undetected for an estimated
two days, it could have gone undetected until I began to experience the
full-blown affects of infection.
At the time of this pregnancy, we already had a then three-year-old
daughter. She remained blissfully unaware of the pregnancy, the diagnosis and
the termination. I was able to wait until I thought she was emotionally ready to
hear and understand what happened so long ago.
Obama’s plan does not allow for parents to decide when their other
children learn about a sibling’s death.
If there is such a thing as adding insult to this sort of injury,
however, the award goes to Congress and the Bush administration for their
passage of the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban," and the U.S. Supreme Court for
their ruling in Gonzalez v. Carhart. While this piece of legislation does
nothing to limit late term abortions, it does outlaw a specific procedure that
allowed doctors to remove the fetus body intact.
Just to be clear, given that in my case the child suffered from
anencephaly, it would be next to impossible for me to have had a true dilation
and extraction procedure. To be graphic, an ancephalic child has no skull to
prohibit its passage through the cervix. However, if I were to undergo a
termination for an ancephalic child today, the doctor, according to law, would
not be able to deliver the fetus in one piece. That is, our law now requires the
fetus to be dismembered prior to removal from the uterus. Not only is this a
more invasive procedure, but it prevents the parents of ancephalic children from
holding their child after a termination has been completed.
According our Supreme Court, our current President and a majority of
those serving in Congress, only a mother who opts to carry to term should be
given the privilege of holding the intact body of her dead son or