News Abortion

Georgia Legislator: “We Are Going to Save a Thousand Babies”

Robin Marty

The author of the 20 week ban may have somewhat unrealistic hopes.

When Rep. Doug McKillip, the sponsor of the 20 week ban on abortions in Georgia, learned that the Senate had watered down his original bill and added an exception for “medically futile” pregnancies, it was enough to cause him and other members of the House to consider killing the ban all together.

But after negotiations, including eliminating as many “loopholes” as possible and defining medically futile explicitly as “profound and ‘irremediable’ anomalies that would be ‘incompatible with sustaining life after birth,'” McKillip was ready to come back on board.

After the bill passed both chambers, McKillip declared, “We are going to save a thousand babies when this bill goes into effect.”

But are they? According to the CDC, in 2007, the most recent year of reported data, only about 3 percent of abortions are performed after 20 weeks.  That was only 984 terminations.

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Given that the vast majority of later term abortions are performed when fetuses have some sort of defect, at least some of those procedures were likely to have fallen into even that tightly defined medical exception.  And for those that do not meet the “incompatible with sustaining life” but are still dire enough to open the baby to a great deal of pain and suffering after birth, it can only be assumed that a family will look elsewhere, likely to another state… if they have the resources to do so.

Save “a thousand babies”?  Probably not.  Just leave a lot more families desperate and forced to take more effort to end a wanted pregnancy.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Commentary Abortion

Losing My Lege: Texas Legislator Thinks Pregnant People Should be Forced to Carry Dead Fetuses to “Do Penance”

Andrea Grimes

Here's a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners.

Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.

Last week, a grown man stood on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and argued that the state must force pregnant Texans to try to carry dying, deceased, or non-viable fetuses as long as they can. Anything less, said state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), wouldn’t be “pro-life.”

These fetuses “are going to suffer, they’re going to feel pain,” just as adults with terminal illnesses do, said Schaefer, a freshman Tea Party politician from East Texas. “That’s part of the human condition, when sin entered the world, and it grieves us all.”

Y’all, I just need us to sit with that statement for a little while. Here’s a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners. And because Matt Schaefer is a sinner. In other words, those families are doing penance on everyone else’s behalf.

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This is, of course, a burden predicated on Schaefer’s personal and particular interpretation of the Christian faith. It also conveniently serves to bolster his image with right-wing voters without ever requiring he lift a compassionless finger.

Because no matter how hard, or how much, or how long any of us sin, I suspect Matt Schaefer will never be forced to carry a dying fetus to term against the advice of his doctors or his own wishes.

I guess pregnant Texans who are grieving the loss of unsustainable pregnancies will just have to do Schaefer’s penance for him. Maybe that’s part of God’s mission for people who aren’t Matt Schaefer, according to the gospel of Matt Schaefer.

And Schaefer is using his faith to justify inflicting state-mandated pain on people who are already experiencing terrible loss. Schaefer’s proposal, which was ultimately pulled down as part of a procedural quibble after it had initially passed, would have banned abortion after 20 weeks if a fetus has a “severe and irreversible abnormality.” That goes so far beyond cruel as to be almost unimaginable.

But of course, this isn’t unimaginable. Because we know Texans have already been forced to give birth to dying or dead fetuses. Even under current law, doctors who are afraid of running afoul of existing anti-abortion statutes often believe they can’t provide their patients with the care their patients want, or the care that doctors themselves recommend, when fetuses cannot live outside the womb. As a result, families have been forced to carry unsustainable pregnancies to term. And they have told us their stories.

We know, beyond doubt, that when lawmakers insert themselves into the private decisions of families who are forced to end wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies, they cause nothing but more heartbreak. Because laws—and these lawmakers—are not built for nuance. They are built for cruel and cold rhetoric, only meant to appease Texas’ far, farther, farthest right-wing voters.

Schaefer’s proposal, which was tacked on as an amendment to a bill about the bureaucratic operations of the state health department, as if it were some kind of especially abhorrent afterthought, affects just one group of people. It targets Texans who don’t want their dying fetuses—or, perhaps, their babies, if that’s the language they choose to use, and on which subject I defer entirely to families going through this difficult process—to be born, only to suffer for minutes, hours, or days.

Those Texans, under Schaefer’s proposed rule, have no choice but to suffer. Because Matt Schaefer’s God says that they, uniquely, must.

Texans who want to go through the birth process with an unsustainable pregnancy are already legally allowed to do so—and that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. Texans should be not only allowed, but empowered, to make these decisions without the heavy-handed input of state lawmakers.

I would rebuke any law that forced pregnant Texans to terminate a pregnancy against their wishes. By the same token, I abhor a law that forces a grieving Texan to labor, and labor, and labor—when they knew they could have assuaged that suffering according to their own conscience or their own faith, had fate been more geographically amenable, or had they the means to travel out of state.

We could get into the physical consequences of state-compelled gestation: the fact that a dying or dead fetus could put the life of a pregnant Texan who becomes septic in danger, or that it could affect their future fertility. Those are real risks. They shouldn’t be ignored.

But the next (il)logical step, for Matt Schaefer and lawmakers who think as he does, would be to say that the death of a pregnant person from sepsis is simply the penance for sin. That infertility is a punishment from Godpunishment for the actions of all humans, since time immemorial. I will not walk down that gruesome road.

Because I don’t need a pregnant Texan to be on the verge of death—the remaining exception for allowable post-20 week abortion care under Schafer’s proposed law—to trust their ability to make their own decisions about when, or whether, to end an unsustainable pregnancy. I don’t need that Texan to be threatened with infertility to know that men like Matt Schaefer have no right to play politics with their lives.

Just four Republicans voted against Schaefer’s amendment, including two physicians: John Zerwas (R-Richmond) and J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville). Sheffield, in particular, implored his fellow GOP members to vote against it, saying that GOP lawmakers “have not been the ones taking care of the babies with the feeding tubes,” or who are sustained on machines or with artificial nutrition.

“I’m not saying those babies are less of a life for our God to treasure or less of a life for us to love,” implored Sheffield. “That is not the argument.”

He continued, asking, “Why should the heavy, blunt hand of government come into that most heart-rending decision?”

Why? I’m sorry to say that I believe I know.

It is because GOP lawmakers think they need to win primaries at all costs, and they feel that they need to pander to the state’s most conservative voters—voters who are already allowed to carry pregnancies with life-incompatible fetal anomalies to term, if that is their choice—in order to do so.

I know this because while Texas house leaders considered the procedural point of order that eventually resulted in the entire bill, including Schaefer’s amendment, being blessedly pulled down, the house’s Tea Party contingent gathered for a very public prayer on the house floor. They made sure everyone got a good look, preening and pandering to the smartphones and news photographers in the room. We’ll almost certainly see photos of that prayer huddle again come election season, as Tea Partiers glom on to Schaefer’s ghoulish version of Christianity.

Maybe the Tea Party bible doesn’t read the same as mine. When I look up Matthew 6:5, it reads: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

The reward, I suppose, would be another successful primary win. The penance? Well, that’s to be paid by someone else.

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