Commentary Abortion

The Day I Learned Aborted Fetuses Aren’t People

Amy Littlefield

If we are truly to defend access to abortion, and the personhood of pregnant people, we have to be able to say, unequivocally, that the aborted fetus is not a person.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Last Tuesday, Planned Parenthood said it would stop accepting reimbursement for the cost of donating fetal tissue to medical researchers—a practice that is entirely legal. The move came after the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress released heavily edited, surreptitiously filmed videos that it claimed showed Planned Parenthood was profiting off these tissue donations.

Multiple investigations have found no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, but that hasn’t stopped anti-choice extremists from using the videos as fodder in their campaign for fetal “personhood.” Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s senior director of medical services, was particularly vilified in July, after a video showed her discussing fetal tissue donation while eating salad and drinking wine. (Portions edited out by CMP also showed her explicitly saying Planned Parenthood affiliates do not profit off fetal tissue donation.)

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards initially apologized for Nucatola’s “tone and statements,” saying they did not “reflect” the “compassion” Planned Parenthood provides to patients. Then last month, under questioning from Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan at a five-hour congressional hearing, Richards softened her language on Nucatola, saying, “In my opinion it was inappropriate to have a clinical discussion in a non-confidential, non-clinical setting.”

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Nucatola’s transgression was not that she did anything illegal; she didn’t. It was that she spoke in terms seen as “cavalier” about a taboo topic—the fetal body.

The anti-choice movement has waged a robust campaign to personify the fetus, from launching fetal “personhood” measures to criminalizing drug use during pregnancy. Even as the organization calls the decision to cover the costs of fetal tissue donation “a strategic move,” Planned Parenthood’s actions show how thoroughly these efforts have succeeded.

But fetuses are not people. I remember the day I decided that for sure.

In my former work as a counselor at abortion clinics, I often avoided seeing what we called the products of conception—the tissue that results from the union of egg and sperm. For me, the embryo—or fetus, in later stages of pregnancy—was irrelevant. I wanted to focus all of my attention on my patients. I wanted to make sure they were confident abortion was the right choice for them. I wanted to make sure they understood what would happen during the abortion, what they would experience at each step. I wanted to make sure they understood the risks, but also how unlikely those potential outcomes were to happen. I wanted to provide them with resources to stay safe from their abusive partners, or to access the birth control method they wanted. Abortion can mean so many different things to different people. I wanted to give my patients space to mourn, or to celebrate their choice.

Sometimes patients would ask me about their embryo or fetus. Would it feel pain? No, I would assure them. How big was it? For the vast majority of patients, who were in the first trimester of pregnancy, the answer was: tiny. More than 90 percent of abortions occur at or before 13 weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo or fetus ranges from little more than a bundle of cells to no more than a few inches long. But some patients I saw were much further along. Their questions were more difficult to answer. Their fetuses looked more like babies, even though they were still not viable outside the womb.

These were also the patients who often most needed my attention as a counselor. They were the teenagers who had been too scared to tell their parents about their pregnancies; the homeless people who struggled with drug addiction; the working mothers who scrambled to raise the hundreds of dollars to pay for an abortion, because in this state, their Medicaid wouldn’t cover it; the people who had just discovered their fetus had severe anomalies. Ironically, anti-choice laws are likely to force more people to have abortions later in their pregnancies. In the wake of Texas’ sweeping anti-choice law, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) recently found people in Dallas and Fort Worth, where half of area clinics have closed, now have to wait up to 20 days on average for an abortion.

Only about one percent of abortions take place at or after 21 weeksand these are the abortions the pro-choice movement is most reluctant to talk about. Why? Because the fetuses look more like babies than the bundles of blood and tissue that constitute the vast majority of abortions. But if we are truly to defend access to abortion, and the personhood of pregnant people, we have to be able to say, unequivocally, that the aborted fetus is not a person. It is not a baby. It is medical waste.

Still, in the clinics where I worked, I tended to avoid seeing the medical waste. I avoided it because it was irrelevant to my work. But I think part of me also avoided it because I thought seeing fetal tissue might diminish my allegiance to my patients.

As a young teenager, I was staunchly against abortion. I believed it was murder. Later, when I considered what it meant for the state to force a rape victim to remain pregnant, and learned how many women died from unsafe, illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade, I became staunchly pro-choice, realizing access to abortion is a matter of survival for pregnant people.

Yet even as I took part in hundreds of abortions as a counselor, I think on some level, I still wondered if seeing second-trimester fetal tissue could shake my pro-choice views. Then one day, I was offered the unusual opportunity to see the fetus of a patient who had been close to 22 weeks pregnant. With some trepidation, I accepted. I looked. And in that moment, my pro-choice position crystallized. While it was shaped like a baby, what I was looking at was not a person. It was a fetus. A fetus my patient had chosen not to make into a baby. I felt no attachment to it. Relieved, I stepped into the recovery room to check on my patient. Years later, looking back on this moment, it’s still the patient I think about, not the fetus.

Her life was what mattered.

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