The 20-week ultrasound in our first pregnancy began as a joyful event, but quickly turned into one of those punched-in-the-gut experiences. After our peek at the baby’s profile and his 10 little toes, the technician became stone-faced as the ultrasound wand moved to our baby’s brain.
We were sent to meet with a grim-faced doctor who gave us the news that there were large choroid plexus cysts in his brain, a condition associated with the fatal Trisomy 18. Next, a genetic counselor implored me to undergo amniocentesis to confirm the diagnosis, a test which itself carries a 1 in 200 chance of causing miscarriage. Not liking those odds, we declined.
Four months later, the cysts had cleared up, as doctors now know they often do, and that baby is a thriving, 6 foot, 16-year-old boy — a straight-A student and cross-country runner.
For some families, though, the heartbreaking prenatal diagnosis proves correct. I watched up close as a friend carried her baby to term, knowing he would die soon after birth due to a fatal kidney condition. After he was born, his family held him for a few precious hours until he peacefully slipped away. There is a rose garden dedicated to him where we cherish the memory of his meaningful but very brief life.
This week’s annual March for Life focuses on developing babies with just such diagnoses. Detecting disabilities in utero has become big business, despite frequent false-positives. Screening is available for hundreds of potential imperfections. With vast increases in prenatal testing, our culture will have to face the questions that arise from difficult prenatal diagnoses far more often.
Politicians are about to face this question as well. Congress will soon vote on a bill to ban abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy. The abortion lobby will oppose this bill by talking about the hard cases in which the baby does not develop according to plan. The shocking truth, however, is that the vast majority of late-term abortions are done on healthy mothers, carrying healthy babies. Abortion providers themselves have admitted this.
Media-savvy pro-choice groups will also claim that late-term abortions are rare, but according to their own statistics, there are 140 abortionists who routinely do abortions past 20 weeks. At least 18,000 late-term abortions are done annually, most of which are elective. Hardly “rare.”
Pro-choice groups also allege, disingenuously, that late-term abortion is necessary to protect the life and health of women. The bill already has a life of the mother exception. If a serious health condition arises this late in pregnancy, the baby is so developed that it is possible to deliver early and send the baby to the NICU, to end the pregnancy without killing the baby.
Whatever conflicted feelings people may have about abortion in the early months of pregnancy, they know instinctively that by 20 weeks, well into the fifth month, it’s a baby. Not even the abortion lobby pretends at 20 weeks it is “just a clump of cells”. TIME magazine’s recent cover story, “Saving Preemies,” is filled with accounts of feisty babies fighting for their lives in the NICU, some born at just this stage.
The TIME story also refers to the pain preemies experience in the NICU, which is why doctors administer anesthesia prior to invasive procedures.
If premature babies in the NICU feel pain, why wouldn’t that same baby at the same stage of developmentin-utero also feel pain? Common sense tells us that standard late-term abortion techniques inflict pain — techniques that include the literal dismemberment of the baby’s body with a stainless steel clamping tool. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s perennial swing vote, described in the Stenberg case, “The fetus, in many cases, dies just as a human adult or child would: It bleeds to death as it is torn from limb from limb.”
We would be rightly horrified if anyone did that to a puppy. If a deranged doctor walked into a hospital nursery and did that to a premature newborn, no one would say, “Well, it’s OK because the baby had a disability.”
Again, abortion doctors admit most late-term abortions are done on perfectly healthy babies. But even when there is a difficult diagnosis, there are peaceful alternatives — like the one my friend experienced. Hospice care helps parents say goodbye in a loving, humane way after birth. Congress already passed the Americans With Disabilities Act; hopefully it will choose compassion for our most vulnerable disabled little ones by passing the bill to ban late-term abortion.
Maureen Ferguson is a senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association.