Monday, November 1, 2010

The last legal option for women who really wanted to be mommies

Last summer, a woman I know well had to have a D&E at twenty-seven weeks. I say she had to, because tests showed that the fetus lacked the makings of a skull. It had brain tissue growing on the outside of what passed for its head. The fetus also had a neural tube defect and severe deformities of the face, legs and torso. Let's not dwell too long on the excruciating, unimaginable pain an infant would feel as a result of having its brain outside the skull.

My friend learned this information at twenty weeks. Her OB told her to expect a miscarriage. She was stunned. Miserable. Devastated. Disbelieving. She'd had a healthy baby a few years earlier, had no trouble conceiving and no birth defects on either side of the family. She and her husband had really wanted this child.

It took another two weeks for doctors to confirm the extent of the fatal and devastating flaws. Her body made no motions to miscarry. She was past the legal limit for abortion in her home state. She researched options in other states, but felt confident, based on medical advice, that her body would miscarry.

At twenty-four and a half weeks, the fetal heart beat ceased. Still no miscarriage.

Her OB (and another, more senior doc in the practice) told her that the fetus had no chance of viability, but that she was past the legal limit for an abortion. They explained that the fetus would likely die in utero.

And she'd have to go through labor to deliver a dead baby.

Anyone else think that's insane advice?

Because she lives in what I'll politely call a bright red state, it took her two weeks and a day to organize a termination in a state one time zone, a whole week off work and a pricey plane ticket away. After doing her own research (her OBs wouldn't help), she found a doctor in Boulder, Colorado to perform the abortion for her. He was quite literally her only remaining option in the U.S.

Every other woman in the waiting room was in the same boat. All were mourning wanted pregnancies ruined by profound defects. Some had traveled even further than she.

A late second trimester D&E is a three day procedure; on the second day one of the waiting room women confessed that she'd been up all night, panicking about what would happen if some anti-choice crazy managed to kill Dr. Hern before her procedure was complete. Her husband had insisted she take a sedative around four a.m., when she was up in the hotel room, Googling Dr. Tiller (the late term abortion provider murdered in Kansas last year). She wanted to know what happened to his second-trimester patients in progress. Answer: unclear.

My friend admitted later that the same thought had crossed her mind. And she asked me to write about it a few weeks ago. I thought it was too heavy a topic for this space. But she was persuasive.

She's a lawyer in a medium-sized Southern city and now she's a woman with a cause.

She called me again the other day, very excited that the feds had impaneled a grand jury to evaluate conspiracy charges against Operation Rescue and other anti-choice extremists. She also sent me an interview with Dr. Hern from the Guardian (link below), in which he makes a convincing argument that anti-choice organizations share responsibility when their adherents turn violent.

Another woman I know here in New England went through a similarly heartbreaking ordeal. Her baby, a desperately wanted infant conceived with the help of fertility medicine, seemed healthy and strong all through the first trimester. Then the doctors discovered a series of catastrophic genetic defects. Her fetus had a weak heartbeat. Her doctors worried that she showed no signs of miscarriage. If she elected not to terminate, the fetus would likely die inside her womb and become septic. She'd face either major emergency surgery or a labor to deliver a dead baby.

She chose to have the same procedure as my red state friend. She had a D&E at about twenty-three weeks, which is within the legal window for elective abortion here in Massachusetts.

As it should be everywhere. Because here's the thing that the anti-choice mobs can't or won't acknowledge: The overwhelming majority (over ninety per cent) of women having second or third trimester terminations are doing so because of either a catastrophic birth defect or (even more rarely) imminent danger to the mother's own life.

In case you're wondering about the other patients in late-term clinics, the majority of the remaining less than ten percent are scared teenagers. These girls either didn't understand they were pregnant, or (even more commonly) were raped and unable to secure an adult's help in getting an abortion until they were visibly pregnant. Why? Ask any domestic violence counselor. Many, many victims of child/teen rape are attacked by their fathers, step-fathers or other male relatives. I challenge you to explain to me how it's in any teenager's interest to become a mom; let alone one who was raped by her father.

Just because the second woman lives in a blue state didn't mean she was spared the fanatics outside the clinic. A second trimester D&E is a three day procedure. Every day for three days, she had to haul herself to the clinic, walk past the nut jobs and nuns with their pictures and prayer beads, through a metal detector, into a lobby where she passed two forms of ID through a window made of bullet proof glass.

Yes, in Massachusetts. The Heart of Blue State America.

The staff advised her that there was no point in explaining to the protestors that her desperately wanted baby was tragically not viable. I guess they've decided it's better not to engage with crazy people.

The demonstrators who hassle patients outside abortion clinics know that children are vulnerable to their emotional appeals. "Don't kill your baby!" and "We can help!" As one of Dr. Tiller's nurses said about their "help," it takes a lot more than a pink receiving blanket embroidered with a cross and a toll-free number for social services to help a troubled child parent an unwanted child of her own.

I challenge any person protesting outside an abortion clinic to look a woman in the eye and say to her, calmly and politely, that you feel it's in her best interest to carry a dead fetus to term. Or to parent a profoundly abnormal child. Or become a mother before becoming an adult. Tell her that you know what's better for her than she does. Tell her that you believe she's a sinner, and that your religious beliefs should dictate her actions.

Isn't that what America is all about?

You won't see this happening. It's easier for the anti-choice extremists to scream and taunt and dehumanize. And wait and hope that another gun toting crazy person will dispatch another doctor.

But I digress. I know I'm preaching to the converted, and maybe even pissing off some regular readers who tune in for the slapstick accounts of my adventures with the Grape. I promise that will be back in my next post.

But tonight, on election eve, I want to leave you with this thought:

A vote for any far right and/or tea party candidate, even if solely motivated by a desire to pay fewer taxes and be left alone by the folks in Washington, is WITHOUT EXCEPTION, a vote to put up even more hurdles for desperate, grieving, wanted to be moms like my friend.

Here's the Guardian piece on Dr. Hern:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/24/warren-hern-america-late-abortion

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