Tag Archives: down syndrome

Rethinking late-term abortion

In my earlier post about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, I said “I’m not much of a supporter of late-term abortions.”  When I wrote that, I was in the category of ignorant people disgusted by the idea of a woman who took six months to decide if she wanted a baby.  Additionally, we’re having this enormous argument over a tiny percentage of the total abortions performed.  In 2003, only 1.4% of abortions in the U.S. were performed at or after 21 weeks.

Since Tiller’s murder, story after story have come out about types of situations where women choose late-term abortions.  (There are various definitions of “late” so I’m going with after 21 weeks.  No fetus is viable before 21 weeks, and nearly all are viable after 27 weeks.) They are stories of horrible birth defects that aren’t detected early.

I just had a baby, so I know how some of these screening processes work.  An amniocentesis is done after the 16th-18th week.  They provide a diagnosis for certain DNA abnormalities, but since they present risks for the fetus, they are not recommended for every pregnancy.  The quad screen is also done around the 16th-18th week and assesses risk for certain abnormalities, but does not actually diagnose.  If the quad screen shows a high risk for something, it will be followed up by an ultrasound.  The ultrasound can be done between the 17th-22nd week, but my doctor said to wait til the 20th-22nd weeks to ensure the best view for the ultrasound.

So at this point, a woman may not know of a serious abnormality until the 22nd week of pregnancy.  After receiving this terrible news, it must take a woman a bit of time to decide how she wants to proceed.  If she chooses to terminate the pregnancy, there’s only three places in the whole country–now only two–that will perform the procedure for her.  Even more time will pass as she has to make an appointment and travel arrangements.  Time is passing, but now it cannot be blamed on indecisiveness.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about people, including our President, dismissing the mental health of the mother as a legitimate reason for a late-term abortion.  Then-Senator Obama stated:

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.

Carrying a fetus with genetic abnormalities is not physically harmful for the mother, unless the fetus dies and the body doesn’t spontaneously abort it.  But can you imagine the distress it would cause a woman–her entire family, really–to give birth to a baby with one of these disorders?

First let me say, I am not classifying Down Syndrome as a justification for late-term abortion.  The average lifespan of someone with Down Syndrome is 49 years, and only a small number suffer from severe to profound mental disabilities.  While working in therapeutic horseback riding, I met a woman in her early-20s who had Down Syndrome.  She lived in a group home, bagged groceries at a local supermarket, got to ride horses once a week along with other Park District activities, and generally seemed very happy with her life.

What do I think should justify a late-term abortion?

Trisomy 18 (aka Edwards Syndrome): Heart defects, kidney malformation, intestines protrouding outside the body, cleft palate, small head, small jaw, difficulty breathing, difficulty eating, extra fingers and toes.  50% of babies born with Trisomy 18 die in the first 2 months, 5-10% will reach their first birthday, 1% live to be 10.  The median life span is 5-15 days.

Anencephaly (warning: link contains graphic images): Fetus is missing all or part of the brain, top of the scull and scalp are usually missing.  Of the babies that survive birth, 60% die within 24 hours and 95% die within a week.

These are the two I am most familiar with, but there are probably others.

Now I understand when people who knew Tiller talk about how much he cared about women.  Now I’m concerned that there’s only two places left in the country where women can end such ill-fated pregnancies.

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