When I was an undergrad at Brown University, I was invited to debate the abortion activist group on late term abortion.
Our pro-life group consisted of 3-4 members, on a good day, and since I wrote opinion columns for the school paper, that somehow made me the designated spokesperson for the pro-life position. I accepted the invitation, knowing full well the debate was pointless.
This was 24ish years ago, when partial birth abortion was a hot topic. I showed up to the debate with printouts from an abortion-provider conference slide show about methods of late term abortions, depicting, clinically, what occurred during current methods. I was prepared to stick with facts, rather than rhetoric.
What I was not prepared for was the line of argument against me. As I held up the pictures, the room filled with hisses and boos, and my opponent smiled and said, simply, “That never happens.” No matter what I said, she would shrug and say it again and again: “That never happens.” Her position was that no one aborted babies in later trimesters. No one would ever abort babies in later trimesters. It was a straw man fiction, a bogeyman of pro-life activists meant to turn sentiment against early abortions. We don’t kill babies, she smiled. We just have late periods, induced miscarriages.
My favorite professor at Brown challenged his students with the following hypothetical: today, the word “abortion” is also called “terminating a pregnancy.” And “termination” involves ending the life of the unborn child. But what if, in the future, “terminating a pregnancy” meant simply that? Ending the pregnancy, but continuing the life of the child? Perhaps through artificial wombs, or intra-womb adoption, removing the baby from one womb and placing it in another?
He pushed the hypothetical further: what if a mother came along then and said that she wanted an “old fashioned” abortion? She did not simply want to terminate the pregnancy–she wanted to terminate the life of her child, as well. And she wanted to choose which “old fashioned” method to use: dismemberment. Lethal injection. Spinal snipping. Should that, then, be permitted? Does a mother seeking to “terminate her pregnancy” get a guarantee that her child does not survive the termination, even if s/he could?
When I was six weeks pregnant with my second child, while a senior at Brown, I went to the local Planned Parenthood as a paying client, for a “counseling” session, for the sake of investigative journalism. I asked many clear questions, and received dodgy answers. One of the questions I asked was “What does my child look like now?” “Like nothing,” the counselor replied. “Like tissue. Like what you see when you have your period.”
I walked across the street to my OB’s office for my dating ultrasound, and watched my daughter’s heartbeat going strong. I still have the pictures they gave me, along with their congratulations. My baby looked perfect. She still does. She’s a senior in college now.
The birthworker world has exploded with discussions of New York’s new law, which removed abortion from the criminal code and explicitly permits abortion up to birth. I invite the attention, because this law is nothing new. Abortion until birth has been legal since Roe v Wade/Doe v Bolton. This puts the United States in the dubious company of North Korea and China. The states with the most lenient abortion laws are Oregon, Vermont, Colorado, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia, where there are no major prohibitions on abortion. In addition to the lenient abortion laws in these seven states and D.C.,19 states make a broad exception that allows late-term abortions for the health of the mother, meaning both “physical and mental health.” That list now includes 20 states given New York’s updated law.
The Supreme Court has held that:
–even after fetal viability, states may not prohibit abortions “necessary to preserve the life or health” of the woman;
–“health” in this context includes physical and mental health;
–only the physician, in the course of evaluating the specific circumstances of an individual case, can define what constitutes “health” and when a fetus is viable;
–and states may not require additional physicians to confirm the attending physician’s judgment that the woman’s life or health is at risk in cases of medical emergency.
(These facts are taken from the Guttmacher Institute’s website; Guttmacher is Planned Parenthood’s research arm.)
New York’s preening has simply revealed what has been true all along: abortion is legal until birth. And pinkly lighting up the spire of the World Trade Center, right over the 9/11 memorial which commemorates the 11 unborn lives lost to that terrorist attack, has only exposed a change in tactics, not a change in public policy: these late abortions are to be celebrated, rather than mourned.
Abortion on demand and without apology, once a fringe slogan spouted by only the most fervent activists, has officially replaced “safe, legal, and rare.” Yet the abortion-activist, socialist, communist, and anarchist Brown undergrads crammed into our debate hall would only vehemently shake their heads over the very idea of giving late-term babies lethal injections in the womb: barbaric! We are not barbarians–we are compassionate humanists. We want freedom, not death!
How far we have progressed…
A couple years ago, I attended a symposium on perinatal loss at VCU’s medical school, in Richmond. The presenters included medical professionals of various specializations: a geneticist, a NICU attending physician, a social worker, a late-term abortionist. The afternoon panel included several couples who had lost a child, including a couple who had chosen to abort their baby at the brink of the last trimester due to a correctable heart defect.
My own heart twisted in my chest as the aborting couple described their decision-making process, and thanked their abortionist for agreeing to dismember their child, rather than induce labor (because this was their firstborn child, and they wanted to have other children, they did not want their first labor experience to involve a stillborn child). The abortionist happened to be the panel member from the morning, and she proudly broke in to say that she had further honored their wishes by using the severed limbs to make hand and foot prints for the couple, which they continue to display in their home. They had named their son, but they had never told their families what they had done, even though they emphasized that they had no compunctions about their decision. Publicly, they told family and friends their baby had just died.
As the discussion moved on to the other families’ stories, I watched the faces of the aborting couple. The other families, which included those who had carried fatal diagnoses to term, as well as those whose children had suddenly died in utero and were delivered as stillborn babies, spoke of families gathering, of their child being passed from grandmother to sister to aunt to brother to grandfather. They spoke of music playing as their child came into the world, of carefully knitted blankets wrapped around small limbs, of lullabyes sung. They mentioned Cuddle Cots, spoke of every precious moment extended and savored, of darkness and light, pride and sorrow.
And the aborting couples’ faces cracked and crumpled.
And I finally understood. Their decision had hurt their son the most–he had died a violent death–but it hurt them, too. They had forgone the most priceless gifts every parent gets with every child: time. And connection. And a place in the fabric of creation.
Compassion demands that we speak the truth in love. Life includes death. To open our hearts to a child is to open ourselves to immense suffering, pain outside of our own bodies. This is frightening. This is fearsome. This requires much support and unconditional love, to bear.
But this never requires an overt act of killing, of destruction.
Unborn children who can cling to life outside of their mother’s wombs are the next most vulnerable of our human family, after those who can only live inside their mother’s wombs. The positive difference is that we can help them. We can “terminate a pregnancy” and continue their lives. And if their lives must be short, we can provide them comfort care, place them in the arms or on the skin of those who love them the most, and let them pass away in dignity, with respect for their irreplaceable, unique DNA expression in the mysterious unfolding of human existence.
Parents deserve to hear that perinatal hospice allows a mother’s health and life to be preserved, if her health or life is at risk, WHILE allowing a child’s health and life to be preserved, if his/her health or life is at risk. We must love them both, cradle them both, give them both all of our attention and affection and tenderness, as they confront the true fragility of all our lives.
Many medical professionals have stepped forward to say, emphatically, that it is never necessary to kill a late term child to preserve the life or health of a mother. As a doula, I often reassure couples that when there is an emergency, there is action, not conversation. If there is time for conversation, there is time for discretion. Late term abortions take days, and always require birth, either vaginally or surgically, while interventions for medical emergencies are done swiftly. Those emergencies are for two patients, not one.
Little babies in our local NICUs curl their fingers, wear their parents’ wedding rings on their thighs. No one would (as of yet) advocate that parents be given syringes full of potassium chloride as they sit by their babies’ incubators, in case they choose to exercise their right as parents of life or death over their dependent child. Nor would mothers suffering from postpartum psychosis be reassured that newborns may be snuffed out, without consequence. Just because we understand why someone might be so inclined, it does not follow that we remove the proscription.
Many birthworkers I love and respect have called for us to listen to those who have chosen late term abortions, to really hear them. I could not agree more. We must listen, so we can honor their babies’ lives, understand their parents’ suffering, and keep doing better. It is possible to listen, to hear, to love, to forgive, and to NOT lift protection from those who are most vulnerable, but rather to EXTEND protection to mother AND child.
In my loss of a child groups, there are so many, SO many parents who have lost babies, born and unborn. Some of them have consented to end their child’s lives with an overt act, and their complicated grief jumps off the page. Before I lost my own son, I already supported perinatal hospice as a bereavement doula, and learning story after story only increased my compassion for these parents, in direct proportion to increasing my passion for respecting and protecting all life, born and unborn, from conception until natural death.
Who ever would have thought that the supposed compassionate position would flip entirely, from shielding the most vulnerable to destroying the most vulnerable. This public relations strategy may appear to have the upper hand right now, but we know too much, we see too much. Once upon a time, we were assured that the pregnancies ended by abortion looked like tissue–so we don’t need to worry about inhumanity. Now we are assured that late term pregnancies ended by abortion can be wrapped and swaddled, prints taken and pictures framed–so we don’t need to worry about inhumanity. And even as we are told these procedures are incredibly rare, at only about 1% of all abortions, we can also do the math: that is still about 12,000 abortions a year committed on babies who could be supported outside the womb.
As some states dehumanize babies unto birth, other states are humanizing babies once their hearts begin beating, which is as soon as 21 days after conception. As some parents are encouraged to selectively reduce multiples, other parents agonize over how to treat their frozen embryos. We cannot remain in this no-persons-land forever.
Let us love them both. Let us lead the way to a more compassionate, humanist view of life. For those who ask for us to sit and hold space for those who have chosen to end the life of their child, I ask back: would you sit and hold the syringe full of potassium chloride, and guide it into a beating fetal heart? You ask us to draw close to those who make such choices. We can do that, and still proclaim that some choices should not be made.
Love all life. Mother and child. Born and unborn. In sickness and in health. Until natural death do us part.
Tabitha Kaza is a certified DONA birth doula and mother of twelve. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University in 1998, she homeschooled her six boys and six girls while her husband served in the Marine Corps, and started attending births as a doula in 2012, after the birth of her ninth. Her special passion is bereavement work, perinatal hospice with Embracing Grace, and pro-life advocacy, both in the written word and by supporting the Gabriel Project as a volunteer doula. She is especially dedicated to serving families as they welcome new life, as she loves all things birth and hopes mothers choose joy in all circumstances.