Partial Birth Abortions

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Partial birth abortions have been on my mind ever since finding out about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was one of only three physicians in the U.S. who performed partial birth, or late-term, abortions. He had been threatened for years and was even shot before, in both of his arms, in 1993. (He went back to work the next day.) Dedication doesn’t seem to be a large enough word to describe him. The people who demonized him and called him “Tiller the Baby Killer” wouldn’t see it that way, of course.

It’s not hard to see why he would have been targeted by the pro-life community (not that the whole community conspired in his murder). The term, partial birth abortion, brings to mind horrible images. I myself have avoided even thinking about it because it’s such an unpopular and explosive topic. But I’ve been doing a lot of research since Sunday (when Dr. Tiller was shot to death while handing out bulletins in his church narthex). And what I’ve found out has given me a new sensitivity about the procedure.

One thing I discovered is that late-term abortions make up only 1% of all abortions. Another was that they are usually performed only when the fetus has no chance of survival outside of the womb or is so badly damaged, his or her life would be living hell if he or she did survive delivery. They are also performed when the life of the mother is at stake and in cases of rape, especially when the victim is so young she doesn’t even realize how she got pregnant. (She may never even had a period.)

There are horror stories all over the Internet told by women who have had to make the decision to go through with late-term abortions. The procedure is not performed merely because the pregnant woman belatedly decided that she didn’t want to have a baby. One of the most common reasons is anencephaly, where most of the fetus’ brain is missing. So to say, as pro-lifers are fond of saying, that these babies “are only inches away from life,” is to grossly misrepresent the situation. If these babies do survive, keeping them alive is a major undertaking and usually isn’t successful for long. (I am not going to link to my sources because the images are so upsetting. Any readers who are truly interested can do the research themselves.)

These are the kinds of decisions which are lose-lose. There is no good outcome if the fetus is allowed to go to term. I don’t believe that a woman should be forced to abort a severely damaged baby, but that is not what is being done. Any woman who wants to go through with the pregnancy is supported fully by the medical profession (although not without reservations–see the case of Baby K). These kinds of cases raise all kinds of medical and bioethical questions for which there are no definitive answers.

In my experience, the average person is not comfortable with ambiguity. People are more comfortable with black and white, where something is either wrong or it is right. But the women who are faced with situations like the above don’t have the luxury of seeing things that way. Instead of throwing obstacles in their paths and making them feel guilty if they choose one of two tragic solutions, we should be more sensitive to their dilemma. Legislation can be written which requires that the mother make this decision along with the advice of her doctor, but this is being done anyway. I find it difficult to believe that any doctor would perform a late-term abortion without compelling reason.

I know a woman who carried her anencephalic daughter to term. They named her Roma (amor written backwards) and held her until she died. But the woman who opts for a late-term abortion also suffers a crushing loss. We are being heartless when we condemn her because she didn’t want to put her baby through the pain of living outside of the womb. We are also being heartless when we force 11-year-olds to go through labor and delivery, especially given all the complications that are possible for children giving birth.

I believe that life should be preserved when possible, but beliefs can’t change reality. Instead of judging those who have to make these heart-rending decisions, we should be thanking God that we’re not one of them.

For some personal stories of women who were faced with these decisions, see here, here and here.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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