NOTE: This is published as the electronic version of today’s AJC column. Portions of this post have appeared earlier on this blog.
Imagine being a happily pregnant couple, 20 weeks along, when things go tragically amiss. Tests reveal that if carried to term, your child will be born without a skull, or perhaps without functioning lungs, which means that upon birth it will begin to die immediately of asphyxiation, with no hope of saving it.
Do you continue the pregnancy, knowing that the child has no chance of survival and that in many cases its “life” will at best consist of a few short hours of intense agony? Or do you end the pregnancy in the best interests of all involved, including that of the doomed fetus?
Some parents, drawing upon their faith and moral precepts, will continue the pregnancy to its tragic end. Others, drawing on their own equally sincere principles, will intervene. It is not a choice that any of us would want to make, and under House Bill 954, approved this week by a House committee, we would not have to. Because if the bill passes, as seems likely, Georgia legislators will have made that decision for every mother in the state.
Under the bill, the legal window in which abortions can be performed in Georgia would shrink from 26 to 20 weeks. Supporters justify the change by claiming that after 20 weeks, fetuses are capable of feeling pain and thus need to be protected, regardless of viability.
There are two major problems here:
1. That legislative threshold of 20 weeks contradicts the overwhelming consensus of the scientific and medical community, which holds that as a fetus develops, the neural connections needed to feel pain do not occur until 28 or 29 weeks. The pain argument is being used to advance an agenda, not to respond to science.
2. The change will do nothing to affect the vast majority of abortions, which is the real target of its sponsors. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 89 percent of abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, long before the proposed law would take effect.
Many of the small fraction of abortions that occur after the proposed 20-week deadline involve what are called “medically futile pregnancies” such as those described above.
As a prominent Atlanta obstetrician told me this week, consider a woman who at 20 weeks discovers that her fetus suffers from anencephaly, which means it’s missing part of its head. The goal of his practice is to see high-risk pregnancies through to a healthy, successful live birth, but sometimes that just isn’t possible.
“The fetus has no skull,” he explained. “I don’t think many of us walk around without a skull. It is not going to survive no matter what you do. We tell the mother what we found, and we let her go through full counseling, grief counseling. And at the end of that, we give her the option of carrying that pregnancy or not.”
Under HB 954, that option would no longer be available.
That fetus will be carried to full term, under the false excuse of sparing it pain, and the result will be a baby “condemned to writhe in agony” as it dies shortly after birth.
(As a condition of the interview, the doctor asked not to be named. He has been advised not to speak publicly out of fear for his personal safety and threats of economic boycott.)
The bill is also certain to force abortions that otherwise will not have occurred, he said.
“I saw a couple at 21 or 22 weeks. They didn’t have health insurance until then because he was transferring jobs, so they hadn’t had the screening. When they came to see me, they were distraught. The fetus had a heart defect, what turned out to have been a fixable heart defect. But we didn’t know that for sure. We had to go through amniocentesis, which takes a week. That brings us up to 22 and a half weeks. Then we had to counsel this family and convince them that this heart defect was fixable. Because we had the time, we were able to walk them through the process and they didn’t terminate.
“If I had seen them at 19 weeks and four days, and this new law gave them just three days to decide, they would have terminated that pregnancy. We told the Legislature that, but these legislators think that’s not going to happen.
“It’s going to happen.”
In more than five hours of hearings this month, legislators have been made aware of these consequences, but they made no substantive changes to the bill.
“From my standpoint, if they wanted to cut off elective terminations — the woman who just decides at 22 weeks, I don’t want this baby — I could live with that,” the doctor told me. “But let the woman who has a complication make rational decisions.”
– Jay Bookman