Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Exceptions for Fetal Anomalies Encourages Doctors' Coercion to Abort, by Sarah St. Onge

In 2010, I continued a pregnancy after my unborn child was diagnosed with a "lethal birth defect." During my pregnancy with Beatrix, {full story told here} I was repeatedly pressured by medical professionals to "terminate."

Because of the lack of support during my pregnancy, I have dedicated the last five years to supporting families faced with the same diagnosis we were given for our daughter. In addition, I joined support groups for women who choose to continue a pregnancy after a poor diagnosis, hoping to encourage women on their journey.  During this time, I have heard the stories of dozens of families who were pressured to "terminate" pregnancies after being given a poor pregnancy diagnosis. Whether the issue was with the child or with the woman carrying the child, these parents' refusal to consider late-term abortion was often met with derision on the part of health care providers.
A few months ago, I was introduced to a family who was expecting a sweet baby with Limb Body Wall Complex -- the same diagnosis of my daughter Beatrix. Their story of how they were treated by medical professionals is perhaps the worst I have ever heard.

Not only were they pressured to abort their baby, but when they refused, their doctor began a course of minimal care in an obvious effort to punish them for wasting his time.

He refused to spend more than five minutes with them at visits; he explained the medical challenges in a way that was incomprehensible for a layperson, thereby not providing them the information they needed to make a true medically informed decision; and, he was condescending toward them as if they were only making the decision to continue the pregnancy because they weren't smart enough to understand the gravity of the situation.  They understood the gravity.  They knew this was a lethal diagnosis, but just didn't want to be responsible for ending their baby's life.  

As if that treatment wasn't bad enough, he even refused to allow them to look at their baby on the ultrasound screen.  They requested to see their baby, and the physician outright refused.  The parents went to a mall which offered ultrasound services, paying out of pocket, just so they could have a glimpse of the baby they loved.  This may have been the only living picture they would have of their child, and they needed this memory of their child alive -- something others take for granted.

While this physicians was looking at their precious baby's face, he horrified them when he used the offensive term “not like a baby.”
Imagine this for a moment -- you’ve learned your baby will not live for long, if at all, outside of the womb.  Your only opportunity to see your child moving and alive may be in your doctor’s office on an ultrasound screen, yet your doctor turns the screen away telling you your child “isn’t like a baby”, -- refusing to allow you a glimpse of that tiny person in your body.

This was all after they had confirmed their decision to continue the pregnancy, and after they had already named their baby.
This physician’s personal bias didn’t stop at trying to manipulate a family into ending their baby's life, but included attempts to persuade them to travel out of state to procure the abortion, because they had already passed the legal gestational age of 24 weeks for late-term abortion in their own state.

Those of us who try to encourage women to continue their pregnancies hear these types of stories often.  It is tragically common for doctors to present "therapeutic abortion" as the normal course of "care" for a pregnancy in which an adverse diagnosis has been made.  Many doctors do not even broach the subject of continuing the pregnancy, simply asking pregnant mothers, “when should we schedule your termination?” after a diagnosis.  Most medical professionals assume that every woman wants to -- or should want to -- end a pregnancy where a child has been diagnosed with a lethal birth defect. In fact, when researching different lethal congenital disorders, you will often find "termination" listed as the “treatment” for the disorder!  This is not a woman-centered or parent-driven attitude, but a physician-driven attitude. 

In terms of parents' decision-making, the carry to term path has flourished with organizations which support the parent(s) continuing their pregnancy.  The good news is that many hospitals have now created perinatal hospice programs for those using their facilities to deliver their babies.  In terms of women's health -- carry to birth has consistently and unequivocally proven to be a healthier medical treatment for women.

Yet individual physicians seem unable to shake the opinion that prematurely ending the baby's life is best.  They often deny patients access to pre-natal treatment due to the concept of "medical futility." These narrow-minded physicians decline to answer questions in layman's terms so that parents understand they have a right to continue the pregnancy.  They manipulate parents by telling them that birth will be incredibly traumatic for their child, often giving them horror stories about babies being ripped to pieces in the labor process.  This particular tactic has been shared in many parents' recollections of speaking to doctors after deciding to continue a pregnancy. Angie Smith's groundbreaking book about continuing a pregnancy after a poor diagnosis, "I Will Carry You" mentions this phenomenon.
As a side note --  many parents who "terminated" a pregnancy after a poor diagnosis are often offended by carry to birth families, feeling that our stories somehow imply that they made their decision due to ignorance or medical pressure.  But they generally aren't witnesses to the after-affects of those manipulated into "terminations" -- stories which are often shared in post-loss, pro-life leaning on-line groups.  These parents also discount the experiences of those of us who did choose to carry to term and who were relentlessly pushed to terminate over our strident refusals. 

Studies have shown that when facing a poor pregnancy diagnosis, parents report being unsupported and rushed by their physicians.  Studies have further shown the decision to terminate will often culminate in an abortion within three days of a diagnosis -- clearly not sufficient time to research all of the options.  Lastly, studies show parents who continue their pregnancy after a poor diagnosis have better mental health outcomes than those who terminate, and some may be surprised to learn that the earlier gestation of the baby, the greater the negative feelings.  So those early detection tests are actually harming women's mental health.
When you allow exceptions for fetal abnormalities, or even for a fatal fetal diagnosis, you are giving your "blessing" to these women to end the lives of their children, and your position directly affects every single child diagnosed in the womb -- including the one whose parents choose not to have an abortion.  You give doctors permission to badger patients into abortion.  You are telling the medical community that these babies are acceptable targets for killing. 

Margaret Sanger, in an interview with Mike Wallace in 1957, famously said:
“I think that the greatest sin of all is bringing children into the world – that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be human beings practically.”

This hits at the root of the abortion exceptions argument.  Is a baby diagnosed with a lethal birth anomaly somehow less than human? We shout back and forth about a mother's grief, the horror of being forced to carry a baby who will inevitably die, all the while ignoring the fact that neither of these things have any relevance on the rights of the child who is a human being.

When we legislate to allow medical professionals to respond to unborn children as less than human based on disability (or mode of conception), we cannot expect them to suddenly respond as if some unborn babies are human, just because parents choose to continue a pregnancy.
Let me explain:
While I don't view all medical professionals as cold-hearted, I do believe that for many, a poor pregnancy diagnosis is just another day at work.  Termination of pregnancy may be preferable for him/her in terms of liability, time management, and even paperwork.  In essence, it's often to the physician's benefit when a parent ends a preborn baby's life prematurely due to fetal anomaly. 

When a parent chooses to continue their pregnancy after a diagnosis, it can become an inconvenience to the physicians who have no emotional attachment to the unborn child they have diagnosed, and who often don't even view the child as human.  Even worse, for some physicians, continuing care is viewed as a waste of their time and skills.  The more patients a physician has who decide to end their pregnancies, the more accustomed the physician becomes to: 
a) believing his/her recommendation to be the correct recommendation (vs. a personal opinion on care); and b) believing that the patient who continued their pregnancy is the anomaly. 
When even otherwise pro-life individuals state that one person has the right to end the life of another on grounds of disability or imminent death, the door is cracked open to coerced abortion, and dehumanization.  Medical professionals efforts to manipulate women into unasked for abortions is affirmed by the willingness to look the other way for the sake of expediency.
When pro-life individuals promote legislation which includes abortion exceptions, we are directly responsible for the pain of this little family whose story I just shared -- the family who delivered their sweet baby alive just a few weeks ago.
As pro-life persons, we are supposed to be champions for families like this.  Please don't be a part of the reason they are struggling.

BIO:  Sarah St. Onge is a wife, mother of 4, step-mother of 2, and pro-life blogger for Save The 1.  She blogs on grief, loss, and pro-life issues pertaining to continuing a pregnancy after a lethal anomaly has been diagnosed, at www.shebringsjoy.com.