“Um, you can get dressed now,” the ultrasound technician said to Trish as she wiped the gel from her belly. “The doctor will talk with you shortly. Can you wait in the waiting room again?”
“Uh, sure,” Trish said as she cast a worried glance at her husband, Jacob, and started to gingerly move from the examination table.
The couple sat in the waiting room, holding hands silently. They had been trying to get pregnant for three years, and had almost given up hope. Jacob was 45, and his wife was 38 – they married only four years ago. Trish was 25 weeks along, and up until then, everything had been going well. The receptionist called for them from the doorway that lead to the doctor’s inner office, and they walked silently behind her.
After they sat down by the doctor’s desk, a young man who was probably at least a few years younger than both of them walked in, and took a seat across from them. “I’ve looked at your sonogram, and unfortunately, it appears that your baby is suffering from microcephaly.” He watched the couple in front of him for a few moments before going on. “Now, this means that your child will probably have severe birth defects, will need constant care, physical therapy, and have mental deficiencies.”
“Wait a minute,” Jacob broke in. Trish was sitting silently beside him, tears running down her face. “Are you telling us that there is nothing to be done?”
“Uh, unfortunately, yes,” the doctor said uncomfortably. “Your wife was probably exposed to the Zika virus, and since abortions are illegal in this state this far along, you have no choice. You must prepare yourselves to deal with raising a child with major medical needs.”
Trish and Jacob are entirely fictional, but their story could easily become the grim reality for some Americans. Too often, when it comes to considering hot button issues like abortion, people forget the fact that what they are arguing about has very real consequences for real people. Empathy dies in the battle.
As for this particular debate, this isn’t about whether or not someone is choosing abortion as birth control. It is about heart-breaking decisions that couples may have to face. Do you have a child who will suffer with no hope of truly improving? What happens after you’re dead, and your child who is entirely dependent on you happens to outlive you?
I am not suggesting that children with profound birth defects should not be permitted to be born. That is just the polar opposite of the argument that parents should not have the right to decide whether or not they are capable of dealing with caring for such a child. There are no winners in this argument, either.
Who is the winner if parents are forced to have a child with severe mental deficits, physical deformities, and life-long needs for physical therapy just to reach a comparatively low level of functioning in life? Does anyone really believe that anyone who chooses to abort such a child does so gleefully? While it is important to encourage empathy, the fact is that no one can truly know how difficult it is to face this decision unless they have been there.
In spite of what some activists might claim, the fact is that most Americans aren’t comfortable with the idea of forcing anyone to have a baby with microcephaly. Last month, the Harvard School of Public Health and STAT conducted a survey which found that roughly the same number of people who generally oppose abortions after 24 weeks would not oppose them in cases involving microcephaly. The disorder cannot be detected before the 24th week of pregnancy.
Even before the various laws restricting abortion after 24 weeks, very few abortions were performed at that stage. The primary reasons for that have little to do with politics or society. The Guttmacher Institute states, “The risk of death associated with abortion increases with the length of pregnancy, from 0.3 for every 100,000 abortions at or before eight weeks to 6.7 per 100,000 at 18 weeks or later.” It is no secret that medical malpractice insurance for obstetricians and gynecologists is very high, so it is not surprising that they would avoid doing a procedure that has such a greater risk than one at an earlier stage in pregnancy.
As of 2012, under 2% of abortions performed in the US occurred beyond the 21st week of pregnancy. Unfortunately, that number may increase soon due to Zika infections, in spite of laws forbidding abortions beyond 24 weeks. It’s highly possible that we will see women traveling out of state for the procedure. That will put the US only slightly above nations like Brazil, where they have doubled-down on their abortion restrictions, and have passed laws that will make aborting a microcephaly baby a crime punishable with incarceration for the woman. We are better than that, aren’t we?