Moving past the bumper stickers

pro-life-sign1Following the murder of prominent late-term abortion doctor George Tiller, gunned down in the foyer of his church, many mainstream media outlets have run articles about the controversial practice of late-term abortions and the doctors who perform them. This is a good thing. On a public policy issue as heated as late-term abortion, it's good to provide readers with more information about the practice and who is involved. Let's look at some of the stories. Here's Stephanie Simon of the Wall Street Journal, with a very balanced article on the topic. She somehow manages to move her sources beyond the "bumper sticker" level of discourse to get some meaningful quotes from both sides about the difficulty of the issue. She includes an anecdote from people who chose a late-term abortion after learning that their unborn child had a fatal form of dwarfism but she also speaks with someone who decided to continue with her pregnancy after a different fatal fetal diagnosis. The article helps show the issue's complexity. It's a really good story for everyone to read -- no matter your views on the topic.

But Simon's story, published a few days ago, is what got me thinking about the way some of the "facts" surrounding late-term abortion are reported. First and foremost, I'd like a definition of what constitutes late-term abortion. We use that phrase all the time but I rarely see it defined. A separate Wall Street Journal story reports that nearly 90 percent of abortions are conducted during the first trimester of pregnancy with just more than one percent conducted after 21 weeks. Simon's story says that it's fewer than 1 percent that are conducted late in the second or during the third trimester. When does the "late-term" of "late-term abortions" begin?

Or note that Simon writes that "perhaps 1,000 [abortions] a year" are performed in the late second or third trimesters. But that other Wall Street Journal story says:

Stanley Henshaw, a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health-research group, told WaPo that 2001 data from 15 states and New York City suggest that as many as 2,400 abortions were performed after 24 weeks in the U.S. that year. But Henshaw said that number might have come down because there are fewer abortion providers now.

Perhaps they did decline some 60 percent in a couple years but, if so, an explanation might be in order.

Or note something about the paragraph below where Simon does her best to explain the reasons women might get a late-term abortion:

Nearly all the late-term abortions at Dr. Tiller's clinic involved fetuses that were deformed or disabled in some way, said Peggy Bowman, who worked at the clinic as a top aide to Dr. Tiller for a decade. ...

Dr. Tiller also took some late-term patients with healthy fetuses. Though the clinic's medical records typically remain confidential, he said they were only the most desperate cases: very young girls, victims of rape, drug addicts, women in abusive relationships.

It struck me that all of this is self reported. We're relying on one side -- perhaps there's no other option -- for information about one of the most contentious topics in public debate.

The Washington Post's look at late-term abortions basically just quotes two other famous late-term abortion doctors (Warren Hern and Leroy Carhart) with an assist from the National Abortion Federation's Vicky Saporta. The trio make a number of contentious claims about women who come for abortions after their fetuses are viable. And rather than speak with a doctor or three who specialize in helping women bring to term children with fetal abnormalities, we get a response from Operation Rescue, a group that doesn't exactly represent mainstream pro-life thinking. However, the story, by reporter Rob Stein, does a fantastic job of explaining just how sketchy the data on late-term abortions are. I thank him for that. He was also one of the few reporters to actually investigate how many abortion doctors perform late-term abortions. While many media outlets reported that Tiller was one of only two or three doctors to do them, Stein reports that a survey of a couple thousand abortion practices from a few years ago found 18 clinics and 12 hospitals reported performing late abortions.

But there are some holes as well. The story begins with a heartbreaking account:

When Susan Fitzgerald went in for a routine ultrasound near the end of her pregnancy, she was expecting good news. Instead, she was stunned to learn that the fetus had a rare condition that left his bones so brittle he would live less than a day.

"It was unbelievable," Fitzgerald said. "You think by the third trimester you're home free. It was devastating."

Desperate to end the pregnancy, she flew from her home in New England to Wichita, where George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country willing to perform an abortion so late in a pregnancy.

"It was very difficult, but I knew it was the most humane thing I could do for my baby," Fitzgerald said. "It was absolutely the right thing to do. I'm just so grateful that Dr. Tiller was there for me."

The name of the condition is not included in the story. Later we learn:

Under Kansas law, an abortion can be performed after a fetus is viable only if the doctor performing the procedure and an independent physician agree that the woman's life is at risk or that continuing the pregnancy would cause "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Many are performed in cases such as Fitzgerald's, where a major abnormality in the fetus is discovered late, Saporta and others said.

And while Stein's article doesn't mention how Tiller performed abortions, Simon's article did:

Late-term abortions also are grueling. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on one late-term procedure, sometimes called "partial-birth abortion," in which the physician begins to deliver the fetus, feet-first, then punctures its skull. Doctors are still allowed to dismember the fetus in utero. Dr. Tiller's preferred method is also legal. He stopped the fetal heart with an injection of digoxin, a drug used to treat adult heart patients. Then he would induce labor. Patients said they would wait in hotel rooms through two to three days of contractions until they were ready to deliver their stillborns at his clinic.

Okay, so after reading a number of articles on late-term abortion and the doctors who perform them, I'm left wondering a few things. How is it legal to abort an unborn child post-viability in Kansas on account of fetal abnormality or genetic defect? In other stories, Tiller says he's conducted abortions on account of women being in abusive relationships. How is that legal? And while I understand the sensitivity of the topic of pregnancy and abortion (as I write this, I'm holding my daughter who just a month ago was a "late-term" fetus), I wonder if the reporter could include a bit of an explanation as to why the mother felt it better to fly to Kansas to have a doctor stop the heart of her unborn child and deliver him as a stillborn rather than wait for the few remaining weeks of her pregnancy and deliver him? She says she knows that she did the "right thing." I can't help but think that deserves a follow-up question and that the answer to that follow-up question would have merited the type of quote that Stephanie Simon gets in her stories.

I'm all for including the stories of women who have undergone late-term abortions but I'm not sure how much these anecdotes are adding to the debate. I feel like there's this assumption that of course any woman who discovers her child has a fatal abnormality would of course consider ending his life. But as we saw in that fascinating story by Julia Duin a few weeks back, many women don't terminate their pregnancies when they discover their unborn children have problems.

I also feel as if there's this assumption about the vast majority of Americans who oppose late-term abortions that they just don't understand that the women who request them are experiencing difficulties. And yet I think that assumption is probably unwise. Maybe it's just because I'm a woman, maybe it's just because I have a mother, maybe it's just because I know women (perhaps you, too, fit into one or more of these categories!) ... but perhaps this debate is not one that could be settled if we all realized that fetal abnormalities are heartbreaking and that pregnancy is difficult. It's possible to sympathize with women who are carrying fetuses with abnormalities without believing that terminating their lives is just or that the practice should be legal. Simon's story does a good job of getting that and helping the two sides speak to each other. Most other mainstream accounts, sadly, did not.

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