A New Front in the Abortion War

Convinced Roe v. Wade can't be overturned now, pro-life activists have passed laws in 12 states restricting termination after 20 weeks—about the time some fetal defects emerge.
Monica Quesada/Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — On their way to the ultrasound exam, Abbey and Kyle Sanders stopped at Babies"R"Us. They picked out a navy sundress with white flowers for a girl, navy shorts with white stripes for a boy. Close friends were invited over for a "gender reveal" party the next day. Abbey was nearly 20 weeks pregnant.

"It's a little girl," the ultrasound technician said. Abbey started crying. "You're having a daughter!" she said to Kyle. Abbey texted her mother: healthy baby girl. Kyle noticed that the poker-faced technician didn't offer any reassurance about the baby's health.

The doctor walked in. "I'm very concerned," he said, and Abbey's tears turned to sobs. He referred the couple to a high-risk fetal-medicine specialist, who did a more sophisticated ultrasound and found that the fetus's brain was failing to divide and was growing outside the skull, a chamber was missing from the heart, and there was a problem with the kidneys.

"Is there any chance of the baby surviving?" asked Kyle, an Air Force pilot. "No. This baby will not survive to term" was the response.

The newlyweds were devastated. The baby's kicks now felt like a torturous reminder that they would never be parents to this child. She was dying. The right thing to do, the moral thing to do, Abbey and Kyle believed, was to terminate the pregnancy. A suction abortion this late in pregnancy could have damaged 29-year-old Abbey's cervix, so four days after the second ultrasound, a doctor injected the baby with a heart-stopping drug.

And then they waited. For nine days, they barely left the house. Abbey spent most of the time curled up in bed. She felt what she thought were contractions and went to the hospital, but was told to come back the following day. Ten days after the injection, Abbey checked into the maternity ward. She was barely showing, unlike all the other fully distended mothers around her.

She was given a drug to accelerate the contractions and an epidural for the pain during labor. In contrast to the cries she and Kyle heard down the hall, their stillborn baby was silent. They held the 8-ounce infant wrapped in a pink blanket and cried. They were asked if they wanted a picture or handprint. No, thank you, they said, heading home to grieve.

Her name was Amelia. The date was August 3, 2012.

Seven months later, the Arkansas Legislature banned women from getting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Abbey had been a day or two over that line when her pregnancy ended. The law includes exceptions for rape and incest victims and for health emergencies involving the woman, but not for fetal abnormalities.

Had the law been in place last year, Abbey would have had to continue an agonizing pregnancy, possibly for weeks, and any doctor willing to end it would have risked a felony charge. An early ultrasound and a blood test had detected nothing wrong. Abbey had asked for the second scan at 19 weeks, excited to find out the baby's gender, but the doctor's office urged her to wait a few days. Ultrasounds are typically done at 20 weeks to get a clear look at developing organs, especially the heart. It can take several days, even weeks, to schedule additional tests, weigh the results, and arrange for an abortion. There's only one clinic in Arkansas that provides second-trimester abortions, aside from some private hospitals.

Abbey, a nurse who comes from a conservative Christian family in Oklahoma, never labeled herself "pro-choice" or "pro-life." Now she pictures thrusting her sonogram and medical files at the lawmakers who voted for the abortion ban. "Would you let your own baby die slowly like that?" she would ask them. "If your wife was in these circumstances, would you force her to carry that baby?" She adds now, "I don't think I could have gone on any longer, and any woman who was forced to would have lost her mind."

Twelve states, as well as the House of Representatives, have voted to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks—the exact moment when some parents are just learning about severe or even fatal defects. Only Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas include exceptions for fetal impairment. And while these 20-week bans affect a tiny fraction of abortions—only 1.3 percent occur after 21 weeks, the benchmark used by the federal government—they predominantly target women who are carrying gravely impaired babies or whose pregnancies are putting their own health at risk. With very few exceptions, these are women who had every intent to carry their babies to term until forced, at five months pregnant, to make a swift and excruciating decision.

"Our experience has been that parents who have gone through this don't talk about it," Kyle says. "We wanted to tell our story for the people who didn't feel like they could. A family friend said it was like joining a secret club that no one wants to join."

Banning abortions after 20 weeks represents the new frontier of the antiabortion movement, aimed at pushing past the boundaries set by the Supreme Court in 1973. The Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortions until a fetus is viable outside the womb, around 24 weeks. The antiabortion movement's case for earlier restrictions is that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, but the ultimate goal is much more sweeping: to send a legal challenge to the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe. 

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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