Many women and their families are grateful for their lives to the few like Dr. George Tiller, without whom they could not have resumed life with their families.
Most often, contempt for women drives zealots on the right, who frame issues around reproduction to control, demonize and intimidate women and their doctors. As it turns out, abortion is about much more than the pretense of concern for life. A comparable standard applied to males would control or outlaw each ejaculation of approximately 300 million sperm, every sperm representing potential life.
The intent of efforts to outlaw late-term abortion, where fetal anomalies often render the fetus incapable of survival, is to sensationalize the most tragic of situations while rendering women invisible and their doctors vulnerable.
The greatest conceit of the right is the denial that pregnancy is a health issue for women. As a nurse in the pre-Roe early '70s, I encountered two women who died as a result of pregnancies that were contraindicated for health reasons -- one had chronic heart disease, the other acute kidney disease.
Late-term abortion has been termed by ultraconservatives "infanticide" and "elective," said to be used "for everything from time lost at work to a headache" to a fetus with a cleft palate or a woman who is "mildly depressed." The late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) branded one woman who had undergone an emergency procedure an "exterminator." There is no shortage of inflammatory language on the right.
Rep. Rosa deLauro (D-CT), whose prenatal tests indicated the fetus she carried had severe genetic problems, described the procedure that the right calls "partial-birth" abortion "the least horrific of truly horrendous alternatives."
"I was full of piety and self-righteousness on this issue until it happened to my family," commented a previously right-to-life Colorado legislator, whose daughter suffered a traumatic pregnancy. Her infant was born with a large fistula (opening) in her throat that prevented proper breathing without an emergency tracheotomy. Numerous other problems, including the need for a heart transplant, precluded her long-term survival. Had the family known, they would have considered late-term abortion to save the infant the suffering of her short three weeks of life. "I have been wrong. The state legislature has no place in that delivery room. It is for the family to make these decisions. These terrible, terrible decisions," said the legislator.
Testifying at the Colorado legislature in 1996, Dr. Warren Hern described the tragic circumstances of women seeking late-term procedures, typically after referral by three or four different physicians. Conditions included severe fetal anomaly, genetic disorder or fetal death, as well as immediate risk to a woman's life, sometimes complicated by diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, etc.
Three cases described by Dr. Hern:
1) One woman was diabetic, suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum (uncontrollable vomiting from pregnancy). Literally starving to death, her blood chemistry was severely out of balance, to the point that her heart could stop momentarily. Profoundly dehydrated, she was flown to Colorado from Rapid City, S.D. and almost died enroute. Without an abortion she would have died. She began an immediate recovery following the procedure.
2) A woman whose fetus had a severe genetic disorder, in turn causing serious disease of the placenta that resulted in an alarming rise in the woman's blood pressure. Her main body systems began to shut down, with no urine output, out-of-balance electrolytes and pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) resulting in difficult breathing. The enlarged placenta blocking the uterus threatened catastrophic bleeding. Having been crossmatched for blood, the woman deteriorated rapidly, and required emergency intervention to save her life.
3) A woman whose fetus had a severe anomaly complicated by too much amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus (polyhydramnios), suddenly developed abruptio placenta (separation of the placenta from the uterus) and went into shock. Bleeding to death into the uterus, emergency surgery was required. A nurse held her fist on the patient's aorta to keep her from bleeding to death, as the patient lost three units (1-1/2 quarts) of her blood during the procedure.
In crisis, there is no time to induce labor and wait for normal delivery, and the choice must often be made to act quickly.
God bless Dr. Tiller and console his family.
And heal the deep strain of arrogance, violence and abuse in the U.S.