May 22, 2015
It was about halfway into my 20-week ultrasound that I noticed something was slightly off. The technician, who had been chatting with me earlier as he did the scans, had grown quiet. He asked me to shift a bit, saying he wanted to see if the baby would move into a better position. He ran over the same section of my stomach repeatedly, staring at the screen with a slight frown. Eventually he moved on, but remained awkwardly silent.
“When is your next appointment with your doctor?” he asked me when the ultrasound was completed.
“Two days,” I responded.
“That’s good. That should be soon enough.”
It was clear by that point that something had happened during the scan, but the technician wouldn’t say what it was. Instead, he said he’d send the results to my doctor, who would explain it to me at my next office visit.
It was only once I was in the car that I realized he never printed out any pictures for me to take home.
This was my third pregnancy in three years. My last one ended in a D&C at 12 weeks after I learned at a regular checkup that my fetus had no heartbeat. Now I was less than a year from that failed pregnancy, and I spent the next two days terrified of what news the doctor would have when I entered his office, and what the prognosis was for the baby I had just learned would be my first son.
In the end, it turned out nothing was wrong at all. My doctor informed me that the technician was unable to get a full read on the baby’s leg, and that there was a chance, based on the angle of the femur, that he might have a clubfoot. They would do another scan in two weeks, and if it still looked questionable they would be sure to have a pediatric orthopedist on hand and discuss treatment options such as a brace for the leg once the baby was born. Even that was unnecessary: The follow up ultrasound showed that everything was fine, and no medical intervention was ever taken.
I find myself thinking about those two days of pure terror whenever I hear of a state proposing an abortion ban that doesn’t allow an exception for fetal anomalies. Until we learned exactly what the technician suspected was wrong, myriad possible complications ran through my head. I obsessively ticked them off one by one, trying to determine which medical issues I was and wasn’t capable of handling. How many surgeries could I commit to both financially and emotionally if the problem was in his heart? Would I be willing to continue my pregnancy if a major portion of the brain were damaged or missing? How much suffering was I willing to put him through, and how much was I capable of witnessing?
I was lucky enough to have been spared the agony of making such a decision. But others have, and more and more often, those decisions are being taken away from them by their own legislators.
The most recent state to try to intervene legislatively is Ohio, which has introduced a ban on abortion if the doctor “knowingly” terminates a pregnancy due “solely” to a Down syndrome diagnosis. The bill would make aborting a fetus that has been determined to have the anomaly a crime that could cause a doctor to face harsh criminal penalties or the loss of a medical license.
The ban was debated in an Ohio House committee hearing last week, with bill proponents saying it's a form of “genetic discrimination” to allow a pregnant person to abort a fetus with a Down Syndrome diagnosis. According to David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion policy organization that is an arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, over 87 percent of those diagnosed with Down syndrome will be aborted worldwide.
“He said pre-term testing sometimes provides inaccurate conclusions. And he said medical advancements have helped ensure long, healthy lives for those with Down syndrome,” writes local reporter Marc Kovac, who covered the hearing."'Medical science has also improved significantly not only in terms of surgeries to alleviate some of the physical problems associated with Down syndrome but also in potential pharmaceutical treatments' that have shown promise in improving cognitive function, Prentice said.”
It is true that a Down syndrome prognosis varies greatly depending on the severity of the case. While some children born with Down syndrome only have mild physical symptoms and some cognitive delays, others will have far more complicated intellectual and emotional issues and physical problems, and will be especially prone to leukemia, have heart defects that would require major surgeries and other medical complications. No one can be completely sure how serious the condition is until the child is born, although some issues like heart defects can be seen in utero and that will provide clues.
It is this unknown eventual long-term prognosis that is the reason that each pregnant person needs to be able to make that decision on her own. She must be provided with the full range of resources that will be available to her regardless of the severity of the diagnosis. However, she also needs to know that she has the option to terminate the pregnancy, too, especially if further testing does show obvious heart defects or other indications that the prognosis is more grim. Yet if the ban goes into place, that door would be shut to her unless she leaves the state of Ohio. No doctor would ever be willing to terminate the pregnancy of a person who has a potential Down syndrome prenatal diagnosis in her medical records, even if she was aborting for a different reason, out of fear of prosecution down the road.
“This will put up a barrier between women and their health-care providers,” Jaime Miracle, Deputy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told DAME Magazine. “How do you define ‘knowingly'? What kind of standards are we setting? Are we turning doctors into inquisitors for every women who comes in seeking a termination? Do they have to question every woman on why they are getting an abortion?”
According to Miracle, like most abortion restrictions, this ban will disproportionately effect lower-income women, as those with financial means will be able to leave the Ohio to seek a termination in a state where it is still legal. Ironically, at the same time, the state legislature is cutting health-care budgets, social-service budgets, and even homes for those with special needs. “Lower-income women who are going to need support services, especially to raise a child with challenges, are going to be the ones to fall through the cracks,” she said.
Of course, banning abortion for a Down syndrome diagnosis is in reality simply political expediency. It is low-hanging fruit for anti-abortion activists who want to end any exception for fetal anomalies regardless of the severity and likelihood of survival after birth. A campaign that focuses on those who have the least severe form of the disorder allows them to shift public perception without actively acknowledging the emotional, financial, and physical resources that will go into giving birth and caring for those who aren’t so fortunate.
A ban on abortion in the case of Down syndrome is p.r. pageantry wrapped up in a legislative bill, and Ohio lawmakers are far too likely to pass it, despite that fact. Sadly, it is the women of the state who are forced to make real decisions about their pregnancies and their future families who are going to suffer the consequences for this show.