In late-term abortion debate, there is room for compassion
“You never want the private waiting room.”
Tara Mendola, 28 weeks pregnant with her third child, knew it was bad when, after hours of tests and visits with five of the best specialists in fetal care in the country, she and her husband were ushered into a private room with a box of tissues on the table at Boston Children’s Hospital.
They had braced themselves for the possibility of raising a child with a disability. “This will suck, but we will figure it out,” she said they’d agreed.
But when doctors finally sat down with them, the news was far worse than that. The fetus she was carrying had so little brain tissue that, if he didn’t die in utero, he would die soon after birth. In the meantime, he’d be unable to swallow, breathe on his own, move, see, or hear. Faced with the gut-wrenching choice between continuing the pregnancy or ending it, they chose the latter.
“As difficult as it was, I really believe it was less traumatic for my kids to have this, than to watch a sibling die in the first few weeks of life,” Mendola said. “Between bad and worse, we chose bad.”
In Massachusetts, abortion is prohibited after 24 weeks unless the health or life of the woman is at stake; there is no exception for a fatal fetal diagnosis. That gap in the law added needless suffering to her family’s already immense pain.
Instead of being treated here, by world-class doctors who knew her and were equipped to deal with her high-risk pregnancy, Mendola and her husband had to travel to Colorado, to one of a handful of clinics in the country that perform late-term abortions. She was lucky to have had family that could help pay the $15,000 medical bill, she said.
What came next was as devastating as it was necessary. The procedure took several days, including a difficult labor to deliver her lost son. It also came with life-threatening complications for Mendola. In her widely shared essay, “Rivers of Babylon: The Story of a Third Trimester Abortion,” the anguish and needless pain are palpable. It should be compulsory reading on Beacon Hill, as lawmakers take up a bill to expand abortion rights here, including adding an exception to the late-term abortion ban for when a fetus cannot survive.
Situations like hers ought to be one instance where reasonable people on both sides of the abortion rights debate can find common ground. But in these times, there is no common ground. Republicans, led by President Trump, have seized on two states’ recent moves to allow late-term abortions after a lethal fetal diagnosis to make the sickening claim that Democrats support murdering babies.
It’s an appalling lie. And it has been taken up with gusto by the GOP in Massachusetts, now led by an antichoice zealot who claims the proposed exemption amounts to infanticide. They’re fixated on the utterly unsupported notion that a fetus might survive a late-term abortion and be discarded alive.
Prochoice Governor Charlie Baker has distanced himself from his party’s rhetoric, but he nonetheless joins in opposing an exception to the late term abortion ban when a fetus is not viable.
“I don’t support late-term abortions,” he said. “I support current law here in Massachusetts. It’s worked well for decades for women and families here.”
In siding with the irrational absolutists in his party, Baker fuels the cruel stigma piled upon people already grieving late-term abortions. Mendola is one of very few women to speak publicly about her ordeal. After her essay appeared last year, she received hateful messages calling her a murderer and worse. She also hears from women all over the country who thank her for giving voice to the harrowing experiences they share, but can never reveal.
The governor should muster more compassion for them here.
“You’re saying you are OK with forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy with a baby that will either die or live a painful, short, life filled with drastic medical intervention,” Mendola said. “I think if you haven’t lived it, you can’t understand what a cruel sentiment that is.”