With a single bullet, the killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, made the process of finding “common ground” in the abortion debate much more difficult.
As much as President Obama has been talking up conciliation, the rhetoric and ideology espoused by some abortion foes makes it almost impossible to work toward a national reconciliation on abortion and freedom of choice. So far, seven abortion clinic workers and doctors have been murdered by right-to-life extremists since 1994. More than a dozen clinics have been bombed over the last fifteen years and many others have suffered vandalism and near-constant threats of violence. These acts of violence are condemned by traditional right-to-life groups and conservatives, but the level of rancor coming from many of these groups serves to incite the acts nonetheless.
In my previous post I mention that there is a severe shortage of doctors who will provide abortions. This killing will make that shortage even direr—a goal that abortion foes have actively pursued.
One important issue that is raised by Tiller’s shooting death is that of late-term abortions. Tiller was long considered “controversial” because his clinic performed these kinds of abortions; defined as taking place either in the third trimester—or alternately, after fetal viability which occurs at 22 weeks.
But, writing in RHRealityCheck today Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women describes the reality of who Tiller was and the way he helped women:
Confusion over the definition of “late-term abortions” and under what circumstances they can take place is rampant, although some 40 states currently have some kind of ban on the procedure. The majority of these bans include exceptions to protect a woman's physical and emotional health.
In Roe v. Wade, a woman’s right to access abortion is loosely tied to a trimester framework. The Guttmacher Institute offers a summary of the law and its built-in subjectivity:
“[T]he Court declared that a woman has a constitutionally protected right, in consultation with her physician, to terminate a pregnancy free of state interference or intrusion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy (defined loosely as the first trimester of gestation). In the second trimester—or more specifically, prior to the viability of the fetus—the Court ruled that states could impose only those regulations that were reasonably related to the protection of the woman's health.
The Court acknowledged that after fetal viability, the state has acquired a ‘compelling’ interest in ‘potential life’ and could prohibit abortion altogether ‘except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother."
Why do women seek out second and third-trimester abortions? Some of these procedures are performed when a mother’s life is at risk or her health is severely compromised. But more of these pregnancies are terminated after diagnostic tests have revealed profound deformities and other serious health issues in the fetus that are either life-threatening or would lead to a lifetime of pain and suffering for the child. These fetal problems might compromise a woman’s physical health. But many of these procedures are performed because the birth of a severely affected infant will cause mental anguish and distress to the mother.
In her 2004 piece for the Boston Globe, Gretchen Voss offers a poignant account of her choice to have a late-term abortion after her much-wanted baby was diagnosed at 18 weeks with profound defects:
Where does Obama stand on late-term abortions? In 2008 he told Relevant Magazine, a Christian publication:
Obama suggests that the mother’s “mental distress” is not enough. In that view, which is described here; women would not be able to end pregnancies in which the fetus is found to have severe abnormalities and is unlikely to survive outside the womb
In other words, medical technology can give parents a clear view of their baby’s devastating abnormalities and even tell them that the fetus is likely to die either before delivery or immediately afterward, but they have no right to seek an abortion. The “mental distress” option for a late-term abortion is, admittedly, a bulky loophole that rightly allows women to abort severely afflicted fetuses. But what’s the alternative?
Here is the story of one woman who found herself in exactly that situation and was denied access to an abortion in her state. Lydia Waddington’s obstetrician (and eventually five others) told her that ultrasound scans revealed that the child she was carrying was afflicted with multiple anomalies and would never live outside the womb. They also told her that she could have a spontaneous abortion which would increase her risk of contracting an infection. But, Waddington says, there were “only potential and no immediate threats to my physical health.”
Writing further about how Obama’s restrictive view of late-term abortions will affect women seeking termination in the case of “mental distress,” Waddington adds:
Late-term abortions are a flashpoint for conflict in the debate over reproductive choice. Yet in reality, they are performed infrequently: Only 1.1% of abortions are performed after 20 weeks and just 3.5% are performed between 16 and 20 weeks. In contrast, almost 90
% of all abortions are performed before 10 weeks.
The debate continues because abortion opponents see it as an issue that can unite extremists and moderates into a single coalition working toward banning abortion outright. In 2003 Congress passed the federal legislation known as the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” that outlawed a specific medical procedure that is sometimes performed as early as in the second trimester. This procedure, more accurately known as dilation and evacuation, was not used very frequently, but sometimes offered the safest approach for terminating a difficult, even life-threatening pregnancy. After several challenges, the Supreme Court upheld the federal abortion ban, even without an exemption for when a woman’s life is at stake.
This ban is considered just the first step by opponents working toward increased federal restrictions. We can imagine bans on other, specific, techniques used to terminate pregnancy that the courts decide cause moral distress for women. President Obama’s statement about removing the “mental distress” exemption from late term abortion bans feeds into the opponent’s strategy, especially as new technology pushes fetal viability back to 20 weeks or less.
With the death of George Tiller, the nation will have to confront, once again, the forces that continue to keep us from achieving common ground on the abortion issue. And we also will have to face losing one more provider who strongly adhered to a woman’s right to choose.