On December 6, Dr. LeRoy Carhart began performing late-term abortions at a clinic in Germantown, Maryland. Dr. Carhart is one of a handful of doctors in the United States who will perform an abortion after 20 weeks, and one of the very few that publicly discusses their work.
For almost two decades, Dr. Carhart saw patients in his Bellevue, Nebraska clinic. While that clinic remains open, it has been affected by a law passed by the Nebraska Legislature earlier this year, which banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns has stated that he would like to see a similar ban enacted at the federal level. The law ignores the myriad reasons a woman would choose to terminate a pregnancy in the second or third trimester, focusing instead on the unproven – and hotly disputed – theory that a fetus can feel pain.
But the reasons women need late-term abortions are much more nuanced and complicated than the state of Nebraska – or the protestors that swarmed the Germantown clinic – would have the public believe. Three women with intimate knowledge of that choice – two that live in the D.C. area, and one whose daughter was seen by Dr. Carhart earlier this year – have agreed to share their stories here, in the hopes of educating others about why Dr. Carhart's work is so valuable and necessary.
“My story starts with having a 27 year old daughter that was born without challenges, and contracted encephalitis at the age of 2 ½ years old,” says Monica, who lives with her family in Omaha. “Needless to say, life is a challenge each and every day for her; [she has] an IQ of 68. We found out in January that she was pregnant by molestation. Not only was she pregnant, she was 29 weeks pregnant. This sounds out of this world,” Monica concedes, but adds that her daughter was losing weight and did not exhibit any symptoms of pregnancy. “I immediately knew what needed to be done. She takes two seizure medications, three psyche drugs, and ADHD meds and had not had any prenatal care. The change of birth defects to the fetus was severely high, and medically and emotionally this was not possible for my daughter.”
Monica and her daughter went to Dr. Carhart’s clinic. The doctor and his “warm, loving staff” were able to help Monica and her daughter. “My daughter will still have challenges,” Monica says, “but the concern of an unwanted pregnancy will not be one of those challenges.”
“My first pregnancy was uneventful,” Maryland resident Julie recalls. “As I look back I remember when I was pregnant with my son, I noticed my own views on abortion shift. I had always been pro-choice, but I felt that while I would not make that choice, it was important for others to have the option.”
After her child’s birth, Julie became pregnant again, but miscarried. Her third pregnancy was uneventful, until the 20-week ultrasound showed that the brain ventricles were almost double their normal size.
“The pediatric neurosurgeon and the radiologist gave us dismal outcomes: best case scenario, if our baby survived, would be the developmental quality of life of a 2-month-old. That was not what we wanted, for us, our son, or our unborn son. As I didn't want to travel across the country, I opted to be induced. It was obvious to me that some of the nurses in the hospital I was at were unsympathetic to my actions. Passively, they let me know that by turning off my epidural or making insensitive comments. What didn't seem to register to them that I hated being in this situation. All I wanted was a healthy baby.”
Dana was almost eight months pregnant when a sonogram showed that the ventricles in her baby’s brain measured a little elevated. Further testing revealed that the portion of the brain that connected the left and right hemispheres had never developed.
“No amount of surgery or physical therapy could reverse, improve or fix this horrendous diagnosis,” says Dana, who lives with her family in the Washington area. “We learned that because of the severe brain anomalies, our baby would have had on-going seizures and would lack the physical coordination to suck, swallow, feed, walk, talk or know its environment – if our baby survived the birth experience, if at all. We did not want our child’s existence to be one dependent solely on feeding tubes and machines. We did not want to bring a child into this world who would only be here in a vegetative state. For this child, for our son and for our family, my husband and I made the heartbreaking decision to terminate. We did the most loving, humane act a parent could do – put an end to our baby's suffering.”
There are thousand of women like Dana, Julie, Monica, and her daughter – women facing a devastating choice, one that they never thought they would have to make. The state of Nebraska has decided that these women are not entitled to make that very private choice. Indeed, if Monica's daughter had been molested this year instead of last, she would have either had to carry a dangerous pregnancy to term or travel out-of-state, at great expense, to receive care. The Nebraska law is a travesty that must not be repeated on the national level. As Dr. Carhart begins his work in Washington, the need for support and understanding of this vital work is more crucial than ever.
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice