Abortion opponents are prepared to forge ahead with their goal to criminalize later abortions. Although a proposed 20-week abortion ban didn’t come up for a vote in Congress last month, GOP leaders have vowed to bring back the legislation later this year. The policy has also gained significant traction on the state level, where it’s on the books in 14 different states and currently being considered in three additional ones.
The political conversation around 20-week bans centers solely on fetuses, which abortion opponents claim can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Although scientific evidence does not support this notion of fetal pain, that hasn’t stopped the lawmakers who want to ban abortion. When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced a national 20-week ban at the beginning of the year, for instance, he said the legislation would protect the “innocent and defenseless children” who “are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia.”
Largely absent from these discussions are the real women whose lives would be impacted by restrictions on later abortions. Those women are not exactly setting out with the goal of torturing their innocent children. In fact, many of them are making the painful decision to end a pregnancy after discovering their unborn child has serious health complications that won’t allow them to survive outside the womb.
“When people talk about fetal pain, it infuriates me, because that was our goal,” Mary O’Donnell, a Virginia resident who had a post-20-week abortion back in 2005, told ThinkProgress. “Our goal as parents was to avoid suffering on behalf of our child.”
O’Donnell was pregnant with her first child, and excited to start her family with her husband, when a routine ultrasound at 12 weeks showed their unborn child’s organs were outside of its body. At first, it was unclear how serious the issue was. The doctors said the baby’s lungs were underdeveloped, but a series of surgeries might be able to put its organs back in place. O’Donnell and her husband decided to wait to do more genetic testing and get a closer look at their unborn daughter’s heart.
“We wanted to give our child every possible opportunity. If she was going to survive, we wanted to give her that opportunity,” O’Donnell said. “So we waited.”
They had to wait until around the 20 week mark to do more testing on her heart. At that point, they found out it wasn’t strong enough, and their child probably wouldn’t survive the surgeries necessary to move her organs. They decided to end the pregnancy by inducing labor, a form of abortion that allowed O’Donnell to deliver her daughter, who never took a breath. She named her Naomi.
Now, around the ten-year anniversary of O’Donnell’s decision about Naomi’s end-of-life care, her state lawmakers have introduced a 20-week abortion ban that would prevent other women from having that procedure. “It just adds another dig that makes me remember how hard it was,” she said, adding that “inhibiting access to the procedure adds an additional layer onto an already difficult situation.”
Christie Brooks is another Virginia resident who had a later abortion in the early 2000s. She pointed out that criminalizing later abortions can put more pressure on women facing difficult diagnoses who need enough time to get a second opinion, do their own research, and carefully consider their options.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that we’re just making these spur of the moment decisions without giving it much thought,” Brooks told ThinkProgress. “That’s completely false.”
Brooks was 20 weeks and five days pregnant when she and her husband found out that their unborn daughter had a hole in her diaphragm. Her stomach and intestines had migrated from her abdomen to her chest, impeding the development of her lungs. It was a diagnosis that left them “completely dumbfounded,” according to Brooks, and they wanted more time to talk to medical experts about her unborn child’s chance of survival. Like O’Donnell, she held out hope.
“We had never heard of anything like that before. I wanted to make an informed decision,” Brooks said. “I didn’t just want to jump and say, oh, there’s something wrong, let me terminate.”
But one expert told her it was one of the worst cases of this defect he had ever seen. As a single-income family with a two-year-old child, it just didn’t seem possible to continue the pregnancy against long odds. And although Brooks initially considered leaving it up to God so she wouldn’t have to make a decision about termination, she ultimately decided that wasn’t fair.
“The longer I sat with it, the more I thought — wait a minute. My child might have to suffer greatly at birth just so I can have a clear conscience. And that wasn’t really something I was willing to do,” she recounted. “I ultimately decided I would bear this on my conscience for the rest of my life if it prevented my child from being able to suffer.”
Those personal stories complicate the narrative about later abortions, which are typically framed as barbaric procedures sought by women who have little regard for the fetuses they are carrying. But for many women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a wanted pregnancy, abortion is about the most compassionate choice they can make for their family. Political restrictions just make it more difficult for them to come up with the right course of action for a medically challenging situation.
“When the government is telling me that a medically necessary procedure that my doctors recommend shouldn’t happen, that makes me angry,” O’Donnell said.
There’s some evidence that Americans are sympathetic to women like O’Donnell and Brooks when they learn more about the reasons why they need later abortion care. Polling from Planned Parenthood has found that Americans support abortion access after 20 weeks of pregnancy for women who discover serious fetal abnormalities, as well as for low-income women who struggle to save up the money for the procedure. But that emotional context is harder to condense into a political talking point.
Meanwhile, because banning abortion at the halfway point sounds pretty reasonable on the surface, abortion opponents have successfully construed these restrictions as moderate. And they’re not as concerned about the real world consequences. Defending these bans in court, some state officials have even suggested that fatal fetal birth defects are simply the “woman’s problem.”
Although Virginia’s 20-week ban may not advance — leaders in the state legislature have recently said their caucus may not have the “appetite” to tackle a contentious abortion bill this year — the controversy over this particular restriction isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Eight potential GOP presidential candidates have endorsed the national version of the 20-week ban.