‘I Set Her Free’: What One Woman Wants Lawmakers to Know About Her Late-Term Abortion

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The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which the House passed on Wednesday, would make the gut-wrenching decisions faced by many women and families even more painful. Here’s one woman’s story. (Photo: Getty Images)

Christie Brooks, a stay-at-home mom living in central Virginia, made the agonizing decision to terminate her planned and wanted pregnancy just shy of 22 weeks.

For Brooks, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act — which the U.S. House of Representatives passed Wednesday evening after an earlier version was dropped in January when it failed to earn the support of Republican women in Congress — would have made an already painful personal situation even more heartbreaking. Among other restrictions, this version of the bill states that abortions after 20 weeks can no longer be done unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest — and even then, certain thresholds must be met for a woman to have access to abortion services.

“My husband and I went to my ob-gyn’s office at 20 weeks and four days for a routine 20-week ultrasound,” Brooks tells Yahoo Health. “The most prominent thing on our minds was is it a boy or a girl. At that ultrasound appointment, the technician was unable to get a clear view of the baby’s heart and called in a doctor to get another look.” 

The next day, the Brooks’s baby, who was a girl, received the diagnosis of congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition wherein the stomach and the rest of the digestive tract develop in the chest cavity, severely restricting the development of the lungs and heart as a result. Even with major surgical intervention, it is likely that most children with this condition will suffocate to death at birth. Even a best case, “miracle” outcome would still leave a child with debilitating disabilities.

Doctors explained that Brooks and her husband could choose to end the pregnancy or continue with it, knowing that there would be a good chance that their child would not survive after being born — and would live an extremely restricted life even if she did.

“There were several factors that went into our decision,” says Brooks. “One factor we had to consider was financial. We were a single-income family of three, living in an apartment and trying to keep up with our bills. No one had a crystal ball and could tell us with any certainty what her quality of life would be. Although we had medical insurance, care for a critically ill infant can easily climb into the millions of dollars when you include things like after-care medications, therapies, follow-up surgeries, etc. Another factor we had to consider was the effect of continuing the pregnancy on our then-2-year-old daughter. We had no extended family living within 500 miles to help us. We were on our own. The prospect of abandoning my toddler for an unknown length of time in order to stand vigil at the bedside of her critically ill sister, for who knows how long, was daunting and scary. I didn’t want that for her.”

Ultimately, Brooks tells Yahoo, her decision was a spiritual one. “I had felt that if I continued the pregnancy and the baby died at birth or shortly after birth, I would be devastated for sure, but I would eventually heal emotionally. But if I carried to term and she didn’t pass away, but struggled to survive by enduring numerous surgeries, I didn’t know if I could live with myself for putting her through that pain and suffering in order to alleviate my own conscience.

“I don’t feel that I gave up on her — I feel that I set her free.”

Sarah Torre, a policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has a different opinion. “Protecting the safety of women and the lives of unborn children who are so close to being able to live outside the womb from late-term abortion is a policy the American people overwhelming support,” she writes in the Daily Signal. “National leaders’ failure to protect women and unborn children from late-term abortion has made United States policy on abortion extreme among developed nations. The U.S. is currently one of only seven countries in the world — in the company of North Korea and China — in which elective, late-term abortion after 20 weeks is allowed.”

Policymakers who support the bill cite the age at which they believe fetuses feel pain as a reason to ban late-term abortions. Arina Grossu, director of the pro-life Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, writes in a position paper that “the instruction of medical textbooks and accepted common medical practice is to administer fetal anesthesia before an in-utero surgery on the unborn child around 20 weeks post-fertilization. The common practice is based on the science of fetal development and the observation that unborn children who are not given anesthesia elicit a hormonal stress response to painful stimuli, which is alleviated by the effects of anesthesia as it is in adults.” This, Grossu concludes, offers indisputable medical evidence of the concept of fetal pain.

Opponents of the bill, and many medical experts, think differently. “Banning abortion after 20 weeks based on [assertions about fetal pain and viability] is misguided because science does not support these concerns, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Yahoo Health. “These unproven assertions — contested by most major medical organizations — are the latest in a long line of attempts to move the conversation about abortion from one of medical decision making to one of heated rhetoric and dubious ‘science.’ … Information about pregnancy should be medically accurate, and it should be available to women who seek it so that women can use it to inform their decisions and make the complex, deeply personal medical decisions best for them.”

Related: Women Face Harder Path to Abortion as States Extend Waiting Period 

The current bill also requires that a second doctor be present at second-trimester abortions where there is a chance that the fetus would be viable, and it has no provisions for women who find themselves in a situation like Christie Brooks’s, knowing that continuing a pregnancy in certain circumstances could lead to watching a child die right after birth or suffer greatly due to unimaginable disabilities and repeated, invasive medical interventions.

The issue of fetal viability outside of the womb is controversial, if for no other reason than the fact that there is “no point when [viability] is clearly established” in a fetus’s development, as Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, explained during a press call on Wednesday.

Lawrence noted that “the vast majority” of abortions occur in the first trimester; those taking place in the second trimester are often performed in “very difficult situations” where women “need empathetic care, not persecution and restrictions” as they are faced with “heart-wrenching decisions.”

“The last thing we need to do is make women and their families suffer more,” Lawrence said, adding that there is “no medical milestone associated with 20 weeks; the 20-week mark is not notable from a fetal development standpoint.” Furthermore, a fetus at 20 weeks is not viable outside of the womb even with extensive medical care.

Related: Medical Abortion Can Be Safer and Easier for Women — So Why Follow Old Protocols?

Lawrence also spoke to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on the outcomes of viability for live births at 22 weeks, noting that the study found that only 5 percent of children born at this point survived, all of them with severe mental and neurological handicaps, and that the study looked only at babies without fetal anomalies. Abortions performed after 20 weeks are often conducted because of severe abnormalities found in the fetus that would prevent it from surviving outside of the womb, even if born at full term. Thus, Lawrence concluded, it is essential to debunk “claims that 22 weeks is a new point of viability” as a “myth before it becomes [wrongly] accepted as reality.”

As Brooks explained in telling the story of her own abortion at 22 weeks, it was exactly because there was no ban in place like the one currently working its way through Congress that she was “given the time and space to research” her options, ultimately deciding “after extensive research” to end her pregnancy — a decision that was “the right choice for me and my family.” The proposed 20-week abortion ban would restrict women in this situation from being able to do research and “make [their own decisions] with their family, doctor, and faith.”  

Related: Should a Woman Ever Need a Man’s OK to Get an Abortion?

Speaking on the House floor, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, teary-eyed, “I didn’t need my parents to tell me that every child is a gift from God. But let me tell you, they did — early and often. Because that respect — that sanctity and dignity — is everything.”

Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), one of the women who voiced opposition to the original version of the bill earlier this year because of the language in it that required that rape victims “prove” their rape in order to gain access to abortion services, claims that the newly passed bill is “a stronger bill” than it was before.

And yet, the new version still has restrictions on services for rape victims, minors, and victims of incest. Rape victims must endure a 48-hour waiting period before having access to abortion services; during the 48 hours they must receive counseling or medical attention in order to “qualify” for an abortion, regardless of circumstances regarding their own health or that of the fetus. Rape and incest victims who are minors still may not have access to abortion services after 20 weeks under the proposed legislation without having first reported their abuse to the police.

Related: ‘Girls’ Star Jemima Kirke on Her Abortion: ‘If I Didn’t Take the Anesthesia, I Would Be Able to Afford to Do This’

“This abortion ban is one of nearly 30 times in just four months that Congress has tried to restrict access to safe and legal abortion, while more than 300 bills restricting abortion have been introduced in the states in the last four months,” says Richards, of Planned Parenthood. “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and it says that it’s unconstitutional to ban abortion before viability, which is what a 20-week ban would do.”

But before the bill is fought over in the Senate and then inevitably vetoed by President Obama, Christie Brooks — representing the real women this bill targets — has a message for Congress: 

“I wish legislators knew that we are loving parents trying to make the most humane and responsible decision given our circumstances. We are no different from them in terms of morality, spiritual beliefs, or upbringing. We are their neighbor, their co-worker, their child’s teacher, and their fellow churchgoer. We did not make the decision to terminate lightly. We took our time, did extensive research, sought out second and third opinions, and made an informed decision about what was best for our family. And we have no regrets.”

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