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When I was 20 weeks pregnant, my ob-gyn called me at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening.
Nothing good comes from your doctor calling you after close of business during the workweek, and I nervously answered the phone.
Nothing good comes from your doctor starting his sentence with, “I’m sure everything is fine and I don’t want you to worry, but — ”
The but was when I stopped breathing.
The but was the word that proceeded the news that after overcoming infertility and being a carrier for a rare genetic disorder and becoming pregnant through IVF with PGD, the results of my maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein screening (MSAFP) test from the previous week had come back abnormally high.
Abnormally low results, my doctor explained, often indicated Down syndrome. Abnormally high results, like mine, could indicate a neural tube defect like spina bifida or possibly even a potentially fatal kidney or bowel fetal abnormality.
I was in the car with my parents at the time, on my way to dinner with relatives in from out of town. I don’t remember what I even managed to tell them. All I remember is feeling impossibly afraid and unable to touch my food or sustain conversation during the meal that followed.
While there was a chance that the results weren’t necessarily indicative of any serious problem in the fetus I was carrying that I had so badly wanted and hoped for, there was still a real and possible chance that the worst-case scenarios you never dream of when first conceiving were about to become my reality.
The next day I spoke to a genetic counselor in advance of the quickly scheduled appointment with the maternal-fetal medicine specialist who would be evaluating my pregnancy through an advance form of ultrasound to help further evaluate the health of my fetus and the decisions that could potentially lie before me.
It was clear that the genetic counselor was trying to phrase things in as delicate a way as possible, but the information she was giving me was startlingly clear. Depending on what we learned in the ultrasound with the specialist, I would potentially be facing the decision of carrying a fetus that might not be able to survive outside the womb or having a late-term abortion.
I cried myself to sleep each night between the evening my ob-gyn had called and the morning of my diagnostic ultrasound.
And it is this situation, this excruciating heartache, that Donald Trump clearly fails to understand based on his comments about late-term abortion in the third and final presidential debate Wednesday evening in Las Vegas.
“I think it’s terrible if you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now you can say that’s OK and Hillary can say that’s OK, but it’s not OK with me. Because based on what she’s saying and based on where she’s going and where she’s been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb on the ninth month on the final day. And that’s not acceptable. … Honestly, nobody has business doing what I just said, doing that as late as one or two or three or four days prior to birth. Nobody has that,” Trump said.
What Trump described during the debate not only does not reflect the reality of what late-term abortion actually is, but it also fails to recognize the unimaginably difficult and painful emotional realities of the families who find themselves making the choice to have this procedure based on what they and their physicians decide is best for them and their families.
I was remarkably lucky — my fetus checked out as normal during the subsequent screening and testing we had done, and at 37 weeks, I gave birth (after a scary delivery complication) to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. But I will never forget the 48 hours during which I had to mentally prepare myself for being faced with a decision that no one ever imagines herself having to make.
As a reporter who covers issues pertaining to reproductive and sexual health, I have had the opportunity to interview a number of women who’ve had late-term abortions. The one striking commonality their stories all share is their reflection that the circumstances surrounding their decision to terminate were all ones that they could never have imagined.
Late-term abortions — or those performed after 20 weeks gestational age — are incredibly rare. Eighty-nine percent of all abortion occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. And only 1.2 percent of all abortions in the United States occur after 21 weeks. Furthermore, 43 states — an overwhelming majority — presently ban abortion after a certain point in the pregnancy that is often tied to fetal viability outside the womb, sometime in the third trimester.
In other words, what Donald Trump described on the stage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was something wholly inaccurate, no matter how you look at it.
As Clinton put it during the debate in reply to Trump’s statement, “That is not what happens in these cases, and using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate. … This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it. … I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith and with medical advice, and I will stand up for that right.”
The continued actions by Congress to pass a 20-week abortion ban — often referred to by anti-choice legislators and activists as a “partial-birth” abortion ban — and the clear articulation by Trump on his support for such action shows a stunning disregard for science, fact, and the nuance of the emotions and validity of lived experiences that women and their families who reckon with late-term abortion face.
As an obstetrician-gynecologist who performs abortions told Yahoo last year, much of the misperception around late-term abortion is tied to the movement that might be seen in a fetus after termination. As this physician explained, “That’s just how nerves work. … At the gestational ages at which abortions are done, the nervous system is not developed enough to have there be any cognitive sensation.”
The much-touted anti-choice argument of “fetal pain,” then, is rendered completely irrelevant by its lack of factual basis.
“Yes, the nervous system is starting to develop, but it’s not at a point where it can be perceived and responded to. The body of literature around this is pretty consistent, scientifically,” the physician noted.
The way in which late-term abortions were described by the Republican nominee during the final presidential debate was disturbing not only for its blatant disregard for fact and medical science but also for its utter lack of empathy with the individuals who find themselves needing to choose this procedure, whether for their own health and safety or out of love for a child they will never have the opportunity to one day know. Mentally trying to prepare myself for making that decision was gut-wrenching — and I do not even begin to try to imagine what it feels like when that decision is not just a hypothetical, but a reality.
I can imagine, though, the devastation that would be wrought on a woman and her family if such a choice weren’t even her own, if one man decided he had the right to make that decision for all families while being blind to their circumstances and stories. I can imagine the agony of having to seek out such treatment in the absence of safe and legal, yet alone compassionate, care.
Which is why Trump’s factually inaccurate remarks about late-term abortion felt particularly searing: They revealed a stunning disregard for science and an aggressive lack of desire to understand that each person’s experiences that lead them to make decisions about their own futures and that of their families are both unique and universal, each exquisite and mundane and heartbreaking and affirming in their own ways. Because all abortion care is good, necessary reproductive health care — a fact that seven out of 10 Americans soundly agree on.