Iowa’s Fetal Heartbeat Law

I will turn 43 this month, and James and I are still talking about whether to have children. We haven’t decided yet, because we’ve let things grow so late. We know the odds of our having a child have decreased; many women my age have at least one miscarriage. Beyond that, we also know the odds of our having an unhealthy child have increased to something between 2 and 3 percent. (The risk of our having a Down’s baby are a bit higher, but that doesn’t worry me as much.) 

Now the reason I share all of this personal information is that the Iowa legislature just passed what’s called the fetal heartbeat bill. My old pal, Gov. Reynolds, has indicated she will sign the bill into law. And when that happens, this legislation will become the most restrictive abortion measure in the country. It will make all abortions illegal after doctors detect the fetal heartbeat. The law does make some provisos for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, and it allows an escape measure for conditions that pose grave threats to a pregnant woman’s physical life. That said, however, fetal heartbeats generally present at around six weeks. At that point, some women aren’t even aware they’re pregnant.

So here’s more personal information: Although I do support a woman’s right to a safe abortion, I see it as a lesser evil (to, say, a botched abortion) and I can think of almost no circumstance when I would have one myself. But the outlier for me is severe deformation of the fetus that would result in a life of agony for the child. I’m not talking about cerebral palsy here. I’m talking about cephalic disorders, progressive bone disorders, and ailments that I don’t even know about. I don’t know how many of these disorders you can detect in utero–or when. But I believe you can determine some–at some point. James and I also haven’t gone through the grim work of determining when we would (and wouldn’t) consider euthanasia—but I think part of that decision will now hinge on whether we’d be willing to take a trip out of state.

Let me remind you: I worked in a group home with adults who have developmental disabilities. I knew a twenty-five-year-old woman who had the mind of a six-month-old. I knew of a man who was so habitually violent that he gave his caregiver a concussion. I knew a woman who would try to drown herself in the bathtub, because she was aware that she would never have a husband and a family. And still, I don’t recommend euthanasia for fetuses with the disorders that afflicted these folks. I studied the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program for Germany’s so-called “useless eaters.” I know the evils of preventive killing. But I’m also not in the business of bringing a child a life of physical suffering, in the name of God. This is especially true considering that each case is so very different. That’s what this law will overlook: Each case is different. And the agony of choosing what to spare your afflicted fetus is only exacerbated by a law that claims to know the right decision in every situation.

If the state really wants to love its children, it can sponsor better health care for pregnant women. It can provide better relief for families who have children with special needs. (I can’t tell you how many clients we cared for on major holidays, because their families just dumped them at the facilities and never came back.) In fact, if the state really wants to help, it can pump funds into facilities that try to provide good environments for people who have to live with these disabilities. I know a woman who slumped all day, because she didn’t have the physical ability to hold herself up, and because we didn’t have the funds to give her a wheelchair that would let her recline. I know horrible cases of burn-out turned to neglect, because the care facility didn’t have the resources to attract enough caregivers who would afford their current workers time off. I know of sexual predation that occurred to a paralyzed woman who couldn’t speak, because, although each facility runs a background check, the employment bar is just so low.

Look. This isn’t a tidy post, because it isn’t a tidy issue. But that’s my point: You can’t flatten the wilderness of birth defects with a single, rubber stamp. The reality is too rife with terrors and complications. Today I am terrified–and I’m not even pregnant. But I’ll tell you this: The heartbeat law pushes me that much closer to my decision not to get pregnant. And that in itself is a loss.

(Originally posted May 2, 2018)

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