MADISON — Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si, that showing genuine care and concern for the vulnerable includes protecting the most vulnerable – human embryos. In the Wisconsin State Assembly, time is ticking on a bill lawmakers say will do just that.
The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection bill (SB 179) would prohibit all Wisconsin abortions at or beyond the 20-week gestation mark, making an exception only for medical emergencies. It passed the State Senate June 9 and moved on to the State Assembly, but Catholic and pro-life groups statewide are divided over the bill.
The bill’s argument is based on medical evidence that shows an unborn child’s pain receptors are present no later than 16 weeks after fertilization, with nerves that link the receptors to the brain no later than 20 weeks gestation.
The bill also calls for the pregnant woman to be informed, orally and in writing, of the unborn child’s age and numerical odds of survival, as well as “written materials on the availability of perinatal hospice.”
The debate for pro-life groups, however, lies not in the bill’s intent to shield the unborn child from pain but rather in its medical emergency language. While some stand behind SB 179 as currently written, others are asking for a removal of the medical emergency language before they will offer their full support.
Pro-life groups divided
Matt Sande, director of legislative affairs for Pro-Life Wisconsin, said the medical emergency language writes unnecessary loopholes into the legislation that take the focus off of the unborn child’s ability to feel pain.
“The thing is, if you’re going to make this argument on fetal pain, make it,” Matt Sande said. “Don’t create exceptions, because you’re just going to undermine your argument. I’ll say what I’ve said to other press: The argument is lost before it’s made.”
Sande said experienced medical professionals on both sides of the argument have stated that medical emergency language is unnecessary, since the definition of abortion used in the bill is “so tightly written.” He also said that, when phrases such as “in reasonable medical judgment” are left in, the gray area and opportunity for opposition increases.
“As long as you retain that prohibition on direct abortion (as it is defined in the bill), you can just stop there,” he said, noting that the definition of abortion used by the bill permits any procedure to be done, provided the unborn child is not willfully or intentionally killed in the process. “I don’t think you need to carve out any protective language because it just gets foggy and confusing.”
The medical emergency exception states that if “the pregnant woman is undergoing a medical emergency, the physician shall terminate the pregnancy in the manner that, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the child to survive, unless the termination of the pregnancy in that manner poses a greater risk either of the death of the pregnant woman or of the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the woman than other available methods.”
Wisconsin Right to Life Executive Director Heather Weininger says her group is in support of the bill despite the exception and believes the doctor’s medical judgment should be examined before medical emergencies are even a concern.
“The medical emergency language that is in there leaves it up to the doctor to use their best medical judgment; so if (the pregnant woman) is afraid that (her doctor’s) judgment, each and every day, isn’t appropriate or the decision that’s going to be made isn’t appropriate, perhaps (she) needs to see a different doctor,” she said. “I would trust that, when I go see my doctor, they’re making the best medical judgment there is.”
Weininger also said the bill’s requirement that doctors performing the emergency medical procedures provide documentation would make the difference in any consequential civil remedies.
“If something happens and there is a medical emergency, (the doctors) need to document how the pregnancy was terminated, and they do need to do their best effort, in whatever procedure they decide upon, that the child is born alive,” she said. “But it all comes down to their medical judgment — a lawmaker doesn’t have that, but the doctor doing that does. And if they show that there was clear medical judgment in the decision they made, then they have no fear of facing a penalty.”
Eighty-nine of the 6,462 Wisconsin aborted unborn babies in 2013 were aborted at or beyond the 20-week gestation mark. While that is less than two percent of total state abortions, Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said she wants a “no babies left behind” approach.
“This is speculation on my part, but I would suspect that we will go through with passing this bill and it will save probably 95 percent of the babies who would be in these late-term situations with the woman considering an abortion,” she said. “And if only 5 percent of those fall into the medical emergency language, then, at the end of the day, we’ve saved 95 percent. But our job now is to come back and save the other 5 percent.”
Beyond the bill
Barbara Sella, associate director for respect life and social concerns of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said there is more to this bill than abortion. She said the big picture is about building a culture where “people with disabilities and their families are supported and embraced rather than pushed away.”
“These types of abortion force us to confront the fact that many children with medical conditions are being routinely aborted, in part, because parents are understandably overwhelmed at the prospect of having to care for them,” she said.
As defined by Tennessee obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Nathan Hoeldtke, perinatal hospice services the families experiencing the fatal prenatal diagnosis of their unborn child. Hoeldtke, founder of the Mid-South Perinatal Association, said this is done by “extending the concept of hospice to include comprehensive support from the time of diagnosis through the birth and death of the infant, into the postpartum period.”
Adam and Megan Parker, members of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral (Green Bay), received news 20 weeks into their pregnancy that their daughter had Triploidy, a fatal condition in which the child is conceived with an extra set of chromosomes. Megan said their daughter, Therese Adelaide Parker, “took her first breath in heaven” on May 21 when she was delivered at just 23 weeks old.
One option presented during their pregnancy was inducing labor early and removing Therese from the uterus using instruments and/or suction. The couple chose to see the pregnancy through to its natural end, stating that the decision was never one of life or death but of love.
“Yes, a decision should be between the spouses and the doctor, but the decision should not be whether the child should live or die,” Megan said. “Rather, it should be about how we, as Christians, can follow God’s will in our lives and the lives of our children. Every soul has a purpose, even though it may not be how we imagined it. It should never be up to the parents or the doctors to take a life, as life is only God’s to give and take away.”
Megan added that Therese’s 10 toes were fully developed and that, even at 23 weeks, she looked and felt “exactly like an adult.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes, so if you are pregnant with a child with health issues or disabilities, or even with a normal pregnancy, God put that soul in your life for a purpose,” Megan said. “It has been our experience that, in losing Therese, we have never prayed so many rosaries in our lives or tried to reach out to other people who are suffering. Therese is taking us by the hand and bringing us closer to Jesus on the cross. What a powerful purpose for such a young soul!”
The State Assembly was expected to take up the bill before session adjourned June 30, pending progress with the state budget and other pressing matters, according to Appling. If time did not permit, the bill will resurface in the fall.
Regardless, Appling says the key to progressing forward and building a “culture of life” begins and ends with the people.
“I really believe that we can legislate toward a pro-life culture only to a certain degree,” she said. “I think what it takes is people of faith, in particular, who will stand up and speak up every chance they get in every venue, and also that we educate the next generation about the sanctity of human life that this is a baby born in the image of God.”
For more information on perinatal hospice or high-risk pregnancies, contact Elizabeth Ministries International at 920-766-9380 or www.elizabethministry.com.