Protecting newborns with compassion

Posted: Mar 26, 2001 12:00 AM
The bizarrely titled "Born Alive Infant Protection Act," which seems to confirm the obvious, is back. And with it, one hopes, an end to discussions that shouldn't have been necessary. At issue is a simple question: Are babies who survive an abortion human beings deserving of protection? It was answered with a resounding "yes" last year when similar legislation passed the U.S. House (380-15). The bill stalled in the Senate, however, and now has to be reintroduced. If approved, the proposed law will require that babies born alive be treated as, well, live babies. Talk about a given. Yet, without this law, the answer to whether newborns are human, stunningly, is: "It depends." Specifically, it depends on the intent of the "mother," as in: Did she intend for the baby to be born alive, or did she intend for it to be dead-on-arrival as part of the abortion she was promised? Clearly, most women seeking an abortion aren't hoping for a live baby, yet miraculously, some babies do survive and therein lies the dilemma. Most newborns that would be protected under the bill are survivors of an "induced labor abortion," which is usually performed in the second trimester when a fetus is determined to be fatally abnormal. Unlike invasive abortions, the mother in an induced-labor abortion delivers her baby after medication causes her cervix to dilate, which can take a few hours or a few days. "They just open the cervix and baby drops out," says Jill Stanek, a crusading, anti-abortion nurse who testified Thursday before a group of congressmen. "The intent is never to kill the baby in utero. The intent is that it will die in the birth canal or die afterward." Stanek, who gets credit for prompting the born-alive bill, has been instrumental in publicizing the inhumane treatment of babies who survive abortion. Usually, the newborn is wrapped in a blanket and set aside to die. Some die quickly; some live for as long as eight hours, says Stanek, who works as a labor and delivery nurse at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. Without a neonatal emergency team, the baby surely will die of suffocation owing to undeveloped lungs. Otherwise the baby will die eventually of a fatal abnormality - no brain, no kidney, or something of that order. Those supporting the procedure argue that it's the most compassionate way to end a doomed life and to minimize a mother's suffering. Stanek doesn't see it that way. More likely, she says, it's the most convenient and cost-effective way to eliminate a problem. Of 13 induced-labor abortions at her hospital last year, four lived, she says. One was misplaced when it was left in the laundry room and fell into a hamper of dirty towels. The baby's body fell onto the floor when someone picked up one of the towels. Inducing abortion is no more compassionate to the mother, says Stanek. First, the mother has to wait for the "birth," which becomes increasingly stressful the longer it takes. Then she has to live forever with her actions. "At the other end of life, when people are sick, you don't just kill them, you ease them into death easily. To avoid a couple of months of grief, these women kill their handicapped child. Wouldn't it be better to give birth and hold your baby for a couple of hours? What memory do you want to live with?" As memories go, neither is a good one. And carrying a pregnancy to term knowing that your baby will die is a tough road. But the question really comes down to this: Do we condone killing newborns? And the answer is, not yet.