Opinion: Why I Support Legal Late-Term Abortions

The murder of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller has intensified the national debate over late-term abortions. I have a special interest in this topic because I had a brother who was severely retarded. Though he lived well into adulthood, he never developed beyond an infantile state.

Abortion was not an option for my parents when Jon was born back in 1949. I doubt they would have chosen abortion even if it were an option. But in not having the right to choose abortion, there was also a heavy emotional price to be paid. They never had the chance to take a personal inventory and ask themselves honestly if they were capable of caring for a severely retarded child along with their four other children.

For anyone who believes life is precious, such a decision is bound to be wrenching. Whatever choice one makes is sure to be painful and deeply personal.

For the first three years of Jon's life, my parents tried to care for him at home. He would spend nearly all day screaming or rocking uncontrollably or banging his head out of frustration for what he couldn't do for himself. "Success" at the end of the day, as my mother described it, would mean coaxing the baby to swallow enough food to nourish himself.

Jon caused my family severe emotional distress in his early years. Both of my parents experienced nervous breakdowns. They could not face the reality that they could not care for him in their home and at the same time meet the needs of their healthy children. Years later, my uncle wrote a rather macabre story about how he was tempted to let the baby who was wreaking havoc in his beloved sister's home "accidentally" slip from his arms while swimming in the ocean and drown, so that the family's emotional collapse could be avoided.

Thankfully, he resisted that temptation. Instead, he searched far and wide for an institution that would take Jon. There were few such facilities in those days. He finally found a place 300 miles from my parents' home, and he persuaded (or perhaps bullied) my indecisive and not completely rational parents into doing what they needed to do to stabilize their family unit. Jon was 3 at the time; he lived at an institution until he died at 52 of heart failure.

Sending Jon away, no matter how caring the institution was, was a heart-wrenching decision. And yet my parents found a great sense of relief—finally, they were able to recover their emotional stability. My mother went on to lead a relatively happy, productive life, devoting it to helping children. She became an outstanding educator and North Carolina English Teacher of the Year in 1979.

My father, in his denial, prayed repeatedly for decades for a miracle cure to his namesake's Down syndrome. He'd visit Jon and come home expressing the false and unrealistic hope that "I believe he's better." For him, the stigma of having a severely retarded son was real, and I think he internalized the notion that he was a failure as a parent because he agreed to send his child away to be cared for at an institution. To dull his sadness and pain, he turned to beer and wine.

My sisters were 9, 7 and 1 at the time Jon was sent away—I had not been born yet. The irony is that if Jon, who was at the time my parents' only son, hadn't been severely retarded, I might not have been conceived. So in one sense, I owe my very life to him. My sister calls this "soul sacrifice"—Jon's soul was sacrificed so that another soul could have a more abundant life.

I cannot say that the option of a late-term abortion would have been the right one for my parents. But some of the arguments advanced by pro-life forces disturb me. There is a tendency to romanticize, sentimentalize and idealize life with a cute, forever-young Down-syndrome "angel child." Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her supporters are particularly adept at this. It's an argument I find off-putting, especially when it's espoused by people who have never been through the wringer trying to care for a child whose disability level is on the most severe end of the scale.

At the same time, it is very disturbing that until recently, the majority of Down-syndrome fetuses were aborted without expectant mothers receiving proper information or support. Widely differing degrees of disability exist in Down syndrome, some of which can be determined through ultrasound and diagnostic tests in the first trimester, obviating the need for a late-term abortion.

Pro-life and pro-choice forces have been going around and around on the issue of abortion for decades, without finding common ground. What seems to have been largely ignored by the mainstream media is that there was a meeting of the minds last fall when the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act, sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Sam Brownback, was signed into law.

The measure provides that families receiving a prenatal or postnatal diagnosis of Down syndrome or other conditions are offered accurate and up-to-date information about the nature of the condition and are also connected with support services. In addition, a registry of parents willing to adopt children with disabilities is now being compiled and maintained. This law is something pro-life and pro-choice forces agreed on.

The late Dr. Tiller was one of three doctors in the nation to admit to performing late-term abortions. I do not feel qualified to judge whether the procedures he engaged in were ethical. The fact that he was quickly acquitted in March of misdemeanor charges speaks in his favor. And certainly the testimonials from former patients are persuasive.

With his murder, there is a very real danger that late-term abortions will end in this country—not after public deliberation, legislative debate and majority vote, but because anti-abortion absolutists on the fringe have intimidated and blacklisted doctors and successfully threatened violence against them. It's possible there won't be any doctors in the country willing to perform late-term abortions even if prenatal tests indicate severe retardation. In other words, domestic terrorism could win. That would be a travesty.

It would mean that parents like my own would no longer have a choice, and would instead to be forced to endure the same harsh realities that were present in the 1950s.