When an ailment is rare, it is placed way down in everyone’s awareness list – unless the ailment strikes home. That situation has appeared and will continue to appear as a result of the rash of state anti-abortion laws popping up since the overturning of Roe v Wade.
A recent case in the news serves as example. A Florida expectant mother carrying a baby with a rare and fatal abnormality referred to as Potter syndrome, has found herself with no other choice than giving birth then surely burying her dead infant. This tragic scenario comes in the wake of Florida’s new law, “Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality Act,” HB 5, passed by Florida’s Legislators in 2022 and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis.
Potter syndrome, present in 1 per 2000-5000 births, is considered fatal at or shortly after birth. The U.S. National Library of Medicine describes it as follow,
Potter syndrome is a fatal congenital disorder characterized by the changes in physical appearances of neonate due to oligohydramnios caused by renal agenesis and impairment. It is incompatible with life as neonates with Potter syndrome have pulmonary hypoplasia that leads to respiratory distress within an hour of birth.
In other words, babies with Potter syndrome have abnormal kidneys or no kidneys at all (bilateral renal agenesis), which prevents production of the amniotic fluid that keeps them afloat in their mother’s uterus and helps organs, including lungs, develop. Underdeveloped lungs (pulmonary hypoplasia) mean babies cannot breathe outside the womb and die.
Suspicion of anomalies may arise during a standard first-trimester ultrasound performed around 4-12 weeks of pregnancy. In the case of the Florida mother in question, a standard ultrasound performed at 11 weeks and 6 days did not show any abnormality. Her second-trimester ultrasound (usually, these are high-resolution anatomy scans) at 23 weeks did show lack of amniotic fluid and several abnormalities. A third diagnostic scan at 24 weeks showed the baby had no kidneys, and the diagnosis of Potter syndrome was made.
Although this was a very much wanted baby, the mother, Deborah Dorbert, and her husband Lee Dorbert decided to end the pregnancy, since they were given no hope their baby would survive past a few hours after birth. They thought that although the pregnancy had gone past the 15-week limit imposed by HB 5 – note the heartbreaking diagnosis was done at 24 weeks of pregnancy — the law did provide for an exception in the case of “fatal fetal abnormality.”
However, the Dorbets’ doctors felt they needed to investigate the legal ramifications of HB 5. After doing so, they decided the wording of HB 5 was uncomfortably unclear, and refused to perform the abortion.
Indeed, unclear it is, whether by sloppiness or design. HB 5 says:
(1) … A physician may not perform a termination of pregnancy if the physician determines the gestational age of the fetus is more than 15 weeks, unless one of the following conditions is met …
(c) The fetus has not achieved viability under s. 390.01112 and two physicians certify in writing that, in reasonable medical judgement, the fetus has a fatal fetal abnormality.
Section 390.01112 of the Florida Statutes requires that a physician perform and record exhaustive examinations to determine fetus viability. Should the fetus be viable, the physician must exercise as much care and professional skill as he would delivering a baby not intended for abortion.
Abortion laws like HB 5 are more form than substance.
Laws like HB 5 have the buzzwords – life of the mother, fatal fetal abnormality – but not the intent of finding optimal medical outcomes.
Diagnostic tests that can accurately detect fetal abnormalities are usually done around 18-20 week of pregnancy; HB 5’s prohibits abortion after a fetus’ gestation age of 15 weeks. Such a situation is even more unsound in states that have adopted “heartbeat” laws, with limits around 6 weeks of gestation.
HB 5 requires exhaustive reporting that could prompt physicians to err on the side of not performing a medically necessary abortion: “The physician must document in the pregnant woman’s medical file the physician’s determination and the method, equipment, fetal measurements, and any other information used to determine the viability of the fetus.”
These laws are more Christian evangelical religion than medicine
The U.S. Constitution clearly separates secular laws from religious laws in the First Amendment. Yet, at the signing ceremony of HB 5 into law, Governor DeSantis said, “This will represent the most significant protections for life that have been enacted in this state in a generation.” Several religious leaders attended the ceremony and expressed delight at HB 5 becoming law.
“I see this as the beginning of what is yet to come. It is a step in the right direction..” Leidy Rivas, director of Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s Culture of Life office. April 21, 2022.
Not all religions interpret “life” as Governor DeSantis does, and several religious leaders have filed suit against HB 5.
The Rev. Tom Capo of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, whose motion now rests with Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, has skillfully pointed out that HB 5 fails “to account for the diverse religious views of many Floridians. . . whose faith leads them to take a very different view of when life begins and to counsel abortion.” New legal challenges to Florida’s abortion law, MSNBC, October 18, 2022.
Respect for life, even unborn life in the view of evangelical Christianity, is admirable. But so is mercy.
Luke 6:36 “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Leaving a mother no choice but to give birth to her baby only to bury him is far from merciful.