WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sarah Coe was looking forward to an ultrasound to show her the fingers and toes, the upturned nose and the real promise of her unborn child.
Instead, she learned her fetus had hydrocephalus — a sometimes uncontrollable swelling of the head which was progressing so fast that the baby’s head could burst inside her womb.
“We had a baby that might not make it to birth, and if he did, he would pretty much be a vegetable,” Coe said in a telephone interview.
Coe, who asks not to use her real name for fear of retaliation by anti-abortion extremists, traveled to Wichita, Kansas, two years ago for a late-term abortion, when the fetus was at 24 weeks gestation.
The clinic closed permanently on Tuesday after the fatal shooting last month of its founder, Dr. George Tiller, 67, a target of anti-abortion rights activists for years.
His murder dismayed foes and supporters alike, with each side fearing damage to their cause in the vitriolic national debate about the issue.
Tiller’s clinic was one of only three in the United States offering abortions after the 24th week of gestation when a fetus potentially could survive outside the womb.
Activists especially target such late-term abortions, painting the procedure as gruesome murder of a baby that might at worst have disabilities.
Dr. Pratima Gupta, an obstetrician and gynecologist who provides abortions in the San Francisco area, agrees that hydrocephalus can be deadly. “They don’t have any normal brain tissue,” she said.
The severity might not immediately be apparent until late in the pregnancy, or doctors and patients may want to wait, do repeat ultrasounds and hope for the best.
While opponents, usually religiously motivated, argue that only God should decide to take a life, abortion rights advocates say women must have a chance to save their health, their own lives, and provide a safe way to end a doomed pregnancy.
Gupta calls Tiller’s murder devastating. “There are two other providers out there, but frankly, right now, they are not wanting to be very public about the services that they offer,” she said.
“I often think about Dr. Tiller’s patients who were on the schedule for this coming week.”
Coe argues that her baby had no chance. “The best-case scenario is that he would have been a vegetable.” If the head had ruptured in utero, Coe could have died or suffered a serious infection.
“It would have at least affected my ability to have another baby,” said Coe, who now has a healthy 7-month-old daughter. For her, carrying the child to term to face immediate death or an existence on life support was not an option.
“Honestly, maybe there are stronger women than me that could have done that. I couldn’t,” she said.
Coe said staff at Tiller’s clinic offered not only the surgery, but counseling and support. “Everyone we met there was in the same boat we were, with babies that had various fetal abnormalities, life-threatening fetal abnormalities,” said Coe, who is now 39 and who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The non-profit Guttmacher Institute says 22 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are aborted — making for more than 1.2 million abortions in 2005.
Fewer than 1 percent are done after the 24th week — a time when a healthy baby could live.
Abortion rights groups say the terminations include babies with severe spinal cord or brain deformities that could neither be detected earlier in pregnancy nor corrected after birth.
Yet this is the type of procedure states are cracking down on more and more. The Guttmacher Institute says 31 states have laws limiting late-term abortions.
The atmosphere created by antiabortion protests and by the high-profile attacks on providers — including murders — have driven doctors from the business. Guttmacher says the number of U.S. abortion providers fell by 2 percent between 2000 and 2005, from 1,819 to 1,787.
Abortion rights opponents almost universally condemned Tiller’s killing while rejoicing in the closure of his clinic.
“When an act like this happens, it becomes a greater threat to the pro-life movement than anything the pro-choice movement” could do, Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, was quoted by the Boston Globe as saying.
Editing by David Storey