Dr. Stella is one of four remaining doctors in the US who openly perform third trimester abortions. In the documentary After Tiller she is very clear that abortion results in the death of a pre-born child. Funeral arrangements are shown, how to tell your family is discussed, and Dr. Stella has no issue using the term “baby.”
Yet she defends what she does in cases of fetal abnormality, explaining “I recognize what I do. And at times I struggle and at times I don’t. But I always come back to the woman and what she’s going through. And often what life will this baby have? What will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities?”
Dr. Stella’s concern for what the woman is going through and what kind of life the child will have are both weighty considerations.
What is the woman going through?
I can only imagine the emotional turmoil caused by those dreaded words: “I am so sorry. There is something wrong with the baby.” Sarah Williams describes in Perfectly Human her experience when her third daughter, Cerian, was diagnosed with thanatophoric dysplasia – a lethal skeletal deformity. Cerian’s chest was too small to sustain the proper development of the lungs, meaning she likely would be unable to breathe after birth.
Within an hour of delivering this devastating news at an ultrasound appointment, the consultant was suggesting dates for termination seemingly as an obvious next step. In the United Kingdom, where Sarah lived, there is a gestational limit on abortion of 24 weeks, but she learned there was no such limit for Cerian because she had a fetal abnormality.
Fetal abnormalities can be serious, like in Cerian’s case, but the exception in the UK law has also been used for treatable conditions like cleft palate. The exception also includes those with Down syndrome. Abortion because of Down syndrome gained international notoriety after Iceland claimed in 2017 that they had eradicated Down syndrome – not by eliminating the condition, but by eliminating the people with the condition. One woman in Canada was even told that abortion was the only cure for Down syndrome.
Fetal abnormalities generally, and Down syndrome specifically, have gone from an exception in abortion laws to an expectation of abortion.
In the state of shock and grief resulting from an unexpected diagnosis, parents talk of the struggle to see their child as a person rather than a condition. The pressure from trusted medical professionals only adds to their burden. When Dr. Stella talks about being concerned about the women, is she concerned about what information was given along with the diagnosis or whether she was pressured to terminate? Does Dr. Stella ever tell a woman that she could continue her pregnancy and find the strength and support to raise a child with a disability?
What life will this baby have?
It is not just the parents that Dr. Stella is concerned about, but also “what will it mean to be alive with horrific fetal abnormalities?” Disabilities or genetic conditions unquestionably come with challenges. While many with Down syndrome live healthy, well-rounded lives, others face significant health and developmental challenges. Do challenges, pain, or suffering justify Dr. Stella’s position?
The reality is Dr. Stella does not know what life will be like for any given child. Sarah’s husband, Paul, was told that the statistical chances that his daughter would live with thanatophoric dysplasia was 1%. After questioning further, Paul discovered that statistic was based on a study of only 35 cases. Furthermore, of those 35 cases, 22 of them were terminated. We do not know what the lives of those 22 aborted children would be like.
This lack of information is an issue with many fetal abnormalities used to justify late term abortions. Brandon Bosma’s parents were told that his condition of Trisomy 18 meant he was “incompatible with life” and many with the condition are given a DNR – “do not resuscitate” – order and denied medical care. And yet, defying these labels, Brandon lives a full life as an international speaker and advocate for those living while being “incompatible with life.”
What is the quality and importance of these lives?
All this is not to minimize the very real hardships that Cerian faced and that Brandon still faces today. The question is, how do we value those who face these challenges?
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada draws this conclusion: “Being disabled, in and of itself, is not necessarily related to the quality and importance of life. Once born, the disabled have rights like everyone else, and very often lead full, productive lives. On the other hand,…especially the severely disabled, depend upon the care of others. Such care consumes substantial time and resources on the part of the caregiver.”
This pro-abortion organization holds up an ideal of an independent, productive, healthy person. In their view, someone with a disability might be able to mimic that ideal, giving their life quality and importance. But for the weak, the dependent, the suffering – their lives do not have the same quality or importance. By attempting to devalue pre-born children with disabilities, the pro-abortion narrative devalues all born people with disabilities. They grant that you are unable to end the life of a born child with a disability, but support doing so before she is born to avoid the sacrifice of “time and resources on the part of the caregiver.” What a tragic, ableist, and consumerist approach to humanity.
A life tragically cut short
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada’s last reason to allow abortion for fetal abnormalities is to avoid “much heartache and trauma, especially where a child’s life may be cut tragically short because of the illness or disability.” They point to short lives like Cerian’s who, despite evading an appointment with an abortionist, passed away shortly before her birth. They ignore that abortion would have only tragically cut her life shorter.
Not only does abortion cut that life shorter, it ends that life in a brutal fashion. Watching After Tiller you will notice that Dr. Stella explains why she does third trimester abortions, but never shows what she does. A third trimester abortion is a painful, brutal process for both the woman and the child. Dr. Stella’s concern for “what life this baby will have” needs to be juxtaposed by what death this baby will have.
Principle versus the person
Sarah was pro-life before she got the news of Cerian’s condition, but she describes the turmoil she went through deciding whether to terminate or not. The principles she held seemed insufficient when she faced the real situation. As the pregnancy progressed, however, Sarah gained strength in her faith and the call she felt to love Cerian no matter how long she had to do so. And it was that call and that perspective that carried her through.
A doctor asked Sarah, “Did you decide not to have a termination on strong religious grounds?” Sarah instinctively responded, “Cerian is not a strong religious principle or a rule that compels me to make hard and fast ethical decisions. She is a beautiful person who is teaching me to love the vulnerable, treasure the unlovely, and face fear with dignity and hope.”
Sarah saw the person Cerian was. Although Cerian did not live past her birth, never spoke to her parents, never went to school, and never had a job, Cerian was loved and valued. Sarah and her family recognized Cerian for the unique human being that she was and strove to love her every day they had with her.
What a difference it would make if we adopted Sarah’s approach as a culture. Rather than immediately offering abortion, what if doctors immediately offered to do everything to help both woman and baby. Rather than focusing on a condition, what if we affirmed the humanity and dignity of every pre-born child. What if we strove to love children like Cerian no matter how few their days, rather than tragically cutting that life short by abortion.