You may have heard around the blogosphere that a few weeks ago, the Georgia Assembly introduced and debated a bill that would make it “illegal to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks even if the woman is known to be carrying a stillborn fetus or the baby is otherwise not expected to live to term,” or so says Adam Peck of ThinkProgress.org. Inserted in his story is a one-minute clip of Georgia Representative Terry England apparently comparing “women seeking abortions of stillborn fetuses to cows and pigs,” also according to Mr. Peck. The story circulated the Web and found its way over to Huffington Post, where blogger Soraya Chemaly was incensed enough to expand upon the bill and what it would mean for women’s rights. Her post, as of this writing, has over 5,500 comments and counting—it has certainly made quite the impression.
Unfortunately for these journalists’ readers, the instigation about the bill and about Mr. England, are completely incorrect, so now, thousands of citizens are misinformed about an important issue facing women in Georgia.
First, the bill. HB 954 is an attempt to amend the criminal laws related to abortion already on the books, specifically 16-12-141 (16-12-140 was just reworded a bit with the basic original meaning in tact, but in an ironic twist, “or she” was added after “he” when referring to physicians), and the Woman’s Right to Know (WRTK) Act. Currently, an abortion is legal if, after the first trimester, it is performed in a licensed medical facility by a licensed physician. After the second trimester, a “physician and two consulting physicians [must] certify that the abortion is necessary in their best clinical judgment to preserve the life or health of the woman.” (HB 954 would actually eliminate this three-physician requirement.) It is illegal to perform a partial birth abortion, wherein a physician delivers “a living human fetus before ending the life of the fetus and completing the delivery” unless deemed a medically necessary last-ditch effort to save the mother’s life.
The new bill asserts that after 20 weeks gestation, a fetus can experience pain, and Georgia has a “compelling state interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which . . . they are capable of feeling pain.” It would criminalize physicians who do not attempt to save a living fetus that is at 20 weeks gestation, to basically force doctors to turn abortions that kill into abortions that survive the child if possible. (They keyword being survive, and to survive, it is a necessary condition to be alive.)
In HB 954, as in the current law, to perform a criminal abortion, you have to violate section 141, but with an additional caveat: “No abortion is authorized or shall be performed in violation of subsection (a) of Code Section 31-9B-2.” 31-9B-2 is the HB 954′s proposed addition to the WRTK Act:
Except in the case of a medical emergency*, no abortion shall be performed or attempted to be performed unless the physician performing it has first made a determination of the probable gestational age of the unborn child or relied upon such a determination made by another physician.
Then, if the fetus is determined to be at at least 20 weeks gestation, the physician would have to terminate the pregnancy in a way that would provide “the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” with some exceptions:
. . . the physician shall terminate the pregnancy in the manner which . . . provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive unless . . . termination of the pregnancy in that manner would pose a greater risk either of the death of the pregnant woman or of the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman than would another available method. (–16-12-141(c)(2) [proposed]).
This addition expands upon what is already in 141(c)(2): “If the product of the abortion is capable of meaningful or sustained life, medical aid then available must be rendered.” “Meaningful” is struck in HB 954, effectively eliminating any and all concern for the quality of life of an unwanted, parentless baby.
In a nutshell, if the fetus can maybe live after 20 weeks, then the physician must take care to ensure its survival.
Mr. Peck’s irresponsible journalism has lead people to believe that any fetus at all, dead or alive, is basically untouchable after 20 weeks. Had he read the bill (and/or used common sense to see that the bill is about keeping alive things alive), he would have seen that HB 954 refers back to the current, on-the-books definition of “abortion” according to Georgia’s WRTK Act. In Georgia, an “abortion” is “the use or prescription of any instrument, medicine, drug, or any other substance or device with the intent to terminate the pregnancy of a female known to be pregnant.” Immediately following is the important part:
The term “abortion” shall not include the use or prescription of any instrument, medicine, drug, or any other substance or device . . . to remove a dead unborn child who died as the result of a spontaneous abortion.
“Abortion” cannot be used to refer to a doctor’s removing dead fetal tissue. Some have said that medically speaking, even this practice is considered an abortion. So why does the law say otherwise? Because it is legally safer for the woman and the doctor to have undergone and performed a “medical procedure” rather than a “legal abortion.” Strike out the word “abortion” completely, and there’s no room to scrutinize the practice. (But why would anyone, pro-life or not, scrutinize it anyway?) Because HB 954 does not redefine abortion to include removing a dead fetus, it would not force women to carry dead babies in their bodies until they are naturally expelled.
Next, Mr. England. The minute-or-so-long clip of him saying, “I’ve had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive. Delivering pigs, dead or alive. It breaks our hearts to see those animals not make it,” was taken from a three-hour floor debate on the bill. These three sentences are entirely supposed to indicate that “if a cow or pig can give birth to a dead baby, then a woman should too,” according to Mr. Peck. And if you interpreted the bill incorrectly to mean that women must carry around dead fetuses, then of course a farmer’s mention of seeing stillborn calves being expelled means that to him, women should go through the same ordeal.
What it actually was, you know, in context, was Mr. England’s attempt to indicate that he supports this bill because dead babies make him sad. He has never delivered a child and has no children of his own (and also, is not a woman), so cannot relate the bill directly to his own experience. But Mr. England grew up as a farmer, and will unsurprisingly use the language of farming and agriculture in his rhetoric, appropriate to the topic or not. It’s a “my best friend is black” argument at best, but it’s what he knows.
So what are we as card-carrying feminists to be angry about? Not that the bill would force women to carry an unborn fetus until it decides to expel itself, because it doesn’t, and not that Mr. England compared women to farm animals, because he didn’t, but that forcing a woman to wait until the gestational age of her fetus is determined, then possibly having her deliver a premature baby that will most likely die anyway, and increasing the opportunities for physicians to become criminals is outrageous. (The bill also requires physicians to send reports to the Department of Human Resources on if and how they determined the gestational age of the fetus, if and how they determined there was a medical emergency, if and how they determined that terminating the life of the fetus was a better option than surviving the fetus, and why they used the particular method of abortion they did, facing fines of $500 for every 30 days this report is late, followed by court sanctions for civil contempt, on top of the other reports on abortion they already have to submit). Mr. Peck was right to bring up the bill to the public, but he was wrong for failing to check the bills contents for himself. Ms. Chemaly was right to rant against the state of women’s reproductive rights in this country, but she was wrong to forgo fact-checking and simply believe what Mr. Peck wrote without doing some simple research, in turn causing thousands of people to be misinformed.
And why does flagrant disregard for the facts cause me to stay up way past my bed time to write a blog post maybe 20 people will read? Because among the 5,500+ comments in Ms. Chemaly’s post, only a handful of individuals pointed out her lack of fact-checking, and those individuals were called out as anti-woman, ignorant, liars, idiots, etc. Though Mr. Peck and Ms. Chemaly’s are right to be incensed about the bill and Mr. England’s support for it, all their followers have shifted the very serious philosophical and ethical debate over abortion—the right of a woman to control her body and what comes out of it versus the right of a fetus to grow into a person—to one of rhetoric (made-up rhetoric, at that) where those who do not fall into that trap and look at the facts instead are swung into the fringes and labeled as hysterics. Instead of looking at what is, the left, my side, is looking for what it wants. Ways to demonize the other side and to demonize anyone who does not do the same–because wild accusations and hyperbole are much easier to sling than thoughtful debate.
And maybe, this charade just points out that scores of people on either side of the debate are just as capable of believing anything that comes out of the news media they blindly follow, be it Fox News or ThinkProgress/HuffPo, as the other.
And I would like to think we’re better than that.
*”Medical emergency” would be changed from a condition that threatens the life of the mother, to that OR any condition that threatens the life of an unborn, still-living fetus.