Later this month, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill that criminalizes abortion after 20 weeks. These account for 1.3 percent of all abortions.
The day I sped along state Highway 2 in a blizzard is etched into my mind. Snow was falling hard and oncoming trucks wavered dangerously across the median. Moments earlier I’d been skiing on my day off when I got a panicked call from the hospital: “Your twins are here. One baby looks really bad.” I skied to my car and hoped I would make it to the hospital safe and in time to prevent the worst.
I had met Lisa and Nick three months earlier because she was carrying identical twins. Like most, they shared one placenta. Less commonly, they also shared the same amniotic sac. Here’s the tricky reality: When babies are in the same sac, their umbilical cords get tangled up and that can cut off blood flow. And because these babies share blood vessels, if one baby dies, the other follows — quickly.
This is what Lisa and Nick were facing. Lisa was just past 20 weeks, too early for the babies to have a shot at surviving outside the womb. I met them in the ultrasound room. One of the babies was moving: a healthy, vigorous boy. The other baby was still, and his heart rate was decelerating rapidly. His distress was caused by the knot his umbilical cord had formed with his brother’s. We had little time before his heart would stop beating completely. When that happened, the resulting change in blood pressure would cause the healthy twin to pump all of his blood into his dying brother. I was powerless to save the sick baby. I admitted this to Lisa and Nick.
The next thing I told them was just as heartbreaking. There was a way to protect the healthy baby, but it was almost unthinkable. We would have to do surgery, insert a small straw into Lisa’s womb, close off the umbilical cord of the sick baby and cut through it. This would kill the sick baby immediately, but it would cut off the vascular connection between the two brothers. On the other hand, if we waited for nature to take its course, it would be too late to save the healthy boy.
Lisa and Nick understood the gravity of the decision. If they chose to forego the surgery, they would lose both babies. If they went ahead, they would save one baby but would end the other baby’s life. No one should face such a choice.
“Yes,” Lisa said quietly, after looking at Nick. “We want one baby to survive.” Once the decision was made, we rushed to the operating room, and I performed the surgery. Several months later, I delivered Lisa one healthy baby boy and the precious little boy I could not save.
Later this month, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill that criminalizes abortion after 20 weeks. These account for 1.3 percent of all abortions. The bill, which already passed in the House, allows exceptions only for the life of the mother, rape or incest. Under this law, I would face five years in prison for performing the surgery that saved a baby’s life. There is no mention of complex twin pregnancies like Lisa’s, or of fetal abnormalities that are incompatible with life, which make up the vast majority of terminations after 20 weeks.
As a fetal-therapy specialist, I have dedicated my career to treating babies with life-threatening conditions in the womb and to restoring hope where it seems lost. I have seen parents make impossibly difficult decisions with grief, grace and compassion. Yet this new law would ignore the complexity of pregnancy and the agonizing questions parents and their doctors must answer.
I challenge you to consider: What would you have decided?
However painful and no matter what your decision would be, this choice should remain only yours.