Legislature effort to ban late-term abortions for fetal problems hits home for Dallas couple

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Legislature effort to ban late-term abortions for fetal problems hits home for Dallas couple

(Ron Baselice/Staff Photographer)

Nicole Stewart said the latest proposal on abortions was insulting to her family. “For someone else to dictate the terms of our grief … we both were devastated,” she said.

AUSTIN — The latest abortion debate in the Legislature has Dallas resident Nicole Stewart reliving the shock and grief that followed her pregnancy.

Stewart and her husband were excited to visit their doctor in 2013 to learn that the baby they were expecting was a boy. But they left with a grave prognosis: Routine skull measurements were troubling, and it appeared part of the baby’s brain never developed.

After more tests, visits to specialists and more consultations, the couple was told the baby they had affectionately nicknamed “Tutu” probably wouldn’t survive the pregnancy, and if he did, the chances of his living for more than a year were slim.

Stewart decided to end her 22-week pregnancy through abortion — a choice an East Texas lawmaker hopes to outlaw. He’s already won a House vote for his proposal to bar abortion for reasons of fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks, the legal cutoff established in major legislation in 2013, but the proposal was held up in a procedural fight.

Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said he believes babies with mortal defects should be born and made comfortable until they die naturally.

“This is about protecting babies with disabilities from late-term abortion,” Schaefer said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re healthy by our standards. … Your life is valuable to God, and we want to protect that life.”

Stewart said the proposal was insulting to her family.

“For someone else to dictate the terms of our grief … we both were devastated,” she said.

It’s the latest front in staunch conservatives’ efforts to eliminate as many abortions as possible in the state. In 2013, legislation to establish the 20-week limit and place new restrictions on clinics, doctors and abortion-causing drugs drew national attention to Texas, and several of those provisions are still the subject of court battles.

The fight is about a small number of procedures — 313 abortions were performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the state in 2013, according to provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. It’s unclear how many involved cases of fetal abnormality.

A test to detect genetic and chromosomal abnormalities is usually performed at about 15 or 16 weeks of pregnancy, but it isn’t a catchall, said Dr. Daniel Grossman, a practicing OB-GYN in California and a spokesman for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Physical malformations caused by different factors aren’t likely to be detected until 18 weeks or later, Grossman said. Once they’re discovered, many women like Stewart opt to get additional tests to confirm the prognosis.

Grossman said racing against the clock to get additional testing could put the woman and her doctor in a “very difficult situation.”

Schaefer, who supported the 20-week ban in 2013, said his vote was based in part on the idea that a fetus can feel pain at that point of development. Now, he says, even if the fetus suffers, it’s better to honor life than end it.

“Pain and suffering, living and dying is part of the human condition,” he said.

Stewart said that for her, protecting her son from pain was paramount.

“The decision that we made was not for us,” Stewart said. “It was about him. Every single day that I carried that child after knowing how unhealthy he was was heartbreaking for me.”

For 191/2 weeks of her pregnancy, everything was fine. The whole family was looking forward to welcoming a first child and grandchild.

But in the two weeks between the first sign of trouble to her final sonogram, Stewart said, the defects appeared dramatically worse.

“The child’s legs — like the thigh bones — had started to curve. The head had grown enormously in size. It was filled with fluid, and the baby was basically drowning in there,” she said.

Stewart said she felt at peace after the procedure “because he was at peace.”

Of the 14 states that ban abortion around 20 weeks of pregnancy, four, including Texas, have an exception for fetal anomalies, said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington-based abortion-rights organization. It’s defined in Texas statute as “a life-threatening physical condition that … is incompatible with life outside the womb.”

Schaefer’s bill has been stalled in a House committee. So, last month, he brought it up before the full House as an amendment to a bill to reauthorize the Department of State Health Services.

After an emotional debate, the House’s overwhelming GOP majority voted for the provision.

Democrats then threatened to derail the measure over an unrelated violation of House rules, so the bill’s author withdrew it for review.

Now it’s unclear whether the bill will get a vote in the House before a key deadline, but Schaefer said he’s ready to introduce the amendment again if it does.

Follow Brittney Martin on Twitter at @beedotmartin.

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