January 20, 2017

Congressional panel studies ‘born alive’ problem that doctors call ‘medically inaccurate’

Laura Paskus

Southwest Womens Options

A year-long congressional investigation that opponents dismissed as “an end-to-end attack on fetal tissue donation and women’s health care” criticized two Albuquerque abortion providers.

Both the University of New Mexico and Southwestern Women’s Options, according to the congressional Select Panel on Infant Rights’ Final Report released earlier this month, lack protocols to “ensure the survival of infants who show signs of life following extraction from the uterus.”

Anti-abortion activists use the term “born alive” abortion to describe the scenario, which involves an infant that is alive after a botched medical abortion.

But there’s one big problem with this conclusion in the estimated $1.5 million investigation: ”born alive” abortions don’t actually occur, according to medical professionals.

In a written statement to NM Political Report, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) dismissed the term “born alive” as “medically inaccurate.”

“Ob-gyns don’t perform abortions if they determine the fetus is viable,” ACOG wrote, referring to a fetus’s ability to survive outside of the womb.

The congressional Select Panel convened last year after heavily edited online videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials talking about selling fetal tissue for profit went viral. Those videos inspired anti-abortion advocates to claim that abortion clinics across the country were engaging in fetal tissue sales.

Chaired by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, the Select Panel subpoenaed several universities and abortion clinics to investigate fetal tissue donation and research practices. Her targets included Southwestern Women’s Options and the University of New Mexico.

But the Select Panel also called for investigations into “born alive” abortions and  specifically targeted clinics that perform abortions on women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant.

Pregnancies typically last 38 to 40 weeks on average.

Southwestern Women’s Options is one of the few health clinics in the nation that provides abortions to women in the third trimester of pregnancy, which roughly begins on week 27 and lasts until the end of pregnancy. Because of this, the clinic is a high-profile target of opposition from anti-abortion advocates.

Women who obtain abortions at 21 or more weeks into their pregnancy amount to 1.3 percent of all abortions in the country, according to the most recent federal statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These types of abortions, according to ACOG, happen in “extreme cases where the life and health of the women is at risk or the fetus has severe birth defects that are incompatible with life.”

Still, the Select Panel report describes Southwestern Women’s Options as a clinic that “openly performs a large quantity of abortions into the third trimester.”

A spokeswoman for the clinic criticized the panel’s conclusions, saying that a lack of regulations for “born alive” abortions is not grounded in reality.

“The Majority Report’s assertion that Southwestern Women’s Options lacks procedures for ‘ensuring the survival’ of fetuses ‘showing signs of life’ following an abortion lacks any factual foundation and assumes that a state of safe, quality medical practice simply does not exist,” Heather Brewer, the Southwestern Women’s Options spokeswoman, said in a statement.

In a deposition for the Select Panel, excerpts of which are included in the final report, an unnamed doctor and UNM faculty member denied that such “born alive” scenarios happen at the university.

A report from the Democratic members of the Select Panel, which heavily criticized the panel for its “McCarthy-era tactics,” identifies the same unnamed doctor and administrator as denying that “born alive” scenarios happen 14 different times during the deposition.

‘Anti-abortion pornography’

Warren Hern, a Boulder-based doctor who performs abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy and was also compelled to provide documents by the Select Panel, took his criticism of the panel a step further. During their investigation, Blackburn sent a written request to Hern asking for all of his “communications and documents stating the policy and procedures at Boulder for infants born alive during an abortion.”

In his official written response to the Select Panel, Hern dismissed the “born alive” scenario as an “unfounded fantasy” amounting to “anti-abortion pornography.”

“My patients request my assistance in helping them terminate a pregnancy safely so that a live birth does not occur,” Hern’s letter states. “Your demand displays a total ignorance of the medical and surgical procedures that take place in my office and in other clinic or hospital-based abortion services.”

In an interview with NM Political Report, Hern called the “born alive” scenario “absurd” and damaging to abortion providers like himself.

“That’s the whole point of this exercise,” Hern said. “Their purpose is to use taxpayer money to smear abortion practitioners.”

Anti-abortion advocates often cite the infamous Kermit Gosnell case as an example of “born alive” abortions. Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor, was found guilty of murder in 2013 for the botched abortions that resulted in the deaths of three infants.

That same year, on behalf of two congressional committees, 38 attorneys general and 32 health departments across the nation investigated whether this was happening in their states. Only Pennsylvania, where the Gosnell incidents happened, reported back with evidence of such activity.

A federal law known as the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act currently gives legal protections to infants “born alive” after a botched abortion but allows medical professionals to continue making medical decisions on their own in such circumstances.

Bill would impose non-medical standards on doctors

A bill before the New Mexico Legislature intends to take this one step further.

In the proposed legislation, state Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, defines a “born alive” as any infant showing breathing, umbilical cord pulsation or movement of muscles.

Montoya doesn’t limit “born alive” definitions to aborted fetuses. He also includes infants born after cesarian sections and natural or induced labor to the “born alive” definition.

Under his bill, any doctor who fails to perform immediate emergency medical procedures to resuscitate such an infant could be found guilty of a first degree felony if the infant dies.

Failure to care for a “born alive” infant that doesn’t result in death subjects the doctor to a second degree felony.

Montoya, who didn’t respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment on this story before press time, tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar bill in 2015. In the past, Montoya said the legislation does not interfere with a woman’s right to seek an abortion.

“We’re not sure necessarily what’s taking place in particular in late-term abortions,” he told NM Political Report last February. “We’re just want to make sure that in New Mexico and in the United States, we don’t have anything that allows for a child being left to die without care.”

Medical professionals spoke against Montoya’s bill in public comments last year. Those included  an obstetrician-gynecologist who argued some pregnancies are so medically challenging that “no intervention” would “result in a healthy baby” and a nurse midwife who praised “evidence-based guidelines” as best for the situation.

These views are consistent with ACOG’s position on such legislation, which states “health care decisions should be made by a woman and her doctor, free from political interference.”

“Doctors are under ethical—and legal—obligation to provide appropriate care to both the woman and the infant in the case of a live birth,” ACOG said in a statement for this story.