One week has passed since the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a physician at one of three clinics in the United States that provide late-term abortions. Now that the news cycle is winding to a close, I’ve noticed one bittersweet effect of the shooting that anti-choicers probably didn’t count on: the highlighting of the reality of late-term abortions, and the reasons why women get them. Dana McCourt at The Edge of the American West sums it up very well:

Only 1.1% [of abortions] are after more than 21 weeks. 21 weeks is about two weeks shy of the lower-end of viability. 21 weeks is still in the second trimester. We can safely assume that the number of abortions in the third trimester is even smaller, especially because abortion after 24 weeks is generally not permitted by law except in cases of danger to the health of the mother and the fetus.

Let’s have some more context. One commonly-cited reason for abortion past the first trimester is the presence of fetal abnormalities, including Down syndrome and other fetal abnormalities. These are usually detected on an ultrasound and confirmed via amniocentesis. Amniocentesis is somewhat risky, so it’s usually performed only if there’s a reason to suspect an abnormality. And the usual time to find an abnormality would be during the second trimester ultrasound, usually around 18-20 weeks, sometimes a bit earlier. It seems reasonable to conclude that many of the abortions performed post 21-weeks are due to the discovery of some sort of anomaly. Moreover, medicine can’t catch these abnormalities significantly sooner than they are discovered.

So, we’re well under 1%, and we haven’t even made it to the types of cases that would need the attention of someone like Tiller, who performed abortions after 24 weeks when there was a sufficient medical reason. (He turned women away sometimes.)

Women do not get abortions in the third trimester because we’re prone to changing our minds at the last second. Rather, almost all late-term abortions are obtained because serious illness or malformations render the fetus inviable. (The remaining few are performed because women who are unable to complete a pregnancy for non-medical reasons lack access to early abortion care.) We’re talking anencephaly. We’re talking cancer. We’re talking Tay-Sachs, Brittle Bone, conjoined twins, Trisomy 18. The factors that throw any casual notions of “choice” out the window.

Still not convinced? Take some individual stories from aheartbreakingchoice.com:

I had an amnio to confirm the problems and get some answers. The amnio showed us that we were expecting our first baby boy, but it also showed that the baby had Trisomy 18. His brain hadn’t formed correctly, he had scoliosis as well as spina bifida, he was missing bones, he had malformed fingers, a deformed stomach, club feet, and a whole list of other problems that would leave him completely helpless and in pain. The doctors told us that if he should survive past birth, he would need endless surgeries to be able to live. From the moment he was born, he would be in an operating room, and there was no guarantee that he would pull through.

I had always told my husband if anything like this were to happen, we would have to spare our child from pain. We chose to spare our child from a lifetime of suffering.

or:

It was a Tuesday when we finally met with the Director of OB and she informed us that our son was very sick, and although she offered fetal procedures to increase his chances of survival, she also informed us that PUV is often detected early in the pregnancy and most mothers choose to terminate because of the many, severe complications. But at 27 weeks gestation, termination was no longer an option in New York State.

The doctor mentioned a doctor in Kansas that, based upon this medical situation, could perform a late termination. The idea was so surreal- going to Kansas to terminate my son; he was supposed to be born to me and complete my family. After weeks of not knowing the prognosis, but gradually learning that this baby was so very sick, it didn’t take us very long to realize that traveling to Kansas to have this procedure done was saving our son from a brief life of respirators, dialysis, surgeries and pain.

or:

The technician came in, very upbeat. After getting some pictures of the baby she said that she was going to talk to the doctor because there were some things she just couldn’t find, but not to worry. Not to worry? That’s all we did for the next 15 minutes — we silently sat there, anxiously waiting to see what they were going to tell us. They came in and the doctor told us that they didn’t find any kidneys or bladder, that our baby didn’t have any amniotic fluid supporting it. My heart felt empty. We were to go the next morning to a specialist for a third ultrasound. I didn’t sleep the whole night, thinking about what the doctor had told us. We got to our appointment and they confirmed the same exact thing. Our baby never developed kidneys or a bladder. With no kidneys there is no amniotic fluid. They told us that our baby would not survive.

We were given the option to terminate the pregnancy or to go full term, but either way we would never bring our baby home. I went home that night and cried and cried. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to carry my baby full term so I could feel every last movement, hear every last heartbeat, But I also thought: no amniotic fluid, how was my baby going to move freely? All my baby could do is move her hands and feet. If I carried her to term, she would be even more deformed because she couldn’t move freely. We never even knew if she would make it to term in that situation.

I know I’m the thousandth blogger to post stories like these – but the more exposure they get, the better. (And in case we’ve got any trolls lurking, your own personal story of the baby you brought to term doesn’t justify forcing the women above to follow the same course of action you did – just as their stories don’t dictate what you have to do. That’s what “pro-choice” means.)

Now, what does Jewish law have to say about abortion? Let’s back up for a minute and consider the mother’s life and health (a factor that anyone but the most hardcore extremists would consider an obvious exception to abortion regulation – but, well, the hardcore extremists happen to be the ones controlling the national debate right now, as evidenced from the Supreme Court’s 2007 upholding of the ban on intact dilation and extraction). In “A Jewish View of Embryonic Stem Cell Research” from Righteous Indignation, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff points out that “during the first forty days of gestation, the fetus, according to the Talmud, is ‘as if it were simply water,’ and from the forty-first day until birth it is ‘like the thigh of its mother'” – meaning that it’s considered part of her body, not a separate entity. Since the body is on loan from God, an observant Jew is prohibited from injuring it without good cause – so non-medically necessary abortions are prohibited because they’re a form of self-injury (although I wonder if it’s still considered self-injury to extract something that’s like “water.”) However, if there’s a problem with the thigh and it’s threatening the health and life of the person it’s attached to, then that person is required by Jewish law to amputate it in order to preserve their life. Same thing with abortion.

In other words, the Talmud doesn’t have much patience for the martyrs that the right wing seems to love so much. (As I write this, I can’t help but think of the young anti-choicer, a former student of mine, who once told me that obviously pregnancy is risky, and if a woman’s life is in danger, well, it was her choice to get pregnant. The subtext was pretty blatant: not like women are worth much anyway.)

But what about pregnancies that aren’t threatening the mother’s health, but will result in a doomed fetus? The ones I cited above? The ones that Dr. Tiller treated in Kansas? I don’t have the Halakha on this one, but the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recently ruled that these abortions are also permitted under Jewish law. Remember that these types of abortions are generally a form of euthanasia. Of course, euthanasia is a whole other debate – but it’s important to remember the overlap between the two.

The closer I get to the possibility of having a child – and, as my husband and I near our thirties, it’s a possibility we’ve begun to bat around – the more closely this situation hits home, as it should for every prospective mother. Will I someday be faced with the news that motherhood isn’t going to happen after all? Because this happens to real women. This could happen to you. Will I be forced to book plane tickets for a procedure that could have been done at my local hospital? The thought is as terrifying as it is infuriating.

When this story fades into recent history, will this information fade with it? Will we still be fighting these same media battles in five or ten years?

And as Jews – religious, secular, or somewhere in between – isn’t it our duty to change this debate’s trajectory?