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Baby Katherine and Late-Term Abortion

[Religion News Service, June 27, 1995] 

Baby Katherine has it lucky. She’s dying.

When she was born three months ago, problems suspected during pregnancy were confirmed. Katherine has Trisomy 18, a tripling of the eighteenth chromosome. Down Syndrome, in comparison, triples the twenty‑first. But, unlike Down Syndrome children, few Trisomy 18 babies grow up; those that make it to birth live about two more months. Katherine is racing to double that allotment.

Katherine is lucky. Her parents didn’t believe in abortion. “We’re that extra‑chromosome right wing that [Vice‑President] Gore referred to,” Nick jokes.

Half a continent away from her St. Louis home, Congress is considering legislation concerning other ways to handle babies with fetal abnormalities. At last week’s House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, a poster showed a living baby delivered feet‑first, up to her neck, with her head still lodged in her mother’s womb. The next frames depicted a procedure that a doctor described this way, in a paper to the National Abortion Federation: with a pair of “blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors…[the surgeon] carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the base of the spine…until he feels it contact the base of the skull…The surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull…he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening…The surgeon then removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents.”

There are still some Americans with the capacity to be horrified by this. Some were, instead, horrified that the procedure would be criticized. “Today we are going to make this procedure sound so ugly that…only doctors who are demons would do this,” said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D‑CO). She did not offer a description of the procedure that made it sound appealing. Schroeder also said that the hearings were part of an “effort to effectively deprive women of access to abortion.”

But restricting the gruesome “partial‑birth” procedure would not deprive anyone of access to abortion. There are other ways to end fetal life after the mid‑point of pregnancy, methods which would remain legal, although they are not much more attractive. Saline abortions instill a super‑salty solution into the uterus that poisons the baby; dilation and evacuation procedures essentially tear the child limb from limb.Year after year, about 15,000 abortions like these are done in this country, about 1% of the 1.5 million abortions done annually. Since alternate methods are available, restricting “partial-birth” procedures won’t change those shocking numbers.

Since diagnosis of fetal abnormality is often not made until the midpoint of pregnancy, disabled babies are frequent targets of late abortion. Katherine’s mom, Arla, felt some soft‑sell pressure from ultrasound specialists to take that path. Nick admits, “I used to think having a handicapped baby would be the worst thing in the world.” But the couple felt, simply, that abortion “would be murder.” Better to let a sick child die in her parents’ loving arms, than attack her with instruments or chemicals.

Any doubts Nick had were swept away in the delivery room. “I was hooked from the moment I saw her face,” he says. “When we brought her home from the hospital she weighed less than three pounds, and now she’s up to five.” She’s not “hooked up to machines,” except for a feed of pure oxygen. Because the syndrome dealt her a hole in the heart, Katherine must be kept calm, and her big sister Kristen can’t treat her to lively play. But she can be held and sung to, nuzzled and comforted.

“We would have missed so many little pleasures, like seeing her lick her lips after we touched them with a powdered‑sugar donut,” says Nick. “But she has also had a profound and life‑changing effect on us, our friends, our family, and our church. I like to say, ‘St. Katherine the Evangelist is doing her work.’ “

Late‑term abortions are usually justified as necessary to eliminate children, like Katherine, who would be born with birth defects. Even a grisly death is thought preferable to a damaged life.

Prenatal testing that enhances “search and destroy” capability is viewed as a public good. Some golden day, perhaps, we’ll have a uniformly handsome and clever society, and we won’t have to look at any disabled babies at all.

Nick looks at his daughter and she looks at him. “She knows her name,” he says. “When I say ‘Katherine’ in a deep voice, she looks around at me and gets this little smirk on her face. She purses her lips up.” Because she sleeps with one eye peeped open, brother Nickolas calls her “Little Winky.”

According to Rep. Schroeder, talk of legislation against partial‑birth abortions means that “this is a bad week for women.”

One little girl, who will never grow to be a woman, wasn’t having such a bad week. She gets to die in her home, in the midst of a loving family. Other babies aren’t so lucky.

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