By Chuck Donovan and Tara Sander Lee
In today’s America, political controversy rages over when—or whether—legal protections should begin for children in the womb. The arguments are intense, and tend to focus on milestone events in fetal development, like the onset of the child’s brainwaves, heartbeat, or capacity to feel pain. At the same time, however, developments in fetology and prenatal medicine are pressing strongly for recognition of the baby as a patient in his or her own right ever earlier in pregnancy.
The march of science has proceeded in a life-affirming direction. Indeed, medical progress has not only pushed viability earlier in pregnancy, but delivered critical life-saving aid to children in utero before viability. Occasionally, this dazzling truth breaks into the headlines when a celebrity undergoes one of the extraordinary procedures now available to save children before they are born.
Such was recently the case with Kourtney Kardashian and her husband Travis Barker of Blink-182 fame. Multiple outlets reported last month that the couple resorted to emergency fetal surgery to save the life of their unborn baby (yes, that was the term the press used). Kardashian wrote after the harrowing experience that she had gained “a whole new understanding and respect for mamas who have had to fight for their babies while pregnant.”
Children in utero are being saved in ever-more dramatic fashion from an array of conditions that would have gravely harmed or killed them in the past. The question is no longer whether the developing human being is a patient in his or her own right, but whether that patient will be treated with tender and advanced care when in need, or brutally discarded.
A great deal can be done to aid babies in danger and treat them like any other patient. Say parents discover their developing child has a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida, a condition where the spinal column fails to close and the spine is exposed in a sac that protrudes through the body wall. It is legal in most of the U.S. to kill children with this condition. If the parents want, however, they can have fetal surgery done at one of dozens of children’s hospitals nationwide. Ultra-skilled physicians make an incision to access the baby. They remove the exposed sac and repair the spinal defect layer by layer, then close up the uterus and abdomen.
A congenital heart defect—fatal if left untreated—can also be delicately corrected before birth. With surgical precision, balloon dilation can be used to widen a severely narrowed aortic valve opening in a baby’s tiny heart in order to improve blood flow. Early intervention increases the chance that the child’s heart is better developed at birth, and in no need of further intervention.
In another procedure, fetal surgeons were able to repair a rare fatal blood vessel disorder called a “vein of Galen malformation” that was causing severe abnormal blood flow in one baby’s brain. This child had a very high risk of heart failure, severe brain injury, and even death if the doctors had waited and performed standard treatment after birth. Using tiny particles like soft platinum coils as medical devices to close a blood vessel and reduce blood flow in the brain, the surgeons successfully restored normal brain function in the child before birth.
Given these miraculous advances, a natural question arises: why should only some children receive such emergency and potentially life-saving care, while others are targeted for killing through the violence of abortion? Surgical tools and medical devices do not discriminate based on a patient’s age, sex, or race. Nor do they work any less efficiently when used on human beings inside the womb. Treatment must not be discriminatory. Every patient, regardless of demographics, whether they are “wanted” by their parents, or enjoy the fame factor, must receive the same attention and care.
The extent of this transformation of prenatal care should be better known. Today across the U.S. there are more than 80 hospitals that have successfully aided the survival of babies born at 22 weeks gestation. There are nearly 1,600 maternal-fetal medicine subspecialists in the United States. Fetal surgery for twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome has been successfully performed as early as 15 weeks gestation. These procedures, and the tools to identify the underlying conditions and ameliorate them, did not exist at the time Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973.
Americans pride themselves on their compassion and fairness. We prize stories like Kardashian and Barker’s and identify with mamas who “fight for their babies.” We should not rest content with deadly discrimination against some of our most vulnerable children, especially when advancements in science have proven time and again that a child inside the womb is no different from those who are born—all are equal human beings worth saving.
Chuck Donovan is the President of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Tara Sander Lee, Ph.D., is Vice President and Director of Life Sciences at the Institute.