By John Klar
When overconfident Democrats unveiled H.57, Vermont’s controversial abortion “rights” bill, it was touted as a preservation of women’s liberties. As shocked Vermonters complained that H.57 permitted third-trimester terminations of pregnancy, advocates of H.57 dismissed such concerns on the basis that these were mere histrionics by those who would cruelly impose their religious beliefs on women, and that such procedures were not performed in Vermont. VTDigger claimed that there was no evidence such procedures ever occurred, while criticizing a bishop for accurately claiming their legality.
But then it became evident that late-term procedures indeed are performed in Vermont. VTDigger quickly switched narratives: Now, abortions at any stage are a woman’s right to determine by conferring with her physician. In “The Deeper Dig: Who decides on reproductive rights?” (Feb. 22, 2019), authors Mike Dougherty and Xander Landen note that the H.57 debate “placed scrutiny on current practices around abortion care late in pregnancy. Democrats and medical providers stressed that third-trimester abortions are rare, and patients considering them are typically weighing major risk factors.” This is a huge departure from VTDigger’s earlier claims in its “fact-check” proclaiming essentially the opposite.
The real issue is not who decides on reproductive rights but who decides when a viable child merits social protection. VTDigger’s earlier reporting cited a recent CDC study containing a footnote which reports that 80 percent of late-term abortions are elective. This is completely contrary to the Feb. 22 claim that “patients considering them are typically weighing major risk factors.”
As sole authority, the authors quote University of Vermont Medical Center Dr. Ira Bernstein:
Bernstein says the hospital has strict practices for terminating pregnancies at various stages. After 23 weeks, any request for a procedure requires a ‘broader review’ by a panel that includes both medical staff and hospital ethicists. … Bernstein says that while the proposed law wouldn’t alter this decision-making process as it stands, he believes doctors, rather than lawmakers, should be establishing the limits.
Dr. Bernstein said the same thing last year when UVM Medical Center announced it was reversing longstanding policy by expanding services to provide elective abortion. But if an unborn child is viable, what right would the doctor-patient relationship with the mother afford the child? Put another way, at what point does there arise a doctor-patient relationship with the baby? Dr. Bernstein and others do not wish that question to be considered, and seek instead to focus our attention on “the doctor-patient considerations that [Dr. Bernstein] says get lost in abstract discussions about abortion policy.”
There is nothing abstract about a third-trimester, viable child being killed. There is no more physician-patient privacy right in such a thing than for a psychiatrist to justify a patient who brutally beats their 10-year-old. Morality is hardly the sole province of the physician. What gets lost in “abstractions” is the life and physical suffering of a late-term unborn baby, whose unacknowledged agony in a horrific death is dismissed abstractly as “cell tissue.” The good abortion doctor is evidently confused, for he has it reversed: a doctor’s ethical obligations to that viable fetus get deliberately lost in “abstract discussions about doctor-patient considerations.”
VTDigger’s “Deeper Dig” obfuscates yet further by employing as sole authority a physician at a hospital, thereby suggesting that these protections (a “panel” that includes “hospital ethicists”) are universal or widespread. They are neither. The vast majority of abortions in Vermont are performed in clinics, not hospitals — there are no panels. Also, “Vermont is one of only a very few states that allow abortions to be performed by non-physicians (physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurse mid-wives).” Of course, the statutes and regulatory oversight of non-physicians is more relaxed than for Dr. Bernstein.
The United States continues to suffer from a chronic shortage of physicians (like Dr. Bernstein) who are willing to perform abortions. This increases pressure to expand service provision by non-physicians, as Vermont has done for decades. These are all reasons to impose stricter oversight of elective third-trimester procedures, not insulate them yet further from proper regulatory authority. We must thank VTDigger, Dr. Bernstein, and H.57’s extremists for highlighting the regulatory deficiencies in current Vermont law.
Also unmentioned is that H.57 specifically prohibits any form of government intrusion into the medical provider’s decision to terminate a pregnancy at any stage. Will this provide practitioners with a legal foundation to resist insurers, hospitals or other private interests that might seek to restrict elective third-trimester abortions?
The most obvious problem with the facile argument that doctors and patients should decide when to kill without public scrutiny, is the least-common-denominator medical practice that will result. Just as anyone can find a physician prepared to offer a prescription for medicinal marijuana for “pain,” there will always be the physician willing to offer abortion services at that late stage for the “mental health” of the mother. What is being proposed is even more lax — that a woman can abort a late-term child with no limitation (i.e., for mental or physical health of the mother). But exterminating a child is easier legally than getting a medical marijuana card — and Medicaid provides full coverage in Vermont for abortions (but not for weed).
H.57 also ensures that those who kill unborn babies while in the womb — for instance, by physically assaulting a pregnant woman, or causing a woman to miscarry via a drunken collision — can never be criminally charged for that offense. Is that outcome also the sole province of doctor-patient confidentiality?
Clearly, H.57 supporters are fully aware that elective third-trimester abortions are currently permitted in Vermont, and they wish at all costs to ensure that the provision of those services expands with no limit. Forty-three states have banned this procedure for a reason. Russia and North Korea ban these procedures for a reason. For what reason does Vermont seek to enshrine them?
Roe v. Wade already protects a mother’s right to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester in the event of a threat to her health, and it is absurd to argue that that aspect of Roe is threatened. H.57 could simply affirm Roe’s protections of a woman’s rights during the third trimester, but it expands them to codify elective late-term procedures for any reason. Vermont’s H.57 zealots will not stand for any limitation of elective procedures, determined as they are to establish Vermont as the planet’s Mecca for late-term abortions.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.