RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — After hearing emotionally wrenching testimony Thursday from a woman who terminated her high-risk pregnancy, a Senate committee narrowly rejected legislation that would have banned most abortions after the fetus reaches 20 weeks gestational age.
The move comes one day after the Virginia Senate passed legislation that would force pregnant women to have ultrasound images made of their fetuses before having an abortion.
Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg cited the much-debated ability of a fetus to feel pain as justification for banning abortion at that stage unless it is necessary to save the mother’s life or avert the serious risk of an irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.
But Tara Schleifer, 42, of Haymarket told the Education and Health Committee that any pain inflicted by her recent abortion undoubtedly paled in comparison to what her second child would have endured had he been brought into the world with myriad health issues: a heart defect requiring multiple open-heart surgeries, Down Syndrome and a bowel problem that would have required feeding through a tube.
“Learning that our baby would most likely die before he was a year old — and that being after multiple, traumatizing medical interventions — seemed inhumane,” Schleifer said, choking back tears in a crowded but hushed committee meeting room.
“To love your baby and have no way to convey that all of this pain and scary machines were intended to save him was unimaginable,” Schleifer said.
She was 17 weeks pregnant when she received the bad news, she said, and she took a few weeks to research the health issues and consider her options. She ultimately concluded that having the baby would not only subject him to more suffering, but would leave the family financially and emotionally bankrupt and unfairly detract from the parenting of 3-year-old son Isaac.
“Terminating was the last thing I wanted to do, even up until the last moment,” Schleifer said. “I was literally kicking and screaming in the hospital. But I thought of every person in the situation, including my baby, and realized the only ones I could save were the living.”
Schleifer said that without a few weeks to think about her decision — a fate that could befall other women if Obenshain’s bill became law — she would have been further traumatized by second-guessing.
“What if I had aborted in a rush and found out the tests were wrong? I would have been emotionally destroyed and living in perpetual grief,” she said.
“Each family has the right to follow their own conscience in making this most profoundly personal family decision,” she said. “There is no black and white, right and wrong decision. All of it is awful.”
Obenshain’s bill, she said, “is the ultimate in invasive government intrusion into a family’s life.”
The committee also heard from several activists on both sides of the abortion issue. The senators debated the science behind Obenshain’s premise that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks and whether the legislation is constitutional. But clearly Schleifer’s testimony carried the most weight.
“I don’t feel like I have the ability to make a decision as difficult as the one that young woman made,” said Republican Sen. Harry Blevins of Chesapeake, whose abstention resulted in the GOP-backed bill dying on a 7-7 party-line vote.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Blevins had voted for legislation requiring women seeking an abortion to first get an ultrasound — a measure that abortion-rights supporters say is intended to reduce access to the procedure. But he said he couldn’t vote for Obenshain’s bill after listening to Schleifer.
“I think she had a big impact,” he said.
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