When she was pregnant with her second child, Jenni Lane of Ann Arbor, MI, was given a routine ultrasound at 18 weeks. Jenni, her husband, and their young daughter were delighted to learn they would be adding a baby boy to their family. But later that night, a phone call brought devastating news: the fetus Jenni was carrying suffered from a severe brain malformation.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Jenni visited specialists and genetic counselors to learn more about her son’s condition. When she learned that he was unlikely to even survive full-term, Jenni made the painful decision to terminate her wanted pregnancy, a decision she understandably describes as “incredibly difficult, and so deeply sad.” By the time her termination was scheduled, Jenni’s pregnancy was in the 21st week.
If Michigan’s extreme anti-abortion legislation — HB 5711, 5712, and 5713 — becomes law, women like Jenni will no longer be permitted to make such a decision. That’s because the legislation would outlaw all abortions after 20 weeks in Michigan, with no exception even for cases of severe fetal abnormality. Much like Danielle Deaver of Nebraska — where an identical ban on abortions after 20 weeks is already in place — Michigan women would be forced to continue pregnancies even in situations where there is no chance for the survival of a child, or to incur the cost and stress of travel to a state where abortions after 20 weeks remain legal.
As painful as the experience was, Jenni says that it “would have been much less bearable if the law had forced (her) to carry the doomed pregnancy to term.” In a letter to the House Committee on Health Policy, she stated:
I don’t like to think how I might have felt waiting to lose Robert, with people smiling at my pregnant body and holding doors open for me, while I grieved privately.
Experiences such as Jenni’s are sadly not uncommon; the vast majority of later abortions are performed for similar medical reasons, because so many serious conditions are impossible to detect until near or after the 20-week point. Far from being an exception to the rule, nearly all of the women affected by a ban on abortions after 20 weeks will be women just like Jenni, who are making the excruciating choice to end a wanted pregnancy in which the fetus cannot possibly survive.
Fortunately, after her loss, Jenni went on to have a healthy, normal pregnancy; her younger daughter celebrated her fifth birthday late last year. And she is grateful that her access to safe, quality, legal health care did not interfere with her ability to have a subsequent healthy pregnancy and delivery. But if HB 5711 passes into law, such safe, legal care in Michigan may soon be a thing of the past. In addition to its ban on all abortions after 20 weeks, the legislation would also impose a multitude of restrictions on providers and clinics, likely forcing many to close their doors, and placing safe abortion care out of reach in even the earliest stages of pregnancy.
Jenni was unable to attend the Michigan House committee meeting on HB 5711-13 Thursday morning, but many other women with similar stories did attend, only to be blocked from testifying. Republican lawmakers in Michigan don’t want people to hear stories like Jenni’s: stories that poke a gaping hole into their claim to be concerned about the best interest of women, stories that conflict with their desire to paint all abortion-seeking women as heartless and irresponsible. These are the stories that make it clear —even to those with mixed personal views on abortion — that this legislation simply goes too far, and stands to do nothing but create more heartbreak for women in already tragic situations.
In blocking testimony from women about their experiences, Michigan lawmakers have gone beyond simply ignoring the needs of real women, and are instead actively seeking to silence women’s voices. It is often said that male lawmakers don’t care about women’s health because they are not directly affected by such issues. But in light of such harsh legislation, that assessment seems far too generous. We need to recognize these attacks for what they are: a deliberate effort to undermine the well-being and lives of women.
In the evening following the House committee’s favorable recommendation of HB 5711-13, Jenni Lane offered these thoughts about our legislators’ shameful behavior:
“I feel so angry and so deeply sad that legislators supporting these bills are willfully ignoring stories like mine. It’s unconscionable, because women’s lives and health are at stake, and the expertise of medical providers is undermined and ignored. I have been tentative about that phrase that is used right now, the ‘war on women,’ because it sounds too much like polarizing rhetoric. But today, my own personal hurt and anger does make me feel attacked. When people in positions of power abuse it to implement policies that have devastating effects on other people, it’s aggressive and adversarial. But when these legislators simply will not hear from those who they disagree with, it feels ‘un-American,’ and fundamentally wrong.”
These legislators may be able to block women’s testimony at the capitol to protect their own agenda, but they cannot silence us completely. As long as women like Jenni are willing to speak out and bravely share their stories, we all have a responsibility to make certain those stories are heard. The people of Michigan are smart enough to realize that prolonging pregnancies that can only end tragically does not protect the interest of women or families. It is a practice that would protect only the interests of those in power. And that is not democracy in action.