Recent scientific advances, popular opinion, and universal moral standards agree: abortion should not be allowed to stop a child’s beating heart.
In 1973, the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade established a standard of “viability” for the unborn child to determine when the state may have an interest in considering the welfare of the fetus with regard to regulating abortion. The Court ruled that states may only consider the potential wellbeing of the fetus at the point of “viability,” which they defined as the capacity to survive outside the womb. In 1973, the lower limit of fetal viability ex utero was at the beginning of the third trimester: twenty-eight weeks gestation. (A full-term pregnancy is approximately forty weeks.) Subsequently, thanks to advances in the care of preterm infants, fetal viability was pushed back to twenty-four weeks gestation, although recent studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Pediatrics for outcomes of preterm infants indicates that some babies can survive outside the womb at 22 weeks. Some pro-life proponents go further, arguing that “today it is possible to save a baby born after the twentieth week, and scientists are currently seeking to develop an artificial placenta that would make ten–week-old embryos ‘viable.’” Pro-life supporters advocate these findings as indicative of new standards of viability outside the womb. Modern science continues to evolve, and “viability,” both outside the womb and within the womb, has continued to change over the forty-four since Roe v. Wade.
The emerging field of fetal medicine permits doctors to diagnose fetal abnormalities and illnesses in the womb and to treat them in utero, increasing children’s chances of living and being born healthy. The principal surgical tool for surgery performed inside the womb is a fetoscope, a millimeters-thick laparoscope that includes a fiber-optic camera and channels through which instruments can be inserted. The fetoscope is inserted into the uterus through a small incision in the mother’s abdomen, and the camera transmits images to the doctors.
Fetal anemia, a condition in which the quantity of circulating red blood cells and hemoglobin in a fetus falls below normal levels, is one example of a condition that can be successfully treated within the womb, thus preventing the heart failure or brain damage that can otherwise result. An anemic fetus can be treated by transfusing blood through the mother’s abdominal wall into the umbilical cord. Another example is congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition in which the unborn child’s diaphragm has a hole in it. Without correction, the unborn child’s stomach, spleen, and intestines drift upward and prevent lung development, causing the baby to die shortly after birth. Thankfully, CDH can be corrected by inserting a tiny balloon through a fetus’s mouth and into his/her windpipe. Fetal surgical methods can also repair a condition called spina bifida, a malformed spinal cord, prior to birth.
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