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A 15-week abortion ban would have overlooked these Maine mothers' pregnancy complications

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Emilie Cole
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Jonathan Watling (from left), Dana Peirce and their son and daughter, Graham and Hartley. At 32 weeks, their unborn son, Cameron, was diagnosed with a rare bone disorder called lethal skeletal dysplasia. "I remember crying and then apologizing for crying," Peirce says.

Erin Wolf of Falmouth loves being a mom. She and her husband already had two boys when she found out she was expecting a third in 2016.

"Which was a very much wanted and planned for pregnancy," she says.

They decided to name him Dylan. Wolf was 35 and considered advanced maternal age, which meant she had extra testing to check for fetal anomalies. For the first four months, everything was fine. But at 17 weeks, some routine lab work came back abnormal.

After more testing, Wolf received a grim prognosis. Dylan had an open neural tube defect. It was a severe form of spina bifida. He had irreversible brain damage and would need multiple shunts put in his brain after he was born. He wouldn't be able to walk. His life would be spent in and out of hospitals.

"After soul searching, and really thinking about the quality of life that we wanted for our son, and for our other living children, we made what was really a heartbreaking decision," Wolf says. "And we elected to end my pregnancy."

By this time, Wolf was 18 and a half weeks pregnant. It was a decision that she couldn't have made any earlier.

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Erin Wolf

"I think what people need to know is that it's not like you wake up one day and decide that you don't want to be pregnant at 25 weeks," Wolf says. "The later term abortions are for medical reasons. For the health of the fetus, or for the health of the mother. It's just most women don't find out about these huge problems with their pregnancies until after 15 weeks."

Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, it has opened the door to more restrictions on abortion. Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has introduced a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks. Supporters see this as a reasonable restriction. But abortion rights advocates say it's a proposal that fails to take into account the issues that can arise later in pregnancy.

Dana Peirce of Yarmouth was 39 when she was pregnant with her second child. And, like Wolf, she had many tests. Genetic screenings. Ultrasounds. They all came back normal.

Then, at 32 weeks, she went in for a routine growth scan. She couldn't wait. She had already started a baby book for her son, named Cameron, and she wanted pictures. But as she glanced at the screen she noticed two numbers in the corner. They didn't match.

"His head was measuring about 36 weeks, and his limbs were measuring about 22 weeks," Peirce says.

Peirce knew something wasn't right. Shortly after the scan, the obstetrician delivered devastating news. Cameron had a rare bone disorder called lethal skeletal dysplasia.

"I remember crying and then apologizing for crying," Peirce says. "And she said something like, 'Oh, no, this is really bad. It never happens, but it is happening. And it is totally appropriate for you to be very upset.'"

If Cameron survived until birth, he would have difficulty breathing. He had a broken femur and several healed fractures.

"That was incredibly upsetting and horrible to know that he had essentially been normal at 20 weeks, and then for who knows how long breaking bones inside of me," Peirce says. "And I just was so horrified that he was broken and I hadn't known and he had been suffering this whole time."

Peirce didn't want Cameron to suffer any more. She wanted an abortion. But she was at 32 weeks, well beyond Maine's typical limit of 24 weeks, when a fetus is considered viable. Even so, Dr. Andrea Pelletier, the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, says viability is a gray zone and it depends on the conditions of each pregnancy.

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Dana Peirce with her son, Graham.

"You can't just pull up a website and say, 'Maine does abortions until a certain number of weeks,'" Pelletier says. "It gives us some flexibility in what we can offer patients, but it also does provide some restrictions."

But Peirce faced another hurdle. There were no providers in Maine trained to perform abortions past 24 weeks, when the procedure is more complex. In fact, there aren't many in the country.

At the time Peirce needed an abortion in 2019, she only had three options: a clinic in Colorado, New Mexico or Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Jonathan Watling, wanted to go to D.C. Her brother lived there, and she'd at least be near family. But she was told her case would have to be approved by an ethics review board before the clinic would perform the abortion.

"I was like, 'No," Peirce says.

Their next option was the clinic in Colorado. It would perform the abortion, but required an upfront payment of $25,000. Peirce says she had no choice.

After several agonizing days waiting and scrambling to get plane tickets, a hotel room, and care for their toddler daughter, Peirce and her husband flew 2,000 miles to Colorado for the appointment. The clinic warned them about what to do if they encountered protesters and felt unsafe. They were buzzed in through bulletproof glass doors.

"I was just really scared," Peirce says. "On top of this really sad diagnosis."

Peirce says after Cameron was euthanized, the clinic prepared her for labor, which was induced several days later. But due to clinic rules that are intended to prevent partner coercion, Peirce says her husband wasn't allowed to be with her during the delivery.

"That was so hard," she says. "When I delivered him, I just was crying and holding this poor nurse's hand. And it was so hard on (Jonathan)."

After Cameron was delivered, Peirce and her husband were able to hold him.

"We talked to him and told him that we loved him," Peirce says. "And obviously we wish things had been different. And we were sorry. Not for the abortion, but sorry that things didn't work out."

Peirce's story may not be typical, but Katrina Kimport, a medical sociologist at the University of California San Francisco, says other women have had similar experiences.

And these experiences illustrate how abortion laws that draw a line — including Roe — fail to account for those who find themselves on the other side of that line.

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Graham (left) and Hartley, Dana Peirce and Jonathan Watling's son and daughter.

"And they require those people to, on top of the trauma they have already experienced, have to go through numerous hoops in order to obtain the health care that they require," Kimport says.

She says it's impossible to create an abortion law that restricts the procedure but carves out exceptions for everything that can go wrong in pregnancy. And it's important to remember, Pelletier says, that many fetal anomalies aren't detected until after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

"And often, it's really heartbreaking, gut wrenching situations where it may be a very desired pregnancy that, that the patient and family just received a horrible diagnosis," Pelletier says. " And so a ban after 15 weeks would leave really no option for these patients and families."

As painful as Peirce's experience was, she says she was fortunate to have overcome the geographic and financial barriers. But she's angry about the challenges she and other women have had to endure, and about efforts to make it even harder to get an abortion.

"I mean it's just so unnecessary and causes so much additional suffering," Peirce says. "It just baffles me that people want to make this worse, or think that abortion is OK, but not in the last trimester."

Peirce doesn't think there should be any restrictions on when someone can choose an abortion. It's been nearly four years since she had hers. She did get pregnant again, and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. His name is Graham. He'll turn three in January.

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