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As political debate over abortion rights intensifies, two local women talk about their decisions

Posted at 12:08 PM, May 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-22 19:35:15-04

In the first five months of 2019 the debate over a woman's right to have an abortion has heated up, sparking protests and public outrage on both sides of the debate as a handful of states have voted to enact stricter abortion laws.

On Tuesday, dozens of protests took place across the country against the so-called abortion bans.

And, over the weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted, "As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions -- Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother -- the same position taken by Ronald Reagan."

Despite the passage of recent bills with various levels of restrictions, right now, abortions are still legal. And every day, women throughout the United States are facing the choice of whether to terminate a pregnancy. For many, that choice starts with an ultrasound and though circumstances can be similar, decisions on what to do may not be.

For Maria Dunlap, she faced the decision at her 20-week ultrasound.

"It's a girl!" Dunlap said. "It was the most amazing moment and it was quickly coupled with, 'and there's something really significantly wrong with her heart. We're going to have to talk to the doctor."

For Chelsea McIntosh, it was at her 14-week ultrasound.

"I went in for that ultrasound I was told the baby likely had triploidy, which is a fatal genetic condition," McIntosh said. "It's when the baby has three copies of all of their chromosomes. So those pregnancies are miscarried early on."

But McIntosh didn't miscarry her baby.

Both women were faced with a decision.

McIntosh knew right away what her decision would be.

"I knew at that point, I wanted to terminate the pregnancy," she said.

Dunlap also knew right away what she would choose to do.

"For us, there was not a doubt in our mind, we don't believe that we are the givers or takers of life," Dunlap said. "That's not our job."

Every day in America, women are facing this same choice.

Their decisions are based on a variety of factors, including medical reasons for the mother or the baby, religious or financial reasons, and circumstantial reasons like rape and incest. But, as states across the country are continuing to put restrictions on access, the choice is again drawing a fierce debate.

Four states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia, have passed fetal heartbeat bills that prevent a woman from getting an abortion once the baby has a detectable heartbeat. Those bills set the timeline at six weeks from conception.

Similarly, Missouri has also passed a fetal heartbeat bill, setting the timeline at eight weeks from conception. And Alabama has passed the strictest law yet, making most abortions felonies for the doctors performing them.

The laws vary, with some allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest, while others do not. Some states have set time limits, including Arkansas and Utah, which allow abortions up to 18 weeks.

Meanwhile, states like New York and Vermont are working to implement laws to protect the right to an abortion.

For McIntosh, an Ohio native, the state's recent bill would have forced her to carry the baby to term.

"It's really the first time in my life that I've felt not at home here, because I was born and raised here," McIntosh said. "So it's kind of sad. It's really a loss of home. And a loss of comfort."

Her baby did have a heartbeat, and was past the six-week timeline now laid out in the Ohio bill. However, her pregnancy was not a viable one and put both baby and mother at risk.

"I was told that her lungs looked very underdeveloped and that they would continue to not develop," McIntosh said. "And that if she were born, she'd either be stillborn or suffocate to death in her first moments of life, which was not something that I was willing to do."

McIntosh herself faced preeclampsia -- a potentially dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure -- and cancer. She feared carrying the baby to term would jeopardize her health and ability to have children in the future. For the now 26-year-old, this was her and her husband's second pregnancy. The first ended in a miscarriage.

McIntosh spoke at a recent hearing in front of the Ohio government opposing the fetal heartbeat bill.

"I think a lot of people -- and I heard when I was speaking at the hearing -- that a lot of people would say, 'Well if the baby has a heartbeat, then 96 percent of the time, everything is going to go well,'" McIntosh said. "And what I would say is what about that other four percent of the time when everything doesn't go well? Because we were certainly that four percent. And in those situations, women's lives are at risk."

After deciding to have an abortion, McIntosh faced a lack of resources. Her doctor could not perform it, and insurance didn't cover it. She also faced the stigma of making such a decision.

Dunlap also faced some criticism. But for her, it was because she chose not to have an abortion.

"There were people from outside our close circle that made comments, like, 'Why would you put your child through that suffering?'" Dunlap said. "'What's the quality of life for this child?'"

Dunlap's baby girl was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which affects the development of the left side of the heart. It can be fatal, and Dunlap said the baby -- who Dunlap and her husband named Vivian -- faced numerous operations if she was born. After she was born, Vivian was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal defect which affects females. Dunlap said that's what ultimately killed her baby.

Vivian lived for 59 days at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Dunlap said Vivian's short life only solidified her stance on abortion, and on decision to carry the baby to term.

"I just cannot stress enough, Vivian, she changed my life," Dunlap said. "And some people can say it seems like for the worst, because you're burying your child, but I became who I was supposed to be because of her."

Dunlap said during Vivian's time at Cincinnati Children's, she and her husband were able to be fully present with the baby, while other families may not be able to. So, in the baby's honor, Dunlap started Vivian's Victory, a nonprofit that helps support families in similar situations. To date, the organization has helped more than 2,500 families. Dunlap also said one of Vivian's doctors told her they have been able to save at least nine other babies through the lessons and treatments they learned trying to help Vivian.

"The cost of one life... it was devastating," Dunlap said. "It was horrible for her to go through the things she did, but because she did, nine children are now alive."

Dunlap went on to become pregnant with five other children, one of whom she lost to a miscarriage. She is currently pregnant with their seventh.

The argument that every life is valuable -- from the moment of conception -- is one many who are against abortion stand by and are using to help push the recent string of bills across the country.

For Meg Wittman, the executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, the message stands.

"Abortion is the greatest human rights violation of our time," Wittman said. "We know that babies in the womb are children, and killing them is wrong. It's a massive human rights violation."

But Wittman believes public opinion is shifting in America.

"I think the landscape, and we can see in our country, the United States of America is becoming more pro-life," she said. Wittman said she hopes the string of stricter abortion laws will lead to a second look from the Supreme Court of the United States.

"Roe V. Wade is unsettled in our country," Wittman said. "It has been ever since it passed. And when the Supreme Court looks at cases that they should pick up, they consider a number of things. But, one of those things, the Supreme Court will look at cases that have national significance and they will also look at cases that will harmonize conflict within the country."

Roe V. Wade was passed back in 1973, and provides by a law a right to privacy to protect women who choose to have an abortion. Wittman, along with Right to Life, hopes the court will overturn the precedent, giving power back to the states. At that point, they hope the states are ready to implement anti-abortion laws.

But, for those who support a woman's right to have an abortion, the new laws are frightening.

"It is incredibly frustrating and scary and harmful to the patients who absolutely rely on Planned Parenthood to be there for care," said Kersha Deibel, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio. "So when you see abortion ban after abortion ban, whether you're here in Ohio or in Alabama, or Missouri, you know that the patients are on the line."

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have filed suit against Ohio's fetal heartbeat bill. Deibel said that law, along with others recently passed, will not stop women from seeking and needing abortions.

"No matter what, people are going to need and want to access abortion care," Deibel said. "And we want and need to make that safe and legal. If not, it absolutely creates situations for people to do self-induced abortions, which leads to potential death. It leads to more challenges and complications for women that we don't need to put them through."

She said the agency is prepared to take this to the Supreme Court if necessary. Deibel noted there has been an uptick in donations and volunteers because of the recent laws. At the end of the day, she calls this a restriction on healthcare.

"Abortion is healthcare," she said. "It should not be part of a political agenda, because abortion is healthcare and women and people in this country deserve access to basic reproductive healthcare."

Still, for those who have lived through it, the issue isn't just about laws and politics.

"Hearts need to be changed," Dunlap said. "It's not that there needs to be mandates on people of what they should and should not do."

"We can't have politicians making decisions that people who have gone to school for years to get their medical degrees, and people who have practiced for years to have this kind of expertise, we can't have politicians making those decisions," McIntosh said.

Both women, though they made very different decisions, said the issue needs honest and open discussion.

Where that discussion could lead is still up for debate.