Nurses Describe Handling Aborted Babies

From The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 1976 Sept 1, 126(1) 83-90.

“You have to have a feticidal dose” of saline solution, said Dr. Kerenyi of Mt. Sinai in New York. “It’s almost a breach of contract not to. Otherwise, what are you going to do – hand her back a baby having done it questionable damage? …”

The scenario Kerenyi describes did in fact happen, in March 1978 in Cleveland. A young woman entered Mt. Sinai Hospital there for an abortion. The baby was born live and, after several weeks of intensive care at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, the child went home – with its mother.

The circumstances were so extraordinary that medical personnel broke the code of confidentiality and discussed the case with friends. Spokeswomen for the two hospitals confirmed the sequence of events. Mother and child returned to Rainbow for checkup when the child was 14 months old, the spokeswoman there said, and both were doing fine.

The mother could not be reached for comment. But a source familiar with the case remembered one detail: “The doctors had a very hard time making her realize she had a child. She kept saying, ‘But I had an abortion.'”

“These more common methods for abortion after the midpoint of pregnancy use the instillation of either saline solution or prostaglandin. In these procedures, some of the woman’s nurturing amniotic fluid is drawn out of the womb by an injection through her belly and is replaced with the abortion-inducing drug. (The amount of fluid in the womb is kept relatively constant to make sure the womb does not rupture.) The two instillation substances work in different ways. Saline solution poisons the fetus, probably though ingestion, though the process is not completely understood. Usually within six hours, the fetal heartbeat stops. At the same time, the saline induces labor, though supplemental doses of other labor-inducing drugs often are given to speed this effect.

Prostaglandin, on the other hand, is a distillate of the chemical substance that causes muscles to move. It is thought not to affect the fetus directly but instead is potent at inducing labor. Fetal death, if it does occur, is from prematurity and the trauma of passage through the birth canal…

And the high incidence of live births [with prostaglandin] (40 times more frequent than with saline, according to one study) also has lessened its popularity. But saline is not foolproof either in preventing live births.”

Describing how they deal with abortion live births in one hospital, an unnamed obstetrician had this to say:

“As the infant is lifted from the womb, said one obstetrician, “he is only sleeping, like his mother…You want to know how they kill him? They put a towel over his face so he can’t breathe. And by the time they get him to the lab, he is dead.”

Some nurses discussed experiences with living aborted babies:

“Nurses are the ones who bear the burden of handling the human-looking products of late abortions. And when an unintentional live birth occurs, they are the first to confront the waving of limbs and the gasping.

Reluctant to talk about their experiences, most of those interviewed for this article did not want their names to be published, and out of professional loyalty, they did not even want their hospitals to be named.

They spoke of being deeply troubled by what they have seen of late abortions in American hospitals.

Linda is a nurse in her late 50s in Southern California. Hurrying out of a patient’s room one day to dispose of the aborted “tissue,” as nurses were taught to think of it, she felt movement. Startled, she looked down, straight into the staring eyes of a live baby.

“It looked right at me,” she recalled. “This baby had real big eyes. It looked at you like it was saying. ‘Do something – do something.’ Those haunting eyes. Oh God, I still remember them.”

She rushed the five-pound infant to the nursing station. She took the heart rate – 80 to 100 beats a minute. She timed the respirations – three to four breaths a minute. She called the doctor.

“I called him because the baby was breathing,” Linda said. “It was pink. It had a heartbeat. The doctor told me the baby was not viable and to send it to the lab. I said, ‘But it’s breathing’ and he said, ‘It’s non-viable, it won’t be breathing long – send it to the lab.’ ”

She did not follow the order. Nor did she have resources at her command to provide any life-saving care. Two hours later the infant died, still at the nursing station, still without medical treatment. It died in a makeshift crib with one hot water bottle for warmth and an open tube of oxygen blowing near its head.

The nursing supervisor, Linda said, had refused to let her put the baby in the nursery, where there was equipment to assist premature babies in distress. “She said to follow the doctor’s orders and take it to the lab. I kept it with me at the station. We couldn’t do an awful lot for it.”

This happened eight years ago, in 1973, but Linda is still upset. “I stood by and watched that baby die without doing a thing,” she said. “I have guilt feelings to this day. I feel the baby might have lived had it been properly cared for.”

Jane, about 50, is the head floor nurse in an Ohio hospital. She and her fellow nurses successfully petitioned their hospital in 1978 to stop doing late abortions.

Twice before that, she witnessed live births after abortions. She recalls vividly the 16-year-old patient who phoned her mother after her abortion and and said in an agonized voice, “Ma, it’s out – but Ma, it’s alive.”

That happened in 1975. Jane still speaks of it bitterly, her eyes flashing anger. A year earlier Jane saw the second abortion live birth in her experience. “I was called by the patient’s roommate,” she recalled. “When I got there the baby’s head was sticking out and its little tongue was wiggling. Everybody felt they couldn’t do anything until they called the doctor. It was a little thing – it only lasted about 15 minutes. But it was alive, and we did nothing. And that was wrong.”

It rankles, too, that she was routinely forced to handle dead fetuses, the size and shape of well-formed premature babies.

“Because of my position,” she said, “I had to pick them up off the bed and put them in a bottle of formalin [a preservative fluid]. Sometimes you had to have a very large container. Our gynecologists seemed to have a very poor ability to estimate gestational age. Time and again they would say with a straight face, ‘This woman is 20 weeks pregnant’ when she was actually 26 weeks.”


22 to 24 week fetus
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