Opinion | Florida abortion law consequences shown in Baby Milo’s tragic story

Deborah Dorbert looks at a 12-week scan of her second child, made well before she found out there were complications with the pregnancy. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

Baby Milo’s grandfather thought he might have hiccups. Instead, the newborn was gasping for air. Born without kidneys, his lungs underdeveloped, Milo Evan Dorbert lived for all of 99 minutes. The cause of death was Potter syndrome, discovered at 23 weeks of pregnancy. The cause of unnecessary suffering, for Milo and his family, was a Florida law that doctors said prevented them from terminating the pregnancy, even though it was clear the condition would be fatal.

“To me it’s just pure torture,” said Peter Rogell, the baby’s grandfather. “The law has created torture.” I hope every lawmaker who voted for it, and the governor who signed it, reads, and is haunted by, The Post’s searing account, by Frances Stead Sellers, Thomas Simonetti and Maggie Penman.

The law’s advocates insist that they intended to create an exception to allow abortions in such cases: It requires that two doctors certify in writing that the fetus suffers from a “fatal fetal abnormality,” defined as “a terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of lifesaving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or imminently thereafter.”

“It was my intention not to require a woman to maintain a pregnancy when doctors agree the baby is not viable,” Kelli Stargel, a former Republican state senator who was one of the bill’s key sponsors, told The Post.

The short life of Baby Milo

That may have been her intention, but it’s almost inevitable as an outcome. Doctors who violate the law risk losing their licenses and face prison terms of up to five years. It may seem obvious that Milo’s case qualified for an exception. But lawyers are trained to avoid risks, not take them. And doctors do not want to — they shouldn’t be forced to — risk their livelihoods and freedom on the hope that prosecutors will be reasonable and the court system will sort things out. We might wish for more bravery, more willingness to put the best interests of patients ahead of doctors’ own personal and professional jeopardy, but that is asking an awful lot.

And so Milo’s parents, Deborah and Lee Dorbert, were informed by their doctors that the pregnancy could not be terminated — or, more precisely, that Lakeland Regional Health had determined, after having “legal/administration look at the new law and the way it’s written,” as Deborah was told in a text, that she needed to carry her doomed baby to term. An already devastating event was made all the more painful. A choice that should have been personal was dictated by government.

This is not the consequence of inartful drafting or bureaucratic cowardice. It is the predictable, and certain to be repeated, result of government interference with personal autonomy and medical judgment. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, we are witnessing this play out in state after state, tragic circumstance after tragic circumstance.

There was Amanda Zurawski, the Texas woman who almost died of sepsis after her water broke at 18 weeks. Doctors told her that she would lose the baby but that they could not perform an abortion because she wasn’t yet facing “a life-threatening physical condition,” as required by Texas law.

There was Madison Underwood, the Tennessee woman whose fetus was developing without a skull, then was told her abortion was canceled because — despite the risk of critical illness and death — the risks in the state were too high. “They’re just going to let me die?” she asked, before traveling hundreds of miles to Georgia, where abortion was still legal.

There was the 10-year-old Ohio girl who had to travel to Indiana to obtain an abortion because Ohio law contains no exception for pregnancy that results from rape or incest. A provision of Ohio law does allow abortion in the case of “medical emergency,” meaning “a condition that … so complicates the woman’s pregnancy as to necessitate the immediate performance of an abortion” to prevent death or “avoid a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” So the girl “did not have to leave Ohio for treatment,” insisted Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost — but again, it’s hard to imagine a doctor foolhardy enough to take that risk.

I believe that every woman should have the right to decide for herself whether to continue with a pregnancy — that the right does not and should not depend on the circumstances of how the pregnancy occurred, the health of the woman or the existence of fetal anomalies. So something in me resists focusing on these horror stories, no matter how terrible, for fear of obscuring the more fundamental point: This should be a personal choice, not one controlled by a government only benevolent enough to dispense the occasional exemption.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine a better illustration than Milo’s story of the cruel new world the Supreme Court has ushered in. As I read it, I wept — for him, for his grieving family and for a system that inflicts torture under the banner of morality.

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