March of Dimes
In Their Own Words

by Sharon Mahler
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Various pro-life groups have expressed displeasure with March of Dimes position on abortion. March of Dimes has generally replied that they cannot comprehend the objection, because they are neutral on abortion. Let's examine their own words on this subject. All of the material quoted here (except the ACOG/AGI letter) comes straight from their web site, http://www.marchofdimes.com.

Neutral, sort of

A good example of March of Dimes claims of neutrality can be found in their grant rules. Anyone who gets money to pay for medical research from March of Dimes must agree to these rules. They specifically mention abortion:

MOD policy states that abortion is not the solution to the problem of birth defects. The MOD has long maintained its neutrality on the issue of abortion. All grantees and contractors regardless of their personal opinions are prohibited from using MOD funds for abortion research, to pay for abortions, or to give directive advice concerning abortions. Fetal tissue research does not violate this policy if applicable federal regulations are adhered to. A non-directive referral for counseling, if requested by a patient in the course of prenatal care, does not violate this policy.
The more one studies this statement, the less clear it becomes. The first sentence seems to say that they are against abortion, but the very next sentence says that they are not against abortion. (Unless they mean that they are not opposed to abortion in general, but they are opposed to abortion in cases of birth defects. But that would mean that they think it is all right to abort healthy babies, but it is wrong to abort handicapped babies. Personally, I have a difficult enough time comprehending people who say that they believe abortion is generally unacceptable, but it is okay when the baby is handicapped. The morality of this position escapes me, but at least they could make a cold pragmatic case for "improving the gene pool" or some such. But the reverse? I can't make any sense of that at all.)

They go on to say that MOD money cannot be used to pay for abortions or abortion research, but that it can be used for fetal tissue research. Where do they think fetal tissue comes from, if not from aborted fetuses? Well, they're talking about money, so perhaps they mean that it's okay as long as the abortionist is not paid for his work: Performing abortions for money is bad, but performing abortions as a hobby is okay.

Their money cannot be used for counseling that "directs" a woman to have an abortion, but it can be used to refer a woman to someone else who will direct her to have an abortion.

Options and Choice

March of Dimes stated mission is to fight birth defects. One of their key ways of doing this is to encourage various genetic tests of children in the womb, such as amniocentesis. An article on their web site explains:

Amniocentesis is a common prenatal test in which a small sample of the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus is removed and examined. ... [A]mniocentesis often is used in the second trimester of pregnancy (usually 15 to 18 weeks after a womanís last menstrual period) to diagnose or, far more likely, rule out certain birth defects.

Okay, but what if birth defects are found? Can doctors do something to help the baby? The same article has a bold heading reading "Can Doctors Treat the Birth Defects Diagnosed by Amniocentesis?" The first sentence beneath it gives the answer:

Currently, physicians are able to diagnose many more birth defects than they are able to treat prenatally.
In other words, the answer is pretty much "no".

But they concede (again, in this same article) that amniocentesis can cause a miscarriage. They describe it as a "small risk", only about 1 miscarriage for every 200 done. There are also possible complications for the mother. So if an amniocentesis was done on every child conceived in America, which is about 4 to 5 million per year, that would result in over 20,000 babies killed and thousands of mothers injured in a search for birth defects that cannot be treated anyway. (Of course amniocentesis is not done on every child conceived -- I'm giving the extreme case.)

So why take this kind of risk? Ah, they explain:

If a fetus has a condition for which prenatal treatment is not yet possible ... [p]arents can discuss their options with genetic counselors as well as with their health care providers.
What "options" might those be? Perhaps I am lacking in imagination, but I can only think of two: 1. Allow the pregnancy to continue normally; or 2. Abort the handicapped baby. Of course if you didn't have the test to begin with, you would have done #1 by default. So (barring, perhaps, some special cases) the reason to have an amniocentesis is so that you can find out if your baby is "defective", and if he is, kill him before he is born.

Exactly what is their mission again?

The Federal government has a program called the "State Childrenís Health Insurance Program", SCHIP for short, that helps poor people with medical expenses for their children. In early 2002 government and health officials decided that it would be a good idea to use some surplus money that was left over in this program to pay for pre-natal care. Congress got bogged down in debate over details of proposed changes in the law, so the Department of Health and Human Services came up with a simple, quick solution: They proposed that they could work with the law as it was presently worded, and simply clarify the definition of "child" to specify that it included anyone "from conception to birth to age 19". (The law did not define exactly what a "child" is, and in such cases the government agencies responsible for carrying out the law are routinely expected to fill in such details. Getting rules changes through the burocracy can be difficult and time consuming, but nowhere near as difficult and time consuming as changing the law.) This definition would mean that babies in the womb would be covered by the program, and so pre-natal care would be covered.

March of Dimes opposed this new rule. They wrote a letter to DHHS stating their reasons. The letter included some technical objections expressing concern that the new rule did not go far enough. But by itself that would be an odd reason to oppose the rule. The rule increased the availability of pre-natal care to poor families. It did nothing to take away anything already available. No one said that this should be the end of the matter: the door was still open to further expansion. The whole purpose of the rule was to provide something now, while Congress worked on the details of long-term changes.

But before they even mentioned the "not far enough" problem, the very first reason thing they wrote in this letter (after an introduction making clear what rule they were referring to) was this: "March of Dimes would also like to associate itself with comments submitted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Alan Guttmacher Institute". And what were those comments? The ACOG/AGI letter gave just one reason for opposing the rule:

Administratively redefining "child" under SCHIP so as to make fetuses, rather than pregnant women, the programís beneficiaries, however, is the wrong approach, one that unnecessarily involves abortion politics by appearing to establish a precedent for granting legal personhood to fetuses.
In other words, they oppose a program that would provide pre-natal care to the children of poor women, because they are afraid that if we start talking about unborn children as people who are eligible for government assistance, this might somewhere, somehow, someday be used as a precedent to weaken the case for abortion. Real live poor women and children should be denied medical care for the sake of a vague philosophical point in a political debate.

March of Dimes explicitly "associated itself" with this reasoning.

(Note: Lest you suppose that perhaps MOD meant that they support some other statements in this letter, and not the part about abortion: That is the only argument given in the letter. There is nothing else that they might have been referring to.)

Summary

March of Dimes opposes abortion, except in cases where they don't oppose it. They refuse to pay for abortions, but they don't mind giving money to people who perform abortions. They don't want to be associated with someone who tells women to get abortions, but they don't mind being associated with someone who is associated with someone who tells women to get abortions.

March of Dimes opposes abortion as a solution to the problem of birth defects. They pursue this goal by encouraging families to have their unborn children tested for untreatable birth defects, so they can investigate their "options", such as abortion.

March of Dimes would rather deny medical care to poor children than risk the most subtle of threats to abortion. They have stated as clearly as one can that they are prepared to sacrifice the life and health of babies and mothers for the greater good of defending abortion.


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Posted 10 Apr 2003.

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