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Logic and the victim get lost in skirmish over abortion

Published May 18, 2003

I don't know about you, but the abortion wars have left me weary. I've covered the combatants for so long, I could write the sentences in my sleep.

Now comes the story of the 22-year-old Orlando woman, so mentally disabled she can hardly speak and who needs help doing the most mundane activities, like bathing and walking. She has cerebral palsy and is autistic. She's also somewhere between five and six months pregnant, the result of a rape at the state-licensed home where she lives. Her terrible case has made us look again at abortion.

When her plight became public this month - under circumstances that aren't clear - the armies of both sides lined up and turned on the rhetoric.

Was she going to carry the fetus to term? Was she going to abort it? How could a woman of such limitations decide? What was in the best interest of the fetus? If it were carried to term, what would happen to the baby?

There could be reasonable ways to handle this problem, but Jeb Bush had other ideas. The governor stuck his nose in the middle of things and asked that a guardian be named for the fetus - a direct challenge to state law, which holds a fetus is not a person and thus in no need of a guardian.

Bush's position puts him squarely, banners flying, in the front of the pro-life crusade. The idea that a fetus is a person is the fundamental platform of the anti-abortion campaign. And it's what makes this story national news.

The problem is, the story focuses on the wrong element, the needs of the fetus.

We aren't hearing a peep about the woman.

How did it come to be that this woman, in state care just about all her life, ended up in a place so poorly run that she was raped? Wasn't the state responsible?

She had no family. Once she turned 18 and was no longer in foster care, the state should have named a guardian for her. That never happened. Like everything else it touches, the Department of Children and Families screwed up this one. Yet you don't hear Bush asking why.

John Hall, executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens, complains that "we've lost the real story here."

The real story, he said, has to do with why the woman had no guardian. There are thousands of developmentally disabled people in her position, Hall said.

There are other questions involving this woman, and if there are answers, they are not short, clever and suitable for sound bites.

If a woman is so handicapped she is incapable of consenting to sex, is she capable of consenting to giving birth or having an abortion?

With the woman having been forced into sex, is the state now about to force her into giving birth?

And if she cannot speak or reason, how can she work with the guardian who is expected to be appointed for her by a judge?

Another hearing is set on the case for June 2, according to the ACLU, which is challenging the governor's action.

The woman is moving closer and closer to the limit, about six months, when abortions remain legal. After that, this struggle may be moot.

What follows is my own idea of what should happen, for what it's worth:

I assume that the guardian would err on caution's side and - barring grave medical complication to the mother or genetic problems revealed in the fetus by testing - let this pregnancy run its course.

A baby would be born, and with luck, adopted. A family would be made. The court fight over whether a fetus is a person would be avoided.

Best of all, Jeb Bush would be denied a chance to score political points at the expense of a woman whom he wants only to use.

Correction: In last Sunday's column, I said that the Alzheimer's center at USF already bore the name of the father of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd Jr. That is incorrect. No name has been formally agreed upon.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.

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