Impact of Florida’s 15-week abortion ban
By: Michael Paluska | Posted at 12:29 PM, Mar 15, 2023 | and last updated 11:02 PM, Mar 15, 2023
TAMPA, Fla. — No matter your views or opinions on abortion, everyone reading this story can agree this young family’s pregnancy is heartbreaking.
Deborah Dorbert and her husband Lee tell ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska their baby was diagnosed with a fatal fetal abnormality called Potter syndrome.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s “a rare condition that affects the growth and function of a baby’s kidneys and other internal organs. There are several causes for this condition, but symptoms arise because of too little amniotic fluid in the uterus. This condition is life-threatening for the baby, and many infants have a short life expectancy.”
Some babies live a few minutes, others a few hours.
For this report, we sat down with all sides of the abortion debate. A former state senator who sponsored the 15-week abortion ban, a mom that decided not to have an abortion despite the odds her unborn son faced, and a registered nurse that specializes in high-risk obstetrics and runs the group Perinatal Comfort Care, along with Deborah and Lee Dorbert.
Paluska sat down with the Dorbert family in their Lakeland home a few weeks before Deborah’s planned induction.
The parents said they were excited to bring a sibling into the world for their 4-year-old son. Then, in August, they learned they were pregnant. Then came the confirmation ultrasound.
“I went in and had my ultrasound done, and they showed me the baby and heard the heartbeat and saw my OB, and everything was great,” Deborah Dorbert said.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Dorbert went for her anatomy scan. This was at the 23-week mark.
“The technician was there, and my son could see on the monitor the baby and she was calling out his head, and my son was calling out the feet and the hands,” Dobert said. “And then she looked at me and started asking me questions saying that my amniotic fluid was low, and she asked if I was leaking fluids.”
The tech went to get the doctor, and Dorbert knew something was wrong.
“I remember asking her, ‘is my baby gonna live?’ She said ‘not without a kidney transplant,'” Dorbert said.
After talking to her husband and getting a second opinion confirming Potter Syndrome, Deborah Dorbert said they decided to terminate the pregnancy because of the emotional and physical trauma.
“Just trying to plan a beautiful birth, but also planning a funeral for my child at the same time,” Deborah Dorbert said. “They say (baby will survive) 20 minutes to a few hours at tops because the lungs are underdeveloped and the baby just never learned how to breathe in the womb.”
“Did you even have an opinion on abortion before this happened to you?” Paluska asked.
“I always thought it should be left up to the mother’s choice and her doctors,” Deborah Dorbert said.
Dorbert said her doctors are part of Lakeland Regional Health. We reached out to them for comment. ABC Action News received this statement:
“Lakeland Regional Health and its physicians honor the privacy and health of each patient. As an organization, Lakeland Regional Health upholds the responsibility to care for each individual patient while abiding with all local, state, and federal laws,” Timothy Boynton, Senior Vice President of Development, Chief Public Relations and Communications Officer at Lakeland Regional Health, said via email.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
We sat down with former State Senator Kelli Stargel. She sponsored HB5, Florida’s 15-week abortion ban.
“I feel have the law as written is very clear that if that a baby is not viable, if it’s not at the stage of development where it can live outside the womb, and clearly, from everything I’ve read, this baby is not viable,” Stargel said. “And so both of those exemptions were in the bill for such a time as what I think we’re dealing with, with Deborah Dorbert. It just breaks my heart to hear what she’s having to go through.”
“So you feel like this mom should have been able to terminate, not suffer, and carry that baby to term?” Paluska asked.
“Yes. I do. I absolutely do. And that’s why we put this exception into the bill,” Stargel responded.
According to the exemption:
The bill also adds a new exception to the 15-week provision that applies if two physicians certify in writing that the fetus has a fatal fetal abnormality and has not reached viability. The bill defines “fatal fetal abnormality” as a terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or imminently thereafter.
There are no exemptions for victims of rape or incest.
“Do you think that there needs to be something rewritten in the law? Or do you just feel as though these hospital chains or this one in particular just interpreted it their way because they’re fearful of retribution from the state?” Paluska asked.
“It’s well written. It’s unfortunate that the hospital and the doctors are interpreting it the way that they are. Because I think it’s very clear,” Stargel responded.
“A lot of people are going to point fingers; people are going to point fingers at the hospital and say, you know, well, they just misinterpreted it. People are going to point fingers and say, well, this law has a chilling effect that’s impacting all of these mothers across the state. How do you find that common ground?” Paluska asked.
“I think a lot of the problem when you have a new law, and one that’s been controversial, I think a lot of people will use that controversy to their advantage one way or the other,” Stargel responded.
“Does that bother you that people are scared to do what the law says? I mean, why is the law there if people are going to look at it and just be scared of our politicians?” Paluska said.
“Well, that’s nothing new. You see that all the time, where we will pass a law and wherever the law is, whether it be business, whether it be a medical community, they draw the line, the city, they draw the line way back here, instead of just following the law,” Stargel explained.
Deborah Dorbert’s family doctor told Paluska the law is too vague.
“Do I think this law was written intentionally to punish this woman? Of course not,” Dr. David Berger said. “But you know, when legislators start putting words on a piece of paper, and then it gets signed by a governor, it is what it is. This is a perfect example of someone not having the foresight, not consulting with medical staff that could have potentially say, hey, you know, what, ‘there’s a situation where a woman could end up having a fatal position after 15 weeks.’ So she had to also go through unnecessary suffering, not just mentally, but physically, because of this law,” Dr. Berger said.
“Do you think when people see her story, legislators in particular, that they will have some compassion and go back to the table and look at this law?” Paluska asked.
“I’m never going to speak for how somebody else would be. One could question whether there was, you know, obviously, was the compassion there in the first place to actually create these types of laws?” Dr. Berger said. “But, you would hope so, but let’s face it, there’s lots of things that legislators have done and not reversed, even though they could have. I don’t have tremendous faith in the system, but anything that we could do to potentially make it better would be great.”
Stargel said legislators could go back and look at the law; whether they will is anyone’s guess.
“I’m not saying it was the perfect bill; no bill is the perfect bill. But if there is some suggestive constructive criticisms or ways that it can be written better, keeping the same intent, I’m sure the legislature would look at that,” Stargel said.
LIFE AFTER LOSS
The loss of a child is something no parent should ever experience. Sadly, it happens. We sat down with another mom whose son was diagnosed with a fatal fetal abnormality. At first, Cristelle Suarez planned to terminate.
“Oliver Felix Suarez, October 25, 2012. So already 10 years,” Suarez said.
Suarez told Paluska she’s been pregnant six times and is grateful out of those; she gave birth to two healthy girls. The pain of losing her son Oliver continues to impact her daily life. Pictures hang next to her other children, and she talks about him daily with her girls. Oliver was stillborn. Suarez remembers the moment she first held him in her arms.
“I’ve said this before, and somebody else has said it to me. It’s the most beautiful experience I would not wish on anybody,” Suarez said. “The day he was born changed who I was forever.”
They celebrate Oliver’s birthday each year and pick a different fundraiser in his honor. Suarez said they’ve raised enough for two cuddle cots, donations for foster homes, children’s hospitals, and a Catholic Charity called Perinatal Comfort Care. The nonprofit educates moms and helps them through similar pregnancies.
“My promise to Oliver when I had him was that he will not be forgotten. So that was a promise I tried to make true every day,” Suarez said.
When Suarez decided to terminate, she was contacted by Kathy DeSanto, who runs Perinatal Comfort Care. DeSanto convinced Suarez to carry her “baby to natural death.”
Despite her decision to carry to term, Suarez said she still feels it’s a family’s choice.
“What do you think when you hear that this mom has to do something that she didn’t want to do? This isn’t her choice,” Paluska said.
“I don’t think it’s fair. As a mom or as a parent, you should be able to make choices for your child. Because ultimately, you should know what’s best for you and your child and your family,” Suarez said. “I don’t think it’s fair that she’s not even being given a choice. I hope she has access to support and people in her corner to help her through this time. It’s not easy. Either terminating or miscarrying or anything involved with pregnancy and a child, whether you bring that baby home, or give it up for adoption, and do whatever your choice is, none of it’s easy.”
Paluska asked what Suarez thinks her story represents to other women.
“I think I represent being in control of your choices in your own life. When I got the diagnosis, and they said, you know, he wasn’t going to make it very long, I was like, no brainer, we’ll do the medical termination. And we’ll try to get pregnant again. And it’ll be fine. I’m young; it’s, you know, we’ll do that. And then Kathy called me like you said, and I was like, ‘I already made my decision. It’s okay.’ And she was like, ‘okay, well, I’m here if you want to change that decision.’ She didn’t push me in either direction. She was supportive either way,” Suarez said.
“I think it would have been really hard if I would have somebody else telling you that I can’t. I think that just changes the game immediately. Like you’re going through a situation. It’s like; actually, you have no options. And you’re like, wait, what, I can’t make any decision either way, like, so then I think at that point, you’re just angry, and you’re hurt. And you’re just upset, and you don’t understand; you’re confused.”
DeSanto is anti-abortion. Her faith and belief carry her convictions to save every child. We asked DeSanto about Deborah Dorbert’s concerns about telling her 4-year-old son that her sibling won’t be coming home and if she had the right to decide to end the pregnancy.
“I don’t believe it is the right decision because I believe that if she wants to terminate, her son would never know that he was, he had a brother or a sister. It would be over and done with, and they would probably move on and never speak about this pregnancy that she wanted and that her son would not know that he had another sibling,” DeSanto said. “It’s a painful journey. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve cried with people, parents, grandparents, siblings. It’s a terrible, horrible journey. But it’s a journey that can happen, and there could be good to come out of it. Because every baby should be honored, every baby should have the dignity to be able to be comforted in the loving arms of their parents.”
DeSanto is also a registered nurse and grief counselor. DeSanto said she’s delivered more than 150 babies diagnosed with fatal fetal abnormalities.
“What is it like when a baby with Potter syndrome is delivered?” Paluska asked.
“Those babies are absolutely beautiful. They are born looking very peaceful, very beautiful. And they just, they breathe a little, they sometimes they just sigh a little bit. They don’t look like they’re suffering at all. When you hold them, they don’t look like they’re suffering. They live for maybe an hour, sometimes 20 minutes, and then they just take a deep breath. And then they stop breathing. And then they just look very angelic, very beautiful,” DeSanto said.
DeSanto wanted to stress that she supports mothers; whether they carry to term or decide to terminate, she does not pass judgment. Her main goal is to educate and be there for anyone who might want her help.
“I have 45 years experience as a nurse in labor and delivery and high-risk obstetrics,” DeSanto said. “We don’t like to say incompatible with life because it is still a life within the mother. And we don’t know how long this life is going to be. So I like to walk a journey with them of how long they have this baby with them. Yes, of course, being pro-life, I would like the mom to carry to natural death. But that being said, I also like the mom to be educated and know the resources that are out there to help her because these parents, it is so devastating that this is a wanted baby. And it’s so devastating when they get a diagnosis; they don’t know where to turn. And so they’re scared; they feel abandoned. And they not only know to terminate so that they can start over with another child and not honoring the child that they have right now and not realizing that they can walk a journey.”
A MOM OPENS UP ABOUT HER ABORTION
“I was able to get my abortion a mile from my home,” Leah, a mom of three kids, told Paluska. Leah asked we not use her last name to protect her family from reprisal.
“You want to tell your story. But there is a legitimate fear about just putting yourself out there to talk about because you did have an abortion,” Leah said. “With this topic, people are so polarizing. And although I feel very strongly that I made the right choice for me, I made a legal choice. There are people out there that would call me a murderer.”
At 12 weeks, Leah learned her baby had Anencephaly, “a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The prognosis for babies with Anencephaly is grim, “there is no known cure or standard treatment for anencephaly. Almost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth,” according to the CDC.
“I was able to get an abortion. And two months later, I got pregnant with my son. So I have a family because of my abortion; if I had been forced to carry to term a pregnancy, losing a child, I don’t know what that would have done to my mental health, to my physical health, if I would have been able to be a mother after that,” Leah said. “The thought of having to go through that it’s a very specific, very unnecessary trauma that we’re forcing pregnant people to grapple with right now is completely medically unnecessary.”
Leah now volunteers at Planned Parenthood to help other moms.
“I have zero guilt. I have zero regrets. I am nothing but grateful to the choices that I had. And I never wavered in knowing that they were the right choice for me and for my family,” Leah said. “I don’t. I don’t think politicians care. I think this is about control over people’s bodies. I think that exceptions in abortion bans are a PR stunt. I don’t think they are reality. I think that they put them in there, and then doctors are afraid to utilize them.”
No matter anyone’s opinion or position on abortion, the Dorberts told Paluska there is one thing no one in the room the day she delivers will be in control of but them.
“If there’s anything me and my husband had focused on and when it was born, is that it’s loved. It will know love when it passes and that’s, you know, all we want it to know is love. It won’t know anything else. But love. That’s what we can hope for and give it,” Deborah Dorbert said.