In the spring of 2016, Erika Christensen and her husband walked past a tall, wooden fence that obscured the Boulder office of Dr. Warren Hern from the street and into his waiting room.

Printed signs taped to bulletproof glass told her all electronic devices — even cellphones — were prohibited and asked her to tell someone on staff if she needed to leave for any reason. The only items she could carry through the door were a printed book, her identification card and a check for $10,000.

Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder Abortion ...
Dr. Warren Hern is pictured on Oct. 3.

Hern is one of a handful of doctors in the country who perform abortions later in pregnancy, and Christensen was at just about 32 weeks gestation when she walked through his front door carrying a son diagnosed with fatal complications.

Abortions late in pregnancy — especially those in the third trimester — are rare, expensive and politically charged. Forty-three states place some restrictions on abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, but Colorado isn’t one of them. Yet. Groups are gathering signatures to put a question to Colorado voters in November 2020 that would outlaw all abortions after 22 weeks except those to save the life of the mother.

Fetal abnormalities are just one reason for late-term abortions; about 30% of Hern’s patients listed at least one abnormality in the most recent data he published, and good national research isn’t available. But these abortions are the ones where the women couldn’t have made the decision earlier. Signs of trouble often don’t turn up until the standard 20-week ultrasound, and opponents of a 22-week ban say it would leave almost no time for second opinions, further tests and reflection.

Giuliana Day, co-sponsor of the Colorado initiative, said the decision not to provide an exception for fetal diagnoses was intentional. Doctors can be wrong and advances in medicine are continually improving outcomes.

“We have built a grassroots coalition of people with diverse interests and backgrounds who believe that abortion up to the date of birth is too extreme,” she wrote to The Denver Post in response to questions.

“Incompatible with life”

At 32 weeks, a healthy fetus weighs about 3.5 to 4 pounds. Organs are fully formed except for the lungs, and his or her skin is no longer transparent. Far from an amorphous ball of cells, the fetus looks like a newborn, complete with 10 tiny fingers and toes, and that makes many people deeply uncomfortable about abortion at that stage.

But Christensen’s son, whom she and her husband called Spartacus for his fighting spirit, hadn’t developed normally.

She had ultrasounds every other week, and each one revealed another problem. They had started out small and correctable — her son would have clubbed feet, the couple learned at 16 weeks. But the issues grew right alongside him and culminated in a devastating diagnosis from her high-risk obstetrician and geneticist around 31 weeks: Her son’s abnormalities meant he wasn’t viable. He was “incompatible with life,” her doctor told her.

“The growth had fallen off a cliff, and my fluid was very high because the baby wasn’t swallowing,” Christensen said. “It’s how a fetus practices breathing. No swallowing means no breathing.”



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