At the age of 17, Dina Zirlott was raped by a
She learned her baby had hydranencephaly, a brain defect which meant it would be born blind, deaf, prone to seizures and with cognitive issues. The child would suffer from diabetes, hypothermia, insomnia and frequent infections.
Even though doctors said the condition was “not compatible with life”, Alabama’s laws meant Dina could not have an abortion. She had to give birth to her daughter, named Zoe Lily, and watch her suffer and struggle until the little girl died around 18 months later.
Now, she says, she believes her state’s new abortion bill – which means a near-total ban on terminations – will cause unbelievable suffering to pregnant women in Alabama. “Women will die,” she says, firmly.
The whole of the US may feel the knock-on effects of Alabama’s new bill. Anti-abortion campaigners have said they plan to go to the Supreme Court in a bid to get the original 1973 ruling that legalised abortion legal in the country overturned.
The especially worrying thing, says Dina, who is now married and has three daughters, is that there are no exceptions – even for the victims of rape or incest. Doctors who perform abortions face a prison sentence of up to 99 years; in comparison, first degree rape in Alabama carries a minimum sentence of ten years. (Dina’s attacker was never brought to justice as she was too traumatised to press charges.)
“This bill is draconian – a backwards step. I don’t want any woman to go through what I went through,” she states. “I want the men who have passed this bill to hear my story – all of it – and then look me in the eye and tell me they would have forced me to continue my pregnancy. I feel they should look all victims in the face and tell them that – and own it – if they are so proud of their stance.”
Due to an undiagnosed thyroid problem, Dina’s irregular menstrual cycle meant she didn’t suspect she was pregnant after the rape. As an athlete, she was very fit and didn’t have any outward signs, either. It was only when her mother learned about the rape and took her to be tested for STDs that the pregnancy was discovered.
“I did experience sickness but I was so mentally unwell it never occurred to me it could have been a product of the rape,” she recalls. “I remember my mum asking what options were available but there were none.”
Abortion would have been kinder
Dina had to watch Zoe go through ‘unimaginable suffering’ throughout her short life and believes an abortion would have been ‘a kindness’ to her little girl, allowing her to die while she was ‘warm and safe inside’.
“Just changing her nappy would cause her to have a seizure and a simple rash would cause a blood infection because her body was unable to fight,” she explains. “She was on so many medications she couldn’t sleep. She had to be wrapped in blankets even in summer. Watching your child go through that is hard, it’s an unimaginable kind of suffering she was going through. And it was a double trauma for me as a teenager still coming to terms with being raped.”
At almost 18 months old, Zoe’s little body finally gave up and she died in March 2007.
A time to protest
Dina, a stay-at-home mum, joined protests against the Alabama abortion ban last week. She is furious that a doctor could be punished for helping someone who found themselves in the situation she herself experienced.
“To think that a doctor could be jailed for helping a woman out of a situation is so unnecessarily cruel and cowardly and ignorant,” she says. “I’m truly disgusted by the fact they have not even given exceptions for rape and incest victims.”
Medical care could suffer
The West Alabama Clinic Defenders is a group of volunteers who escort women in and out of the state’s three remaining abortion clinics to help protect them from abuse, threats and even violence. The chairman, Helmi Henkin, believes the new bill will mean a decline in health care standards in Alabama, as practitioners will leave for places where their freedom is not in jeopardy.
“Doctors will leave Alabama – they won’t want to be prosecuted for doing something that is a necessary medical procedure,” she says. “This ban has been made by men who don’t understand medicine – it’s about control of women.”
What the law says
Abortion is legal across the US but may be restricted to varying degrees by individual states. Most will not allow termination after week 20 of a pregnancy unless the mother’s life is at risk. However, Ohio has recently passed a ‘heartbeat law’ which prohibits abortion once a foetal heartbeat is detected. This is usually around six weeks – often before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
This has now been adopted by other states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and North Dakota, which terms ranging from six to 12 weeks. An abortion will only be allowed later in pregnancy if the mother is at risk, and there is no exception for victims of rape or incest.
In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is legal before the 24th week of pregnancy. After that, it can only be carried out in exceptional circumstances, such as if the mother’s life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.