Abortion ‘is never, ever a casual decision’
‘I thought the days of assassinating abortion providers were over,’ says Dr Shelley Sella, one of four remaining doctors in the US willing to terminate third-trimester pregnancies
Protest: demonstrators outside Southwestern Women’s Options, the clinic in Albuquerque where Dr Shelley Sella works. Photograph: Mark Holm/New York Times
After Tiller: Dr Shelley Sella, who features in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary
Although Dr Shelley Sella lives under the threat of death, she doesn’t consider herself brave and doesn’t fear for her safety. The courageous ones, she says, are the patients for whom she performs abortions, sometimes in the third trimester of pregnancy.
“It’s agonising what they go through. Every week they tell us their stories because we have the time to listen,” she says. “We have to respect women and trust they are capable of making these difficult decisions.”
Since the murder in Kansas of the abortion advocate Dr George Tiller, in 2009, four doctors in the US remain who conduct third-trimester abortions. These procedures account for less than 1 per cent of abortions in the US and less than 2 per cent in the UK.
Sella, who worked with Tiller, is one of the four. Southwestern Women’s Options, the clinic she works at in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is constantly surrounded by the hum of anti-abortion protesters, people she regards as terrorists.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” she says of Tiller’s murder. “I thought the days of assassinating abortion providers were over.” Sella, who has a 17-year-old son, lives with her wife in California on the alternate weeks when she is not in Albuquerque. Retreating to her California home is what makes her intense work manageable, she says.
With the campaign against her clinic heating up in recent weeks, her greatest fear is that the women she cares for would either be denied abortions or be too afraid to seek them out in the “climate of fear” created by anti-abortionists, she says. Individual states are adding further restrictions to abortion by the week, and only 15 continue to provide them under Medicaid.
A new US film in which Sella appears, After Tiller, explores the ethical and emotional challenges that women and doctors face.
Sella insists on using the term baby, rather than foetus, and doesn’t shy away from the tragedy of the situations she faces. She says it is desperation and a desire to do what is best for their babies that drives mothers to seek third-trimester abortions (which are defined as taking place at 25 weeks’ gestation and onwards in Albuquerque, and 24 weeks’ gestation in Britain).
The women Sella treats fall into two categories: those who discover foetal abnormalities; and those with healthy, viable babies whose maternal circumstances mean they could not cope with the baby. In 15 per cent of cases Sella’s clinic turns women down.
“Ever since the diagnosis of a foetal abnormality in a very wanted child, these women have been living in a special kind of hell,” says Sella. As abortion is “in the closet”, many women have not been informed of this choice by their doctors and have searched the internet for help in a “climate of fear” created by anti-abortion campaigners, she says.