On Monday, Dina Zirlott, a young woman from Alabama who was raped at 17 and had a baby with a lethal abnormality, went on CNN to attack the Alabama abortion law. CNN’s Brooke Baldwin interviewed Zirlott, who looked extremely uncomfortable in sharing her story and forcefully attacked the new law. She never explicitly claimed that the new law would have prevented her from getting an abortion, but that claim was strongly implied. The new law would allow an abortion in her case, however.
Brooke Baldwin carried out the ghoulish interview, which focused on the rape, the horrific diagnosis of her daughter, and the tragic death, and concluded with a firm denunciation of Alabama lawmakers as unable “to receive reality” and willing “to leverage our lives and well-being in exchange for a red-meat vote.”
Zirlott began to describe the moments of her rape, and Baldwin took over. “You became impregnated with your rapist’s child, and before you even gave birth you found out your daughter would not live long in this world, and she didn’t,” Baldwin narrated.
The bereaved mother agreed with this summary. She added, “The doctor, within moments of having the ultrasound, the tech who was giving me the ultrasound, her face just fell. I knew immediately something wasn’t right.”
“And within moments of that we were back in the doctor’s office and she was explaining to us how Zoe has a condition called hydranencephaly, where the cerebrum fails to divide into two separate hemispheres and that area fills instead with cerebral spinal fluid while the cerebellum and brain stem remains intact and regulates just the most fundamental of physical function to keep you alive, your heartbeat, your respiration, but that this defect would eventually lead to several other complications with her health: diabetes insipidus, seizures, insomnia, the inability to regulate her temperature,” the bereaved mother recalled. “It was a constant process of trying to combat what was coming next and all the pre-existing things that were happening to her.”
This situation was indeed tragic, but the interview felt disturbingly wrong. CNN was parading this woman’s grief and pain in order to attack a pro-life law and suggest that the Alabama abortion law would make abortion off-limits in her case. Yet H.B. 314, the Human Life Protection Act, has a clear and well-reported exception for cases exactly like this one. The law allows abortion in three cases: where there is a serious health risk to the life of the mother; an ectopic pregnancy; or if the unborn child has a lethal anomaly.
In fact, the law does not define “abortion” as including these situations. “The term does not include a procedure or act to terminate the pregnancy of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy, nor does it include the procedure or act to terminate the pregnancy of a woman when the unborn child has a lethal anomaly,” H.B. 314 reads.
While the bill does not allow abortion in cases of rape, this lethal anomaly exception should apply to this woman. In a HuffPost article telling her story, Zirlott recalls that even after the hydranencephaly diagnosis, “the doctor tells me that in spite of this, I cannot receive an abortion that will prevent this pain — both hers and my own.” She claims to have not known about her pregnancy until she was eight months along, and “Alabama does not make exceptions for these cases at this stage of pregnancy, and going out of state is beyond my family’s means.”
She made an impassioned case for the right to have an abortion in her circumstances. In her interview, she quoted this paragraph verbatim:
I would have done anything ― anything at all ― to have prevented even one moment of Zoe’s relentless suffering. I have been told this is selfish. I have been called cruel. I have been called a monster. I have been called unthankful for not cherishing every moment with my child, as there are so many other parents who wish they had even a sliver of the time we shared. But explain to me how I am supposed to watch my child live in pain, unable to relate to the world around her, unable to feel joy or anger, or the mangled calamity of my love ― and be grateful for it.
Zirlott then began a tirade against Alabama’s lawmakers. “This is how we treat women where I live here in Alabama, where men who have … never once have been forced to endure my circumstances, and never once felt the residue of my violation eating away from within, still feel divinely compelled to appropriate my autonomy,” she declared. “I feel such anger and sadness at their limitedness, their inability to perceive reality, and their willingness to leverage our lives and well-being in exchange for a red-meat vote.”
She concluded the interview by promising that the women of Alabama are “gonna continue to speak out, continue to tell our stories, continue to demand our constitutional right to choice.”
"Within moments of having the ultrasound, the tech. … her face, just fell. I knew immediately something wasn't right."
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) May 20, 2019
Her hyperbolic attack on the Alabama legislators was not justified. The desire to protect unborn babies — who are genetically human and have heartbeats — is not evidence of an “inability to perceive reality,” but rather the opposite. Abortion, not pro-life activism, leverages lives in exchange for “choice.”
“CNN ran an incredibly ghoulish segment on abortion. Wow. Disgusting,” writer and speaker Erick Erickson tweeted.
Indeed, the segment was ghoulish. It seemed strangely diabolical or cruel to have this woman tell her harrowing tale on national television, in service of a political cause. The segment dwelt on the woman’s dark experience in order to further a political agenda.
Zirlott’s story has incredible power, but it is important to note that the Alabama law she so demonized actually has a crystal clear exemption for abortion in her exact circumstance. In fact, by the terms of this law, termination of her pregnancy after her daughter was diagnosed with this lethal abnormality would not even be considered “abortion.” That likely means this termination could be carried out even in the eighth month.
Under current law, abortion is restricted to the first two trimesters of pregnancy with rare exceptions. But according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, the only state that explicitly bans abortion in the case of lethal abnormality is Montana.
While Zirlott has a moving story, her moral authority to speak on the Alabama law is limited. She could claim that she should have the right to abort a child conceived in rape under any circumstance, but it seems her strongest argument involves the very lethal abnormality that justifies an abortion, according to this law.
CNN chose to have her on the show despite this mismatch, and the segment focused on the painful struggles she went through. Ghoulish indeed, and arguably deceptive.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.