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Joe Giblin for WORLD

Bittersweet success

Abortion | How one high-schooler despite tragedy and financial obstacles helped her local crisis pregnancy center save lives

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Liz LeClair, 17, was at a theater watching a movie when her parents placed an urgent call she didn't answer. Her dad sped to the theater, picked her up, and drove her to the hospital without telling her what was wrong as the fear that something had happened to her 1-year-old second cousin, Melina, began to clutch her. At the hospital, her mother broke the news that Melina had just died in a drowning accident at home.

The news stripped the joy from a recent victory. LeClair had just raised $7,000 to buy an ultrasound for a local pregnancy center in her hometown of Westerly, R.I.

LeClair's high school required her to write a paper and complete a project to graduate. She wrote about abortion-an issue that her mother, Barbara LeClair, said moved Liz as early as second grade, when she heard her classmates talking on the playground about "getting rid of" a baby.

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The first draft of the paper failed (one teacher said it was "nasty" and others called it one-sided), but her project mentors, two pro-life advocates, helped her work through the initial grammatical errors for a passing draft. The final version still describes abortion procedures in a bare and graphic way. At the end she wrote, "Women and the unborn are on the same side of this debate-the losing side."

She had to back up her words with a project supporting her paper. When she learned that a local pregnancy center-Mother of Life Center-needed $22,000 for an ultrasound machine, her mom suggested distributing some baby bottles as donation receptacles to raise funds for the purchase. But LeClair wanted to go further: a spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Knights of Columbus promised that if LeClair raised $11,000 it would match the rest.

Then LeClair met a businessman ruing his own failed intent to do something for the pro-life cause. His ambition was nagging him at a Saturday night Mass when the pastor announced that a teenage girl was in the vestibule, raising money to buy an ultrasound machine. He went to the vestibule of the church and told LeClair he would send a $5,000 check.

"I like to think of it as the spirit working and the Lord showing you a place where He needs you," said Jerry Swerdlick. "Not that lightning comes down and there's a big flash and all of a sudden you're thinking something. . . . I work in the sense that things like this come to me in various ways and then I address them."

In Mother of Life's Providence center, 24 of 25 abortion-minded women chose not to abort after seeing their unborn baby's image via ultrasound, according to Christina Capalbo, executive director of Mother of Life Center in Westerly. Nationwide surveys have found that 70 percent to 80 percent of abortion-minded women decide against the procedure after seeing their ultrasounds. Recognizing ultrasounds' role in reducing abortions, pro-life legislators in 12 states proposed bills this year that would offer or require ultrasounds before a woman has an abortion.

LeClair continued to visit church services and sell tickets, recruiting a Knight to help with the cooking and filling the 100-person Knights of Columbus hall full for two different seatings. Barbara LeClair said she was frankly surprised her daughter pulled the whole thing off.

LeClair raised $7,000-short of the $11,000 Knights of Columbus promised to match. Swerdlick heard she was short but waited for someone else to step up and make the difference. After time went by and she hadn't received another penny, he pledged to give whatever she needed to make $11,000. He called the day after Melina died.

"I'm not a patient man in general," said Swerdlick, "and I was less patient in this," considering that lives could be saved while the crisis pregnancy center waited.

Now the ultrasound machine is in, and the technician who will perform the ultrasounds is scheduled for training. The center is dedicating the machine to Melina.

"It's such a beautiful testimony to how precious life is, how fragile it is," said Capalbo at the center. "It was a very bittersweet time."

When babies begin to feel

New research suggests unborn babies are alert to their senses earlier than previously thought

Medical researchers are finding that unborn babies can taste, hear, and remember, at the very same age it's still legal to end their lives.

Researchers from the Maastricht University Medical Center and the University Medical Center St. Radboud in the Netherlands took 93 pregnant women with healthy unborn babies and applied a gentle one-second buzz to their bellies. An ultrasound gauged the babies' reaction-how they moved their eyes, mouths, and bodies. The researchers buzzed five times over the next eight weeks to learn about the babies' short-term and long-term memory. As researchers tracked the babies' movements, the babies 30 weeks old showed short-term memory, and their memory improved the older they became.

Other research has shown that unborn babies can recognize rhythms of speech and their mothers' voices, taste the food that passes through the placenta, respond to their mothers' prenatal emotions, and feel pain.

Paige Cunningham, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, noted that abortion is still legal at the age researchers are conducting this research. But in this case, researchers have to treat the fetus as they would any other human being.

In the United States, the law allows fetal research only for important medical knowledge that researchers can't obtain any other way. The risk to the fetus has to be minimal and it requires the mother's consent. When doctors perform surgery on an unborn baby, "It's clear within the guidelines that the doctor has a responsibility to two patients," Cunningham said.

There's an "interesting tension," said Cunningham, between the "extreme care" that researchers and doctors show for the fetus "and the callous attitude when the mother decides that she is no longer interested in being pregnant."

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