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‘Dead Fetus’ Story Coverage Co-opts Language of Anti-Abortion Movement

After a second-term fetus was found on an airplane in New York, coverage has focused on its “age” and features — playing into the hands of the anti-abortion movement

Operations proceed outside the American Airlines facilitie at LaGuardia Airport, in New YorkAmerican Airlines, New York, USA - 12 Mar 2018

A fetus was found in the bathroom of an American Airlines jet that had landed at LaGuardia Airport.

John Minchillo/AP/REX Shutterstock

On Tuesday, an American Airlines cleaning crew at LaGuardia Airport in New York City made what was undoubtedly an unpleasant discovery while cleaning a passenger jet that had flown in the night before from Charlotte, North Carolina: a “wrapped up” “dead fetus” in the toilet of one of the aircraft’s lavatories.

“One of the attendants noticed a large amount of toilet paper in one of the plane’s lavatory toilets,” described a CBS affiliate in Raleigh. “While removing the toilet paper, the cleaner discovered the foot of what appeared to be a fetus, in the toilet.”

According to reports, the cleaning crew contacted their manager, who contacted law enforcement, who contacted the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. And along the way, someone alerted the media, which apparently only needed to hear the words “dead fetus,” “foot” and “toilet” to declare this a breaking news story.

“The airline declined to say whether any of the passengers booked a so-called infant-in-arms ticket, to travel with a baby, or had given birth on the plane, or provide further detail,” CNBC wrote, somehow having concluded that the “fetus” was, at minimum, full-term.

“As we continue to learn more about this tragic and sensitive situation, we are actively cooperating with law enforcement in their investigation,” American Airlines said in a statement.

“Part of that cooperation is turning over video recordings from the plane to determine who might have been in the restroom before passengers left Monday night,” reported the Charlotte Observer.

Altogether, the tenor of the media coverage seemed to imply that authorities were investigating a possible crime. That tone persisted even as WNBC in New York, citing anonymous sources, reported that a preliminary assessment of the “grisly discovery” estimated the dead fetus to be “about 5 to 6 months old.”

If accurate, the fetus was in the second trimester of gestation, to use the preferred terminology of OB-GYNs, pregnancy experts and reproductive health advocates. (Assigning an “age” to a fetus of undetermined viability outside the womb is an example of how anti-abortionists have hijacked the language of pregnancy.) This detail, and the circumstances in which the fetus was discovered, suggested a far more likely explanation than whatever Lifetime movie plot was implied between the lines of the media’s coverage: that a passenger had the unfortunate, uncomfortable, but not at all uncommon experience of suffering from a miscarriage, which can happen anywhere, at any time — including an airplane bathroom.

Sure enough, on Wednesday, the American Airlines passenger was identified as an 18-year-old Brooklyn teenager who, according to the New York Daily News, did not know she was pregnant. While on vacation with her sister in Jamaica, she reportedly began feeling unwell, and may have seen a doctor on the island; according to a Daily News law-enforcement source, authorities are looking into the possibility that she may have had a “botched abortion,” but offered no further explanation. (Abortion in New York State, where the teenager is presumably a resident, is legal up to 24 weeks gestation.)

While much about this incident remains unclear, there are a number of important factors that the media coverage thus far has failed to note: An estimated 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, 80 percent in the first trimester; pregnancy loss in the second trimester is more rare, but certainly not unheard of, occurring in approximately 1 out of every 100 pregnancies. Though “miscarriage” is the more commonly used term for pregnancy loss, it technically only applies to those pregnancies that end before the 20th week of gestation; pregnancies that end between weeks 20-28 are classified as “stillbirths,” and refer to fetuses that died in the womb or during delivery.

In the event that this was a premature birth — that is to say, the fetus was born alive — rather than a stillbirth, recent studies have shown that postnatal viability for a fetus born between 20 to 24 weeks, when provided with up-to-date medical treatment, can be anywhere from 0 to 56 percent, and even then, there’s a likelihood of neurodevelopmental problems.

The investigation into this incident remains open, officials said, while the medical examiner performs an autopsy to determine whether the fetus was born dead or alive. Those results will impact whether authorities decide to pursue charges against the teenager.

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