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Ultrasound bill sponsor Andy Gardiner has personal motive beyond abortion politics

ORLANDO — The smiles in the delivery room didn't last long.

Moments after birth, the nurse told Andy and Camille Gardiner the unexpected news and whisked their newborn son to another room for more testing.

"It's like going into something where you just have no clue what you're getting into," Andy Gardiner recalled, "even though you think you know what you're getting into as a parent." The worst part, he said, "is the not knowing."

• • •

Six years later, as a state senator from Orlando, Gardiner is the sponsor of Florida's controversial bill to require doctors to show and describe a sonogram to women before a first-trimester abortion unless they opt out.

His rationale for the bill strikes a familiar chord: He wants women to make "an informed decision."

"All this does," Gardiner told colleagues as he introduced the bill in the waning days of the legislative session, "is say if you want to see the ultrasound, the heartbeat, the opportunity that will come with the birth of that child, you can."

The "information," supporters openly acknowledge, is designed to induce women to change their minds and reduce abortion rates.

Antiabortion advocates call the bill (HB 1143)— which went to Gov. Charlie Crist for consideration on Monday — "the most significant pro-life measure that's ever happened in Florida's history."

But this isn't the only reason Gardiner pushed for the new requirement. For him, opposition to abortion isn't an exercise in ideology, where the R's vote one way and the D's vote the other. Beneath Gardiner's ideological skin lies a more powerful motivation for the bill: his son and his experience in the delivery room.

In that instant, his firstborn ceased to be an abstraction and became a living, breathing reality. Mindful of this vivid transition, his hope is that an ultrasound will help make the fetus more tangible to those contemplating abortion.

• • •

As they debated the measure, lawmakers on both sides of the issue shared intimately personal, sometimes painful, stories.

Gardiner didn't mention his son. He said simply: "It is something I feel very passionate about."

Andrew Gardiner Jr., an outgoing 6-year-old who plays T-ball, wears his dad's old ties and works the room at political events, has Down syndrome.

The Gardiners didn't know about Andrew's condition before the nurse put him in their arms.

They were blindsided.

"We had no involvement with Down syndrome prior to that moment," said Andy Gardiner in an interview at the family's Orlando home. "So not knowing anything about it was probably the scarier part."

"Pretty much everyone we dealt with gave us as much information as possible," added Camille Gardiner. "And sometimes it's overwhelming."

It's hard to describe what it felt like to hear the news, he said, turning to an oversimplified analogy: "It's like looking for the fastball and somebody throws the curveball. You have that immediate shock of you didn't expect the curveball, but you still try to do your best to hit it out of the park."

State Sen. Joe Negron, a family friend, was in the hospital that night. "I remember he and Camille committing themselves to learning everything about the situation," he said.

With the odds slim (1 in 1,200) during the pregnancy, the Gardiners never sought a definite test for genetic disorders because they were worried about the small risk of miscarriage. The couple suffered two before their son's birth.

The additional testing also revealed a problem with Andrew's heart, a common defect that led to major surgery when he was 4 months old.

"I think God allows you to know that we are not in control of everything. No matter how much testing and everything else you are doing, he still has control."

The link between births of disabled children and abortion is often overlooked in the polarizing debate. But for Gardiner, it is one and the same. About 90 percent of pregnancies with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome are terminated, national studies show.

"What drew me to this (bill) is that you are informed," Gardiner said. "On all sides it's a very emotional issue. I hope nobody judges me. I don't judge anybody. It's a very life-changing thing."

About 400,000 people nationwide have Down syndrome, a condition identified through visible physical traits. In most cases, as with Andrew, it is caused by a genetic defect where the 21st chromosome in each cell appears with three copies instead of the normal two. It is often detected in utero through an ultrasound as early as the first trimester, but only confirmed with more specialized tests.

The rate of Down syndrome is expected to rise 34 percent because women are having children later in life, when risks are higher. But prenatal testing is leading to a 15 percent decrease in diagnoses nationwide, according to a 2008 study.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, this concerns Gardiner.

"The testing is so scientific that, sadly, the people are making other decisions," he said.

If the state requires the ultrasound and the screening shows the potential genetic defect, he said the doctor is required to give adequate information. He doesn't think it will give women more reason to choose abortion.

• • •

Even though his family is a living embodiment of the antiabortion movement, it's not a story he shares easily.

"It was not my intent to be pushing all these issues, but we see it and we live it," he said. "Every legislator has a background and a story, and it's some of the reasons why they push what they push."

First elected to the House in 2000 — he credits his wife with prodding him to run for the Legislature — Gardiner served eight years before winning a Senate bid to represent a district with numerous billboards featuring a late-stage fetus and the slogan, "My heart is beating 18 days after conception."

He replaced Sen. Dan Webster, who tried unsuccessfully to pass the same ultrasound mandate in 2008. Gardiner took over the fight.

As he described his motivations, Andrew Jr. shuffled barefoot across the house toward the bathroom, hurrying so he didn't miss too much of The Little Mermaid playing in a nearby room.

The couple made a pledge while driving home from the hospital after his birth. "We were both very adamant that we weren't going to cut him any slack," she said. "That we did not want this to be an excuse for [the rest of] his life. … It may take him a little longer to do something, but he's going to do it."

She acknowledges she probably sets high expectations for him. "But society is going to be harder on him," she reasons.

Much like her husband, Camille Gardiner has become an advocate and ally for expecting parents. "In talking to parents, I just tell them the things Andrew is doing," said Camille, who earlier this year started the Down Syndrome Foundation of Florida. "And for them, it's like okay, this is going to be okay."

The most surprising element is his cognitive ability, she says. "I tell people he reads. And he's been reading for years. I think that is just encouraging to parents," she said, noting that the life expectancy and therapy opportunities for those with the condition are growing.

The most challenging thing about having a child with Down syndrome, the Gardiners say, is not taking care of him. It's the lack of acceptance in society.

"I always say, we all have special needs, some just happen to be diagnosed — some appear obvious and some we can hide," Camille said.

The Gardiners have two more children, including a newborn girl. In both cases, they didn't seek testing for genetic disorders.

And this is the fundamental irony in Andy Gardiner's story: He is pushing a bill to allow for "informed decisions" but didn't want all the information himself.

His reasoning helps explain the larger abortion debate and why people will continue to hold different views: "Unless you are going to do something with it, why have it?"

If Gardiner's measure is signed into law, it's unclear whether requiring pregnant women to see an ultrasound will change minds. But Gardiner hopes it will.

John Frank can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

Ultrasound bill sponsor Andy Gardiner has personal motive beyond abortion politics 06/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 7, 2010 11:17pm]
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