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AP looks at real-world issues of viability and the earliest babies

Curtis Means plays with his mother, Michelle Butler, at their home in Eutaw, Ala., on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. After his premature birth, Curtis stayed in the newborn intensive care unit for nine months. Butler made the 90-minute trek from her home in rural Eutaw to Birmingham several times a week. She read books to Curtis and often held him inside her shirt so his skin touched hers. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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Louisville-based health and science writer Laura Ungar, New York video journalist Angie Wang and freelance photographer Butch Dill visited Eutaw, Alabama, to better understand the issue of viability — a key word in the superheated debate over abortion — as experienced by families who know what it means to have a baby born at the edge of life.

Viability. The word appears 36 times in the leaked initial draft of the Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, and Ungar, who has covered maternal and newborn health for years, knew doctors were getting better at keeping very premature babies alive.

Ungar reviewed data and research and looked for support groups that help families of premature infants, learning that the University of Alabama at Birmingham had cared for the world’s earliest surviving preemie. Doctors there agreed to be interviewed and provided contact information for the mother, Michelle Butler.

Butler was in just her fifth month of pregnancy when she she gave birth to twins; each weighed less than a pound. C’Asya lived just one day. Curtis is now approaching 2 years old,still receiving treatments but tooling around the house in a walker and playing with his older brother and sister. Butler graciously allowed Ungar,Wang and Dill to spend time at the family’s home in rural Eutaw,observing their daily routine.

The team faced a delicate task — telling an emotional narrative that included both extreme joy and profound loss,explaining the science and ethics involved and connecting it all to a hypersensitive political issue.

The all-formats package that emerged represents the best of what AP can do: bringing deeply reported,balanced, real-world context to one of the biggest news stories of the year.

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Curtis Means crawls as his mother, Michelle Butler, keeps an eye on him at their home in Eutaw, Ala., March 23, 2022. Curtis weight less than a pound at birth. Growing numbers of extremely premature infants, like Curtis, are getting life-saving treatment and surviving. – AP Photo / Butch Dill
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