Carroll County Times Opinion

Tom Zirpoli: If only we all were able to empathize | COMMENTARY

I read with interest the story of Kailee DeSpain, 29, who found herself in need of a potentially lifesaving abortion while living in Texas, where abortion had recently, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, become illegal. DeSpain’s fetus was diagnosed with significant genetic heart and brain defects and was unlikely to survive after birth.

In the meantime, DeSpain was told by her doctors that her doomed pregnancy was putting her own life in danger from potential blood clots, preeclampsia and other complications. Her doctor recommended that she have an abortion, but she could not get one in Texas. The state’s new anti-abortion law protected the life of her fetus, but not her life.


I found the CNN story interesting because DeSpain was, in her own words, a “quintessential pro-life Texan.” She said when interviewed, “I’ve never felt more betrayed by a place I was once so proud to be from.”

DeSpain’s husband drove her 10 hours to New Mexico to find a place where she could secure a legal abortion. According to her interview, it cost about $3,500; Texas law also restricts insurance companies from covering abortions, even in life-threatening cases.


The Biden administration has said that doctors have an obligation to provide abortions in emergency medical situations like DeSpain’s. But Texas sued the Biden administration and made it clear that doctors would be held accountable for conducting abortions, even to save the life of the mother, unless they could prove that the mother was certain to die without one. Of course, doctors can’t be certain of anyone’s death and are not willing to test the Texas law in a political climate where Republicans are trying to outdo each other attacking pregnant women and their doctors.

Now, DeSpain asks, “How could you be so cruel as to pass a law that you know will hurt women and that you know will cause babies to be born in pain? How is that humane? How is that saving anybody?”

All good questions. My question to DeSpain, however, is this: Why did it take a personal experience for you to understand and have empathy for the plight of others in these difficult situations?

I’ve been asking this question for most of my career providing services for people with disabilities and dealing with people like DeSpain. They claim to be fiscally conservative and against government spending, until, that is, they have a child with a disability or a family member becomes disabled. Then, all of a sudden, they expect the government, including the school system, to spend whatever is necessary for their family member to receive what they need, no matter the cost.

These same folks were all for those Republican tax cuts, not seeing that the tax cuts meant less money for public education, especially for special education or adult services for the disabled. They were against all forms of public assistance, until they needed public assistance for their family member with special needs.

Why is it, I wonder, that some people can see and understand social and public needs in regard to themselves or a family member, but not for someone else? Some say it is the inability to feel empathy toward others. Some say it is just ignorance born out of life’s experiences or lack of experiences. Some observe that our life experiences change our hearts and minds, as seems to be the case for DeSpain.

Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s pain — physical or psychological. Not surprisingly, some people are more empathetic than others. According to Medical News Today, about 10% of this variation is due to genetics. The lack of empathy is frequently associated with disorders such as narcissism and other anti-social disabilities. According to Dr. Douglas LaBier, a psychologist, some people have Empathy Deficit Disorder and are simply unable to place themselves in someone else’s shoes. When something happens in our own lives, however, we don’t need to understand someone else’s situation; it becomes our situation.

I disagree with LaBier and believe empathy is a learned behavior taught and modeled by parents, teachers, and friends. Whether you are talking about the treatment of immigrants or the plight of a pregnant teenager, children learn to care for others from what they see and hear at home and within their community.


All I can say is, thank goodness for those who can feel the pain of others and respond appropriately, without having to feel the pain themselves.

Tom Zirpoli is the Laurence J. Adams Distinguished Chair in Special Education Emeritus at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at