Saving a Mother's Life: The Case for Abortion

I would like to see abortion become rare because women have access to family planning services. But I am worried that Congress will make abortion rare by continuing to whittle away at our rights.
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Most politicians, even those calling themselves "pro-life," would allow an abortion where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother. Even before the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, as a young woman in my twenties, I knew of women making their case to a hospital that their pregnancy was life -- threatening and they should be allowed an abortion. (Of course I also knew of women who had to drive from Ohio to New York, one of the two states, the other being Hawaii, where abortion was legal at the time.) But recent moves by the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholic bishops and the action of a pharmacist in Idaho make me concerned that even that narrow exception will no longer be a consensus position.

I know that many younger women think that those who have warned in election after election that women could lose autonomy over reproductive decisions have "cried wolf," and that despite election losses their reproductive rights remain. (Maybe not quite as intact as they believe.) But I would argue that the anti-abortion forces have become politically stronger than ever, and it is time to pay attention to what's going on.

The political power of the U.S. Conference of Bishops was evident during the health care debates. The bishops had forcefully lobbied "pro-life" Democrats to insist that even private insurance companies could not cover abortion services. In Catholic churches, abortion far overshadows political discussions of other Catholic concerns such as war, poverty, the death penalty, and church-goers are reminded to vote against pro-choice politicians every fall. As a result, in November 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives, with the votes of 64 Democrats and 176 Republicans, accepted the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health care bill, and said that women could not buy private insurance on the new health care exchange if the policy covered abortions. (The bill changed again as it went to the Senate and back, but still remained very restrictive.)

Now the U.S. Conference of Bishops has approved the action of Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, who revoked the Catholic affiliation of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center because it allowed an abortion that was medically necessary to save the life of the mother. The woman developed primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), and by the 11th week of her pregnancy was critically ill. PPH and pregnancy is, according to one medical journal, a "lethal combination." Without an abortion, both mother and fetus would die. With an abortion, the mother could live.

The hospital refused the demands of the bishop to promise that they would not allow such an abortion again, saying that "morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die we might be able to save." Sister Margaret McBride was "automatically excommunicated" for allowing the procedure that saved the life of the woman.

The pharmacist in Idaho, without the same qualms as Sister Margaret about women's lives, refused to fill a prescription to stop a woman's bleeding because she may have had an abortion. That self-righteous pharmacist would act as judge, jury, and legislature and punish a woman who had an abortion by withholding medicine for a potentially life-threatening hemorrhage. The pharmacist claims that the refusal to fill methergine is permitted under Idaho's so-called "Freedom of Conscience for Health Care Professionals Act" which allows providers to decline to participate in an abortion. 46 states have such laws. Methergine is a drug given after childbirth, miscarriages or abortions to control bleeding, to protect or save the life of the woman, and does not induce abortions.

You might think that our Supreme Court would strike down any abortion law that did not protect the life of the mother. Unfortunately not. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, headed by Justice Roberts, decided by a 5-4 vote in Gonzalez v. Carhart, said that the 2003 ban on "partial birth abortions" was constitutional despite the fact that the law did not even make allowances to save the life of the mother. The New England Journal of Medicine noted that "this is the first time that the Court has ever held that physicians can be prohibited from using a medical procedure deemed necessary by the physician to benefit the patient's health." It reminds me of the 1963 novel I read as a teenager, The Cardinal, which depicted the anguish the cardinal-to-be felt as he allowed his beloved sister to die rather than approve a (late-term) abortion.

It's important to note that the Republican co-sponsor of the Stupak amendment, Joe Pitts (PA- 16), now heads the subcommittee under Energy and Commerce that deals with health care. He has a 100 percent approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee. And that the 112th Congress has even more anti-abortion members than it did when Stupak-Pitts was passed.

I would like to see abortion become rare because more women have access to family planning services and health care, that better contraception was available for men and women, and that assistance is available for those who choose to put their child up for adoption. But I am worried that Congress and the courts will make abortion rare by continuing to whittle away at our rights -- until not even the exception for the life of the mother exists.

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