By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
As upset as I am about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the ensuing wave of abortion bans in states, I will give credit where credit is due:
At least some pro-life advocates are acknowledging the need to better support mothers and children. But they should get cracking right away because they already have a hell of lot of work to do and much more is on the way.
For starters, according to a July 28 report in the New York Times, the 24 states with abortion bans have some of the nation’s weakest social services and highest rates of infant and maternal mortality, teen pregnancy, and lack of medical insurance. Most have decided not to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands uninsured, or to extend it to a full year for mothers who have given birth. None of these states offer paid work leave to care for newborns.
Pro-lifers also urgently need to address a ghastly downside to the laws they are enacting. Perhaps you’ve heard of the horrifying case of Elizabeth Weller of Houston, whose pregnancy went dangerously awry at 18 weeks.
When Weller’s water suddenly broke on May 10, her fetus was left with a heartbeat but near zero chance of survival and a great likelihood of being born with severe defects and disabilities. Weller was left vulnerable to a life-threatening hemorrhage or uterine infection, which is what she developed shortly thereafter.
Under Texas law, Weller had only two options: end the pregnancy according to the maternal danger provision or try to reach fetal viability at 24 weeks and hope for a live delivery.
"You have to ask yourself, would I put any living thing through the pain, and the horrors, of having to try to fight for their life the minute that they're born?" Weller, who was born with a disability but hoped to never have an abortion, told NPR.
Unfortunately, the Texas state law created agonizing delays. Because of the fear of prosecution or a lawsuit (anyone can sue a doctor for performing an abortion), Weller had to wait until the baby’s heartbeat stopped or she became endangered. No providers wanted to risk legal jeopardy. As it turned out, not even bouts of cramps, vomiting, bleeding and yellow discharge were enough to qualify as “endangered” and get Weller the help or even the advice for which she begged.
It wasn’t until Weller and her husband were on the verge of traveling to another state, and her condition worsened, that a stillborn delivery was finally, mercifully, induced at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Weller told NPR she is furious at the Republican legislators who passed the Texas law and at political rhetoric that only sees abortion as "a black-and-white issue, when abortion has all of these gray areas."
The key problem here is that — unbelievably — precious few legislators have bothered to clearly define the term “medical emergency” or the point at which a mother’s life is sufficiently endangered to receive an abortion. The resulting uncertainty now paralyzes caregivers in Texas even in cases of ectopic pregnancy, which are well documented as being life threatening. This scenario will occur wherever strict abortion bans are in effect.
"It's terrible," maternal-fetal specialist Dr. Alan Peaceman of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine told NPR. "The care providers are treading on eggshells. They don't want to get sucked into a legal morass. And so they don't even know what the rules are."
As Weller’s case shows, delays can and certainly will prove fatal. Idaho’s abortion ban inhibits emergency care for pregnant mothers to such an extent that the Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against it.
Then we have the case of Indiana ob/gyn Caitlin Bernard, who provided a legal abortion in early July for a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. Dr. Bernard says she is being harassed and threatened by strangers and attacked by right-wing politicians.
There is an absolutely absurd mental and physical cruelty in forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, especially if the baby is unlikely to survive or live a reasonably enjoyable life, will be a constant reminder of the trauma of rape, or will put a woman through a stretch of physical pain and mental torment while wondering if it will kill her.
Prosecuting women who seek to avoid such a fate, or who simply lose their pregnancy, is even more horrific. Given that there is no way to tell the difference between a miscarriage and a chemically-induced abortion, many more women are going to end up in prison, especially if fellow citizens are encouraged to anonymously rat them out. Add possible contraception bans to the country’s legal landscape and you have a formula for ruined lives and widespread misery.
Fifteen states (Ohio, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin) now allow abortion only when the mother’s life is in obvious jeopardy. Six more (Georgia, Idaho, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Wyoming) make an allowance for rape or incest. Indiana is very close to enacting a ban with strict requirements for all cases. One (Mississippi) allows it for rape, but not incest.
Fortunately, on Aug. 2, voters in Kansas overwhelmingly said “no” to giving state lawmakers permission to add restrictions. Abortion there remains legal for any reason up to 20 weeks after fertilization or 22 weeks after the last menstrual period. The referendum's defeat by such a large margin (18 percent) strongly suggests that in the November midterms, there will be a voter backlash against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
It is said that it’s easy to advocate for the unborn because after they arrive on this mortal coil you can walk away and not have to deal with the daily burdens of caring for them. Nor do you have to endure the dangers and physical and mental trials of pregnancy.
Truly being pro-life demands recognizing and fighting for the quality as well as the quantity of life for mothers and their children. Talk is cheap. The right to life movement should demand that legislators revisit draconian abortion bans and at least add humane provisions and crystal clear exceptions that will help prevent great harm from being done in the name of saving lives.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.