Abortion and “the life of the mother”

I’ve been thinking a lot about “life of the mother” exceptions in abortion statutes because pregnancy can be really dangerous!  I think it is almost a certainty that some of the harsher laws in many states will literally lead to the deaths of pregnant women. And that, of course, is awful.  Where these draconian laws exist, the only reasonable course is to have exceptions for not just “the life of the mother” but also the “health of the mother.”  You don’t have to be a physician to recognize that there’s a huge number of medical conditions where a threat to health gone wrong can become a threat to life.  It’s also obvious that in so many cases there is a health/life gray area.  What if there was a condition affecting a pregnant woman with a 95% likelihood she would pull through and be fine without an abortion?  I don’t know about you, but I would not be interested in taking the 5% chance at the death of a loved one.  Similarly, what if there were a condition with a 99% chance of survival, but a 50/50 chance of some sort of permanent disability?  Should a pregnant women have to undertake that risk?  And, yes, these are hypotheticals, but if you’ve been around the medical world at all, you know that situations like this come up all the time.  The idea that we can just allow the “emergency abortion now!” (as many state legislatures would have it) when the mother’s life is at imminent risk elides so many very serious issues potentially affecting a woman’s health during pregnancy.  

So, even states that have an exemption to protect the mother’s life will almost surely cause situations that lead to the mother’s death.  The only way to do that is to have a robust exemption for life and health (obviously, we need more than that, but we’re talking laws we’ll see in Mississippi, Texas, etc.).  A great article on just this problem in the Catholic Jesuit publication, America:

Meanwhile, many pro-life Catholic thinkers have insisted that none of these laws endanger women in any way: They argue that these laws can be written in ways that will restrict abortion while allowing exceptions to handle miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies and dangers to women’s lives in reasonable, commonsense ways.

But it is not at all obvious that this is true. Nor is it at all obvious that there is consensus about how to handle these situations in reasonable, commonsense ways, even within the church.

Take S.B. 8, the Texas law, which creates an exemption from liability for abortions “necessary due to a medical emergency.” What does that “necessary” mean? The law does not say. Is an abortion that would avert a 5 percent chance of death “necessary,” or must a doctor wait until the risk increases to a 25 percent chance? Is it enough to know that a mother will have a high chance of death tomorrow if the pregnancy continues?

And what if the medical emergency she is facing is not death but some permanent impairment or disability? What is the threshold then? Who determines and adjudicates these thresholds? How much deference do we ask juries and judges to accord to a doctor’s judgment in the moment of pressure?

Under both the Texas and Oklahoma laws, medical professionals who are fully confident in their diagnosis of a medical emergency and whose decisions would stand up to anyone’s moral scrutiny can still face legal liability. [emphases mine] Because these laws allow plaintiffs, but not defendants, to recover legal costs, doctors and hospitals may be exposed to exorbitant costs defending their medical judgment against bad-faith lawsuits. It may even risk their freedom and livelihoods. Come September, if all goes according to the state’s plan, doctors in Oklahoma who are accused of performing an abortion that wasn’t sufficiently medically warranted might not just face a lawsuit but also a homicide charge…

Hospital legal teams will balance these liabilities and weigh the costs against the benefits…

How long after abortion is criminalized in Oklahoma will it take before a situation arises in which not a single doctor is available to perform a necessary, life-saving abortion for a woman who is too sick, or too poor, to travel elsewhere for it?

We cannot write laws that incentivize doctors to err on the side of allowing the woman to die and ignore the outcome that will result. If there are steep penalties for performing abortions that are later determined to have been unnecessary without strong mandates for doctors and hospitals to perform necessary abortions—which the church surely wants to avoid for religious liberty reasons—women will die. 

This is the post-Roe reality that Americans are not ready for.  It’s not so much about the botched coat-hangar abortions of the old days.  It’s about pregnant women dying because they could not obtain a needed abortion. There’s your modern “pro-life.”  

p.s. Just after I queued this up, I saw this tweet:


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Abortion and “the life of the mother”

  1. R. Jenrette says:


    This article portends a religious battle over freedom of religion. Under Jewish law going back who knows how many thousands of years, the mother is primary until the top of the baby’s head enters the world. At that point, it is hoped doctors will make a wise decision as to who to save should such a decision be needed.

  2. KJ says:

    Along a not too far removed concern is an exception for incest and rape. If a woman is for ed to give birth because the baby can be adopted the courts will require BOTH parents to relinquish rights. I foresee: The father demanding that the mother do what he wants by withholding consent, or possibly forcing an 18 year relationship with the victim on penalty of a custody battle. Abusers play power games.

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