Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Processing Pain

In the NYT today, Judith Warner examines the terrible legal process that now encumbers second trimester abortions. Since the article is accessible only to subscribers, I'm providing the full piece, since I think this is required reading.

Poisonous Choices, Women at Risk

When the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to uphold the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act this spring, the ambivalently pro-choice public was largely quiescent, believing, as Congress had previously ruled, that the procedure was “gruesome and inhuman,” medically unnecessary, highly controversial in the medical community and so rare as to be little missed.

What’s clear, however, as the ban has become a reality, is that fetuses will be spared no brutality. Second trimester abortion is still legal and the most common method for it — dismembering a fetus inside the womb before removing it in pieces — is no less awful to contemplate than the outlawed procedure, in which an intact fetus’s skull was punctured and collapsed to ease its removal. But women are now more at risk. And doctors have been forced into a danger zone where they must weigh what they believe to be best medical practices against the need to protect themselves from the threat of prosecution.

This kind of ethical tightrope walk, this sort of judicial meddling into standard medical practices, is unprecedented — and poisonous. An article in this month’s volume of the trade journal Obstetrics & Gynecology treats the dilemma with a mocking tone. “At our recent Annual Clinical Meeting in San Diego, I asked several colleagues if they intended to make referrals to the Supreme Court. All said ‘No’ because the court is not available for telephone consultations and makes rounds infrequently,” it says.

But in truth, dealing with the ban is no laughing matter. You see, as it turns out, the Supreme Court didn’t just outlaw “partial-birth” abortions (known in the medical community as “intact dilation and extraction” or D & X,) when it upheld Congress’s ban. It criminalized any second trimester abortion that begins with a live fetus and where “the fetal head or the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.”

The big problem with this, doctors say, is that, due to the unpredictability of how women’s bodies react to medical procedures, when you set out to do a legal second trimester abortion, something looking very much like a now-illegal abortion can occur. Once you dilate the cervix — something that must be done sufficiently in order to avoid tears, punctures and infection — a fetus can start to slip out. And if this happens, any witness — a family member, a nurse, anyone in the near vicinity with an ax to grind against a certain physician — can report that the ban has been breached. Bringing on stiff fines, jail time and possible civil lawsuits.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court’s majority, asserted that prosecution for accidental partial births won’t occur; there has to be “intent” for there to be a crime. But as doctors now understand it, intent could be inferred by the degree of dilation they induce in their patients. What, then, do they do? Dilate the cervix sufficiently and risk prosecution, or dilate less and risk the woman’s health? And if they dilate fully, how do they prove it wasn’t their intent to deliver an intact fetus?

This dilemma is the latest product of the awful algorithm that, in anti-choice rhetoric of the past few decades, has increasingly pitted the “interests” of the fetus against the health of the woman. It makes the true intent of the partial-birth abortion ban clear: the point is not (in the short term) to stop seemingly brutal fetal deaths, but rather to make all abortions as burdensome, as difficult and as emotionally and physically trying for women — and for doctors — as possible.

To escape having to choose between their patients’ interests and their own, physicians who perform abortions around the country now are taking steps to ensure that doctors won’t find themselves accidentally allowing a live fetus to be partially “born” in the course of a second trimester abortion. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and other independent providers are now making it policy in abortions that could become legally risky for doctors to use digoxin — a cardiac drug — to kill the fetus up to one day in advance of the procedure. The upshot for women will be more time-consuming and costly abortion services, additional rounds of amniocentesis, more pain and more risk of infection.

And the outcome for the fetus won’t change.

Judith Warner is a contributing columnist for TimesSelect and a guest Op-Ed columnist.

I think the only thing Warner leaves out is the fact that the majority (if not all) second-trimester abortions occur because of risk to the health of the woman. This is an issue that I feel is definitely not addressed enough, even by pro-choicers.

In the "Culture of Life" argument, you can't abort a fetus because it is a "life." However, the woman carrying the fetus is also a life, and in my view, very much more important. It is an already established life. It deserves the priority when it comes to weighing the health of the woman against a parasitic fetus that couldn't survive on its own outside the womb.

The anti-choice rhetoric that demands saving the life of a fetus at any cost, when played out, essentially determines women to be wombs, baby factories, or whatever you'd like to call it. A successful business exec or homeless crack addict become equally irrelevant when a blob of cells is involved. It is denying women the right to live beyond their reproductive capabilities. And that is one thing I won't stand for.

1 responses:

Vanessa said...

As you said, I think it's important to mention that most second trimester abortions are done because of health risks to the woman. It seems to me that a lot of the pro-lifers use really extreme examples when opposing (second) trimester abortions. If it was simply an unwanted pregnancy, I think most women would have the abortion in the first trimester. The decision to have an abortion must be very tough and emotional, and I doubt that many women take it lightly.

Not being American, I'm surprised at the length of this debate. Family life and abortions are personal matters. Women, and not the state, should have autonomy over their bodies -- including the uterus.

(C) 2007 - 2009 Kate Hutchinson. All rights reserved.

All opinions expressed are the sole responsibility of the author.