Over the past months the nation has witnessed a heated conversation about reproductive healthcare. In several states anti-abortion law-makers have been outspoken in their attempt to convince states to deny their citizens access to abortion. Unfortunately, opposition to abortion has often been fueled by dangerous misinformation. Former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh claimed that the abortion bans he supported never endangered women’s lives or seriously threatened their health. “With modern technology, you can’t find one instance [of an abortion that saved the mother’s life]…There is no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing.”
Walsh ignores the reality that abortion is a medical procedure that can save women’s lives or improve their health. With maternal mortality on the rise, restrictive abortion policies that disregard these facts do more than overlook inconvenient truths—they can produce fatal outcomes.
In Ireland, a country with a near total ban on abortion, the procedure could have saved Savita Halappanaver’s life.
Savita Halappanaver was a young dentist attempting to start a family with her husband in Ireland. She was 17 weeks pregnant when severe back pain drove her to seek medical care at a local hospital. There she received the painful news that she was miscarrying and her fetus had no chance of survival. Knowing this and in tremendous pain, Savita asked that the doctors to terminate the pregnancy. They refused. Her family repeatedly pleaded with the hospital to treat Savita, but they only said that “Ireland is a Catholic country” and they would not abort while there was a fetal heartbeat.
The hospital denied Savita life-saving medical care for three days while her family watched her health deteriorate. The prolonged miscarriage resulted in blood poisoning, and although the doctors operated when the fetal heartbeat ceased, Savita’s heart, kidneys, and liver were already failing. She died seven days after first seeking (and being denied) medical care.
Her mother is left to ask why her daughter was denied available medical care and forced to die in pain. “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter. How is that fair, you tell me?”
It is not fair—for Savita or any woman seeking an abortion. Restrictions that limit access to abortion make the world a more dangerous place for women.
In the U.S., anti-abortion lawmakers are promoting sweeping restrictions that limit women’s access to necessary medical care. These laws shift the decision of whether and when to terminate a pregnancy from the woman to hospital boards, politicians, and other strangers. In 2011, the House actually passed a bill that undermines EMTALA (which requires all hospitals to stabilize all patients needing emergency medical care) by allowing religious hospitals to refuse to provide abortion in life-saving circumstances. This is a worrying prospect for the 1 in 6 patients treated by a Catholic hospital. In the states policymakers enacted 92 restrictions limiting access to abortion services in 2011 alone. This month Ohio legislators tried to revive a fetal heartbeat bill that would force women as early as six weeks in their pregnancy to wait until their illness was near-fatal to obtain an abortion.
Making decisions about your healthcare, such as whether to terminate a pregnancy, is a personal matter. Politicians should not create additional obstacles between women and the healthcare they need. Abortions do save lives. When a woman faces a medical decision, time is precious and her decision should be respected. Savita made her decision only to have her doctors refuse to treat her. The law should not force women to wait and risk bodily harm or even death when medical care is available; no family should be left to wonder why a hospital refused to treat their daughter, sister, wife or mother.