The Lost Women and Children of the Abortion Debate: A Pro-life Response to Walsh, Akin, and Mourdock

A staunchly pro-life critique of the recent flippancy of abortion rhetoric by pro-life candidates Joe Walsh, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock.

I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t, until now, told many people. Between my two pregnancies, I had a miscarriage. I was not trying to conceive at that point, but one week I started feeling more tired than usual, and I started vomiting at regular intervals throughout the day. I wasn’t sick, per se, but every day at 10am, I puked. I tried to go for a walk with a friend, and ended up throwing up all over the side of the road while she attended to my toddler. She’s a really good friend.

“Erin,” she said, “You need to take a pregnancy test.” I knew she was right, the fact that’s she’s a doula and childbirth educator notwithstanding. I took a test, but it was too early to detect anything, so I kept up with my routine of vomiting and then returning to my business.

Before I got the chance to test again, my husband and I both caught flu bugs—complete with fevers, chills, and, you guessed it—more puking. I can safely say that was the hardest night of my marriage to date. And truly disgusting. By the next morning, my husband was tired but mostly recovered, and it quickly became clear that I was not all right. I drove to the doctor’s office in a fog and collapsed outside the door. They called my husband to come retrieve me and take me to the hospital, where I was admitted for severe dehydration. (Meanwhile, the same friend watched my kid. Seriously. Really. Good. Friend.) After being released, I made a follow-up appointment with my doctor, who explained that the initial sickness was not just a viral preview but a pregnancy. Apparently my body couldn’t handle the early stages of pregnancy and the virus, and I miscarried a couple of days later.

A few months later, I started trying to get pregnant again. It started the same way, vomiting like clockwork, exhaustion. This time, I carried my second daughter to term. Now, I have chronicled that pregnancy ad nauseam (sorry, I like humor about bodily fluids), but after my child was born, I was told that the problems I encountered in that pregnancy would only be worse in subsequent ones; ultimately, my mid-wife warned me, future pregnancies would put my health in danger. That is a warning I take seriously, not least of all because I happen to value my health, but also because of how many other people depend on my health and well-being: primarily, my husband and my two daughters.

Now, my life was not at stake in either of those instances. But I am telling you this story to demonstrate that even behind the birth of healthy children like my daughters, there are complications that most people simply never see. Would I consider an abortion in the event of future pregnancies? No. I’ve stated before that I am staunchly pro-life, but I am bothered by the political climate surrounding abortion and the terms of the debate. Calling myself pro-life does not mean that I am anti-freedom, nor would I presume to suggest that those who identify as pro-choice are somehow also pro-death.

I want to show you what our current political discourse does not—that pregnancy is complex, sometimes dangerous—and that lost in the election frenzy are the actual women and children whose lives depend on these decisions. Perhaps you can see why I’m so troubled by the political conversations circulating today, where male politicians flippantly play fast and loose with real women’s health, real women’s lives, real babies.

Rep. Joe Walsh. Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Take, for instance, the recent remarks by Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois. During a debate with his Democratic opponent, Walsh claimed to be pro-life “without exception,” citing no medical scenarios where abortion would be necessary to save a mother’s life; “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance,” said Walsh.  There are, in fact, several instances, including: uterine infections, preeclampsia, complications with diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, cancer, and ectopic pregnancies. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), “Contrary to the inaccurate statements made yesterday by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event, particularly for many women with chronic medical conditions. Despite all of our medical advances, more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons right here in the US. In fact, many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives.” The ACOG further urged politicians to “Get out of our exam rooms.” Representative Walsh’s comments did not account for those 600 women—600 “instances” where the modern medicine of which he is so woefully ignorant could not save mothers’ lives. And that’s not counting all of the complications pregnant women faced that didn’t result in maternal death.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Walsh later backtracked on his initial statements, asserting “Let me be very clear that when I say I am pro-life, I mean that I am pro-life for the mother and I am pro-life for the unborn child. For me, there is no distinction between the two.”  I don’t know how to interpret the claim that “there is no distinction between the two.” The distinction forms the central paradox of pregnancy and pregnancy-related legislation: the irony of two humans within a single body, the weaker dependent upon the stronger, the host. To say that both mother and unborn child are equally valuable, of equal worth is to express the sanctity of life. I uphold that value, but that does not erase the distinction between mother and child, nor does it grapple with the reality that in medical emergencies, medical professionals cannot always achieve the ideal of care to save them both. I would suggest that the failure to distinguish between mother and child is a significant problem in the abortion debates; one side seems to prioritize the mother, one the child.

Rep. Todd Akin. Credit: KOMUnews/Flickr (CCBY2.0)

Then there are the examples of politicians discussing abortion and rape. Back in August, Todd Akin, Republican senatorial candidate from Missouri, tried to define “legitimate rape,” and argued that rape victims rarely get pregnant because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Jennifer Tucker of The New York Times explains how Akin’s ideas about human reproduction—as expressed in this definition of “legitimate rape”—hearken back to Medieval theories where conception was thought to require female orgasm . In addition to being medically inaccurate, the effort to distinguish “legitimate rape” from any other sort shows an effort to blame rape victims. She was asking for it. She liked it. Probably she was wearing sexy underwear. Such statements reflect a persistent culture of disregard for violence against women—even at times glorifying sexual violence. And yes, of course rape victims can get pregnant by their attackers.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimated 64,080 rapes between 2004 and 2005; they calculate a 5% chance of conception for a single act of unprotected sex, projecting that there were 3,204 rapes resulting in pregnancy during that year. Dr. Dean Kilpatrick considers the RAINN figures low, because those statistics are based on rapes reported to police; Kilpatrick says about 80% of rapes go unreported, which, if correct, also projects a significantly higher number of rape-induced pregnancies. PBS’s Frontline Documentary “The Last Abortion Clinic” cites “approximately 13,000 women have abortions after being the victims of rape or incest.” Pregnancies resulting from rape and incest are not anomalous; they are significant in the grand statistical scheme and certainly more so within each survivor’s life. To claim a position of pro-life with regard to rape and incest must go beyond the carrying and birthing of a baby; valuing all life as sacred means more than getting a child through the birth canal. What about the mother, the family, the lifelong relational repercussions for a mother to look at her child and see beyond the trauma of the conception?

Richard Mourdock. Credit: WikiCommons

And, most recently, there is Richard Mourdock (an Indiana senatorial candidate), who also adheres to a “no exceptions” anti-abortion policy: “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock modified his statement amidst the ensuing controversy, telling The Indianapolis Star “I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.” As much as I appreciate Mourdock’s apology, I take serious issue with the idea that God intends rape; rape and incest alike are horrific crimes, not intended by God but products of a fallen, sinful world and the workings of fallen, sinful humans. That a child could be conceived and carried to term from such beginnings is miraculous, and illustrative of God’s ability to redeem even atrocities. But precisely because Mourdock is right in saying that life is precious, a belief in the sanctity of the whole life cannot stop at conception or birth.

Considering the sanctity of whole lives means looking at the totality of women’s lives, not merely their reproductive functions. It means acknowledging that more than 40% of women having abortions live below the federal poverty line and more than 60% of the women having abortions are already mothers. It means transcending the divisive rhetoric of pro-life and pro-choice, winning and losing, to care about the emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial well-being of mothers and children alike. It means not ignoring children born into poverty, children born of trauma, and not forgetting the mothers who bravely carried and bore them. It means choosing our words carefully, to heal rather than wound. It means making a commitment beyond a bumper sticker, not to a cause, but for a lifetime, because no politician can quantify the worth of human life.

It means recognizing that the God who created all things for His glory can also redeem all things—so that the cruelty of the cross transforms into the hope of heaven. That hope of redemption, that unmerited and unfathomable grace, does not free us from responsibility in the here and now but calls us to account. We who serve as God’s hands and feet in this world must affirm whole lives not only with our votes but with our very lives.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Daniel

    Erin, thank you for sharing your tragic story about losing one of your babies. I can only imagine the pain of that–we’ll, slightly more than imagine. Well-written and thoughtful article, and you point out important facts and considerations in this debate. Too often we pro-lifers blythly dismiss these all too real facts.

    I do have a slightly different take on your evaluation of Mourdock’s comments. I think most of the outrage about his comments are driven by a very common solution to the problem of evil, that being that God is doing “the best He can” with this lousy world…almost like God is sitting up in heaven, wringing His hands saying “I wish I could do more to help these poor folks!” I humbly suggest that this is a very small view of God–comforting in times of pain, perhaps, but ultimately not the view of God Almighty who formed the stars and galaxies with a mere word.

    But I do recognize that a sovereign God who can do whatever He wills, and stop whatever He wills, can be a frightening and even horrifying idea, given the evil we see today. Why would God allow a rapist to do his evil? Why does God sometimes prevent crime miraculously, and at other times He does nothing?

    This is perhaps why Calvinism (for lack of a better term) and all it’s implications is largely rejected in popular theology. But despite the horror it may hold for some, I recognize that “He is not a tame lion.”

  • Marybeth Baggett

    Very well done, Erin.

  • LaNeisa

    Thank you for this very thoughtful essay. Considering the whole life both of the mother and the child has always made me shy of the political pro-life positions as well. Now that I am a Christian, I am surprised how little Christians seem to understand the miracle of our own new life in Christ. With the wisdom and growth that happens with our own new birth, we most of all should understand how poor, young, and depairing women would make this wrong choice. The rhetoric most often heard from Christians often make us unapproachable as a source of answers and hope in this context. These folks are to be most pitied and most understood when we remember what a wretch saved by God’s grace thinks like. We forget too soon.

  • Rose-Marie ZAGDOUN

    Thank you so much for sharing Erin … it throws light on difficult issues we pro-lifers must know about.
    I am not an academician and would simply say how much I enjoy the extraordinary and multiple testimonies of faith in those pages, and the ones of Life Site News …
    So many times people decide, in the face of the God of Life, to keep their children against all odds. Friends and families decide to pray through the pregnancies …. and God answers. Baby and mother alike are safe.
    This is the spiritual side of an otherwise very difficult matter…

  • Pingback: Civil Discussion: Obama the Winner, Romney the Loser, Richard the Hypocrite, Ben the Cynic

  • Yoyo

    Erin you got close but then scuttled back. What does it mean to a loving mother with a seriously disabled child when she knows that the unplanned pregnancy she subsequently carries may mean death to her current child through exhaustion, inattention, financial strains etc. what does it mean to a loving parent knowing their child will be born into a world of pain due to lack of resources or medical care? How does it deal to know carrying this baby to term could well mean that your much loved children and husband lose you because you cannot have life saving chemo? The hard line “prolife” position does place fetus’s lives above their potential siblings, above their mothers, above all things. I am not religious but I cannot see a loving god place a potential human above a woman and her life.

  • Daniel

    Yoyo, the question is what is “potential” life. The pro-life position has always been that it’s not the “potential” life of the child–it’s her ACTUAL life. I know the pro-choice position does not necessarily believe this, but to understand the pro-life position, you need to understand that that’s what we believe.

    Consistent pro-life stance means holding EVERY life as sacred–for the pre-born and the post-born alike.

  • Pingback: Our Favorite Features of 2012

  • Pingback: Unplanned Pregnancies in the Military on the Rise

  • Dogbreath

    I’m pro-life (as are most Christians).

    In the political and legal arena, though, the definition of when life (or personhood) actually begins has never been fully agreed-upon. That is partly because it is not religiously neutral (different religions teach different things about when life begins), and yet the Constitution strongly implies that the government _must_ operate in a religiously neutral fashion. What a lot of Christians don’t know is that Judaism (going back to the medieval era at least) has always been pro-CHOICE, due to the view, as expressed in the Talmud, that a fetus is only “water” until 40 days after conception, and even after that it is only a “potential life”, not an actual one. Even the most devoutly conservative Orthodox Jews hold this view, and the pro-life movement in Israel today is virtually nonexistent as a result.

    Obviously, if we want to protect the sanctity of life we’re going to have to pass legislation recognizing when it begins, but the problem comes because different religions teach different things on this issue. This is one issue where the government _can’t_ remain religiously neutral. “Separation of religion and state” sounds good on paper, but in practice the state’s going to have to end up preferring one worldview over another at some point.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X