My rights as a pregnant woman or the lack thereof

My rights as a pregnant woman or the lack thereof March 19, 2012

Growing up surrounded by people who were anti-abortion, one thing I heard all the time was that all that it would take to make pro-choice people change their mind was for them to get pregnant with a wanted child. They would then see clearly that it was a fetus was a baby, not a ball of tissue, and that it was a person, not just an inconvenience. Weirdly, my experience has been only the opposite.

As many of you know, I am currently pregnant. This pregnancy was planned and the child it will result in is much anticipated. But while I was pro-choice when I became pregnant, I am only more so today. The reason is that being pregnant in the current anti-abortion atmosphere is, well, a bit scary. As I look around I see laws being passed or considered left and right that place the rights of my fetus, a potential human being, above the rights of my own self, an actual, living breathing human being with a family that needs me. And I have to say, as a currently pregnant woman, that is frightening.

Let me offer you some examples. 

Last fall the House passed a bill that would enable doctors to refuse to perform abortions even if that were the only way to save a woman’s life and the fetus would die regardless. In other words, if I went to a Catholic hospital hemorrhaging from my uterus, literally bleeding to death, and in desperate need of an abortion to save my life, the doctors could legally stand around and watch me die. Fortunately, while this bill passed the House it died in the Senate. However, this sort of thing is not that unimaginable, as the case of a woman who was almost bled to death because the doctor on call refused to perform a life-saving abortion illustrates. She literally almost died, and was only saved when a doctor willing to provide abortions showed up at the last minute.

Recently, Arizona passed a law making it legal for a doctor to withhold information about fetal abnormalities or genetic problems from a pregnant woman if he thought providing such information might lead her to have an abortion. Yes, you read that right, this law that was passed makes it possible for a doctor to lie to his pregnant patient in order to force his anti-abortion views on her – and face no consequences. As is standard procedure for pregnant women, I have had an ultrasound checking for abnormalities. The doctor performing the ultrasound said something in passing that leads me to believe he is pro-life. If I lived in Arizona, I would have to wonder if he lied to me when he said everything looks normal.

On a related note, Rick Santorum has stated that he thinks genetic screening and checking for fetal abnormalities is highly problematic because it leads some women to have abortions. He didn’t call for them to be banned, but he did say that doctors and insurance companies should not be required to provides those screenings. Several women have written passionate articles in response, one about how amniocenteses saved the lives of two of her children and the other about how genetic screening would have given her the knowledge she needed to possibly decide to end her child’s immense and terminal suffering before his birth. If Santorum had his way, I might find that prenatal screenings and genetic testing are no longer covered by my insurance, and thus quite possibly out of reach.

A personhood bill that defined personhood as beginning at conception was defeated in Mississippi last year, but copies of this bill have since been introduced in numerous other states. In addition to banning abortion and likely some forms of birth control, this bill would make it murder to end ectopic pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancies occur when the embryo implants in the Fallopian tubes rather than the uterus. Such a pregnancy is not viable and ends in maternal death if it is not removed. But like I said, personhood bills would make saving the life of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy against the law. That makes the idea of becoming pregnant a bit scary now, doesn’t it? I’d like to know that if I begin a wanted pregnancy only to learn that it is an ectopic pregnancy, I won’t have to forfeit my life as a consequence.

Last year a bill in the Georgia legislature sought to criminalize miscarriages. This bill, which fortunately did not pass, would have made every miscarriage a case for a criminal investigation. In other words, were I to lose my very much wanted pregnancy, I would have to not only grieve the loss of a wanted pregnancy but would also have to prove that nothing I had done, intentionally or accidentally, had contributed to the loss of my fetus. And believe it or not, a conviction could lead to the death penalty. As a pregnant woman, the idea that I could be prosecuted as a murderer for having a miscarriage is quite simply terrifying.

While the Georgia bill did not pass, several women in recent years have been charged for miscarrying. One woman, in Mississippi, was charged with murder after losing her third trimester fetus when it was revealed she had a cocaine habit, even though there is no evidence that cocaine use can lead to miscarriage. She faces life in prison. A woman in Indiana was charged similarly when she lost her fetus after attempting and failing to commit suicide last year after being abandoned by her boyfriend. Her intent was not to harm her fetus, but to take her own life, but nevertheless she has now been in jail for over a year. She is being charged with murder and faces forty-five to sixty-five years in jail if convicted. And apparently, these sorts of prosecutions are becoming more and more common.

Now obviously, I don’t do cocaine and have no intention of committing suicide. I’m trying my best to avoid anything that might harm my fetus. Still, the precedent is disturbing. What if I went several days without sleep and then fell down a flight of stairs, or what if I got in a wreck biking after my doctor asked me not to and suffered a miscarriage as a result? If someone determined that my actions had been reckless, should I expect to face blame and murder charges? This should not be something I have to worry about. But it is.

And as if last year’s bill was not enough, there is a bill this year in Georgia that would make an abortion illegal even in the case of a woman whose fetus had died. The law would make it so that a woman whose fetus had died would have to wait for her body to naturally expel the dead fetus rather than having a doctor clear her uterus of dead fetal tissue. Why? Because that’s the way God intended, apparently. No really, that was the argument made in the Georgia legislature. Speaking as a pregnant woman, this sounds seriously dangerous. If my very much wanted fetus were to die, I would like to know that the doctors would do everything possible to protect my health and my future fertility. If this bill passed and I lived in Georgia, this would not be the case.

Now of course, not all of these bills have passed. But at some level, that doesn’t matter. The fact that so many people want to see me first and foremost as a human incubator for nine months rather than as a person is not just maddening but also terrifying. I’d like to know that any doctor would give me an emergency abortion to save my life, that I can be sure doctors are telling me the truth about my fetus’ condition, and that if I had a miscarriage I would be given sympathy rather than accusations. But in today’s climate, I don’t feel like I can know any of this for sure.

Being pregnant has made me only more aware of the complexities and personal ramifications of the anti-abortion efforts that have sprung up since the 2010 election. And this is my perspective as a woman with a wanted pregnancy. Being pregnant, whether intended or not, is becoming a scary enterprise in this country. I am very much looking forward to no longer being pregnant, to no longer being seen by so many as primarily a human incubator, to no longer having to worry about whether a doctor would let me bleed to death or lie to me. I’m very much looking forward to knowing that my rights as a woman will not be in question. Except of course that they still will be, at least if I want to use birth control.

And finally, it strikes me that these laws don’t simply place my fetus’s rights above my own. Rather, they place the rights of anti-abortion doctors above my own. When a doctor’s right to act on his anti-abortion views trumps my right to live or my right to accurate information about my fetus, something is seriously wrong with our system. But this is the system that I, as a pregnant woman, must navigate, keeping my fingers crossed in hopes that I and my fetus both make it out of the madness that is the current discussion on women’s reproductive rights in this country.

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