Senator Gary Peters did something I never indulged in during all my years in public office. He told a deeply personal, wrenching story about a family tragedy in a public forum.
He and his wife faced the decision to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy because his wife had developed a uterine infection that would kill her if the pregnancy continued. There is nothing phony about the situation that Senator Peters described.
Almost exactly the same thing happened to me during one of my pregnancies. The difference was that I did not develop the lethal infection that Senator Peter’s wife did. But I was told quite clearly that if I had, the only way to stop it from killing me (and my baby, as well) would be to “stop the pregnancy.”
I actually faced decisions such as this in both my pregnancies. I developed run-away high blood pressure during another pregnancy and nothing the doctor could do would stop it. I was also losing weight at a frightening pace.
I will never forget the argument my doctor and I had about “stopping the pregnancy.” (There’s that phrase again. In my experience doctors don’t say “abort” in times like this. They say “stop the pregnancy.”) She looked at me and said, “I’ve got two patients, and I’m not going to lose you.”
I was, at the time we had this conversation, a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. I was chair of a powerful committee and was well situated to pass any legislation I wanted to help the people of my district. I had a clear run to a long career of many decades doing the kind of work that I do well.
I decided that day to hang it up. The stress of the job, plus the stress of the pregnancy were too much for my body. It was the only thing I could see that would give me a chance to save my life and keep my baby.
Later, in my next pregnancy, when I was told that I would die if I didn’t terminate the pregnancy, I came to another tough realization. I realized that, that I could not “stop” this pregnancy if it meant my baby’s life. My baby and I would live — or die — together. There was never a question in my mind about killing my baby. Never. I didn’t even consider it.
I’m not telling you this to make a statement that other women should decide to die rather than “stop a pregnancy.” I’m telling you because I want you to understand that such situations where real people have to make these heart breaking decisions do happen, and they are not all that rare.
Modern medicine spares us a lot of terrible consequences that we would otherwise face. In previous generations, women died in childbirth and due to pregnancy in great numbers. Even with our modern abilities to deal with the complications of pregnancy, women still die. Due to right-wing politicians’ degradation of both living standards and medical care for America’s poor people, the United States of America is the only industrialized nation to have a rising maternal death rate.
You heard me correctly. Our “pro life” politicians that we have held our noses and voted for because of the sanctity of human life have enacted policies which have caused our maternal death rate in this country to go up, not down.
What that means in real life is that many of the policies that right wing Republicans have enacted, and that an increasing number of our politicized bishops and priests are supporting, kill mothers and babies. I recently saw a glossy publication put out by one of our bishops here in America telling his flock that it was time for Catholics to think about politics. In it, the bishop talked about the “primacy” of human life in elections. It was clear, reading his verbiage, that by primacy of human life, he meant abortion and nothing else; and by abortion, he meant making it illegal and nothing else.
In a second section of his publication, he went on to discuss the supposed evils of what he mistakenly labeled “socialism.” He adopted the extreme right wing, Neo Nazi definition of “socialism” in toto and equated it with Church teaching. In this netherworld, programs like Medicaid are “socialism.”
Among other life-saving services, Medicaid provides prenatal care for pregnant women and their unborn babies. The good bishop was talking about defending the life of unborn babies on the one hand and endangering the lives of unborn babies on the other hand. He discarded consideration of the lives of the mothers completely.
He was also demanding that his flock vote for politicians who want to end “socialist” programs such as Social Security and Medicare by terminating the Payroll Tax that funds them. If that happens, a lot of elderly people will suffer and die.
I spent 18 years in public office. I’ve written and passed a lot of laws. I can tell you that law is not a parlor game. It is connected with hard and unyielding realities in the lives of innocent people.
Bad laws kill people. Bad laws kill a lot of people. Bad laws kill people for decades.
There is a central, underlying meaning to Senator Peters’ story about his family tragedy, and my own brushes with death in my pregnancies. That meaning is based on a hard reality. Pregnancy can be dangerous. Situations can arise that force doctors and families to make horrible decisions, and they can manifest in minutes.
Many times, these things occur late in the pregnancy where the solution is to deliver the baby and do everything you can to save its life. But what happened to me and to Senator Peter’s wife, occurred in the middle weeks of pregnancy where the baby cannot survive outside the womb.
These things happen. They are real.
I decided to roll the die. I put my life on the line and I was blessed that my children and I survived. The second time I did this, I faced the real possibility of leaving my precious first born child motherless. It was a terrible experience.
I came through it, but other women don’t. Women die in these situations and the baby dies with them.
I made my decision of my own free will. But I knew when I made it that I would never make a similar decision for any other woman.
I will support politicians who support government programs that help women avoid these decisions by providing them with excellent medical care and nutrition. Anyone who opposes these things is attacking the sanctity of human life, not supporting it, and the fact that they do it with high levels of sanctimony does not change that.
We have five, soon to be six, pro life judges on the United States Supreme Court. Contrary to what this bishop is saying, we don’t need to vote on overturning Roe in this election. We’ve already won that battle. What we need to vote for is elected officials who will provide us with a way forward.
When we overturn Roe in the next few months, as we absolutely should given that we have a clear “pro life” majority on the Supreme Court, we need to be very careful about the subsequent laws we write defining how to enforce this overturn. There are some extremists in the pro life movement who want to make abortion illegal in all circumstances, even to save the mother’s life.
While I’m all for pro life laws and have passed more than a few of them myself, I want those laws to be truly pro life.
We must write laws that allow for situations such as the one Senator Peters described and which I lived through. I don’t for one minute trust the woman-hating extreme right wing of our political spectrum to write laws like that. I’ve worked with them, argued with them and listened to them close up and I can tell you, they will not do it.
If women end up dying because of bad laws — and this could easily happen — any overturn of Roe that we get will itself be overturned in a short time. And that will be permanent.
We have the justices in place to overturn Roe. If they don’t do it, then our whole strategy of packing the Supreme Court has failed and we need to rethink and try something else.
If they do overturn Roe, we will have one chance to write laws that are truly pro life. We cannot do that with elected officials who are misogynist, right wing nut jobs.
From Elle Magazine:
United States Senator Gary Peters, a low-key, moderate Democrat from Michigan, is in a very tight re-election race that could decide whether his party wins the Senate. But he’s not the kind of guy who typically makes national headlines. He’s more known for being a dad who enjoys riding his motorcycle and drinking the local beer than he is for saying attention-grabbing things. So it may come as a surprise that with this story, he will become the first sitting senator in American history to publicly share a personal experience with abortion.
“It’s a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health, a situation I went through with my first wife,” he told me in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.
In the late 1980s in Detroit, Peters and his then wife, Heidi, were pregnant with their second child, a baby they very much wanted. Heidi was four months along when her water broke, leaving the fetus without amniotic fluid—a condition it could not possibly survive. The doctor told the Peters to go home and wait for a miscarriage to happen naturally.
But it didn’t happen. They went back to the hospital the next day, and the doctor detected a faint heartbeat. He recommended an abortion, because the fetus still had no chance of survival, but it wasn’t an option due to a hospital policy banning the procedure. So he sent the couple again home to wait for a miscarriage. “The mental anguish someone goes through is intense,” Peters says, “trying to have a miscarriage for a child that was wanted.”
As they waited, Heidi’s health deteriorated. When she returned to the hospital on the third day, after another night without a natural miscarriage, the doctor told her the situation was dire. She could lose her uterus in a matter of hours if she wasn’t able to have an abortion, and if she became septic from the uterine infection, she could die.
The doctor appealed to the hospital’s board for an exception to their anti-abortion policy and was denied. “I still vividly remember he left a message on the answering machine saying, ‘They refused to give me permission, not based on good medical practice, simply based on politics. I recommend you immediately find another physician who can do this procedure quickly,’” Peters recalls. (Read the rest here.)