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Protect women’s lives too

H.R. 358, sponsored by Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and also known as the Protect Life Act, is being debated in the House today. The vote will be a symbolic one, because even if it passes the bill will be DOA in the Senate.  The provision that's getting most of the attention, and rightly so, is the one that says no hospital would be obligated to perform an abortion under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals to treat and stabilize people in medical emergencies.

When this bill first came up in the spring, I talked to Brian Bosak, a legislative aide in Rep. Pitts' office. There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Bosak does not look at this as a question of valuing women less than their children. He believes that the conflict between the two is a manufactured one, and that pro-life doctors will treat both the mother and child as patients and act in the best interests of both of them as much as possible. That's a great ideal, and I have no doubt that many doctors do exactly that, but the fact is that this bill would permit doctors to do otherwise. It fails to safeguard women's lives — and for what? You can't protect the life of an unborn child whose mother is dead.

We talked about cases when, say, a woman comes in with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and the embryo must be removed immediately. He said that the Catholic doctrine of double effect would allow for the treatment of ectopic pregnancy even though that would inevitably result in the death of a child. A lot of people don't even consider that an abortion. I replied that yes, that's the doctrine, but not everyone interprets it the same way. Oh yeah, and not everybody is Catholic. If a woman is experiencing a medical emergency, is she supposed to pick a hospital where she's sure the doctors believe in the doctrine of double effect and interpret it the same way Rep. Pitts and his staff do?

Bosak told me, "There has never been a case where a doctor refused an abortion and a woman died." As far as I've found, that's true — at least in the U.S. — but that's no guarantee of what people will do in the future. Also, I'm wondering about the converse: has a hospital ever been forced to perform an abortion (or a procedure that it may or may not consider an abortion, such as treatment of ectopic pregnancy) under EMTALA? If not, and if doctors really will perform abortions in those cases where they are medically necessary to save a woman's life, then what is the impetus for this provision? Just to say "you can't require doctors to do what they'll do anyway?" Doesn't sound right.

I felt that Bosak was not ill-intentioned, but that he was looking at the issue in a very abstract way. Arguments on paper are all well and good, but he didn't understand — and I couldn't get across to him — what it would be like to be a woman who knows how badly pregnancy can go, looking at this law and wondering if it might mean your death.

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Why the rationale behind abortion laws matters

Reposting here a comment I made on a thread at PrawfsBlawg called, "Why Does it Matter if a Fetus is a Person?"

So what, really, is different about the state of the law if we call fetuses persons for legal purposes?

It makes a difference because in one case, you're balancing the rights of two people against each other, and in the other case, you're balancing a woman's rights simply against society's preferences about what she does. When there are two people involved, it can be legitimate to constrain the action of one with respect to the other. However, if the fetus is not a person, then how do proponents justify restrictions on abortion (other than what might be considered consumer protection measures)? Are those restrictions justified on the grounds that society has enough of a stake in reproduction that it gets to override personal decisions? If so, then on what basis can women be protected from being legally forced to have abortions, or to use contraception, or not to use contraception?

It may not make a difference to the unborn whether or not they are protected because they are legal persons, but it makes a huge difference to the rest of us.

[I'd add to that comment that there are other plausible legal rationales for restricting abortion in the case of fetal non-personhood besides the one I posited above, but I can't think of any that don't have implications I find unacceptable. This is why I do not support, for instance, efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade on the grounds that the right to privacy is not enumerated in the Constitution.]

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A Tragedy, But No Surprise

Thanyarat Doksone of the Associated Press reports from Bangkok, Thailand about the discovery of thousands of illegally aborted fetuses awaiting cremation at a Buddhist temple. The article remarks: "Although Thailand is home to a huge and active sex industry, many Thais are conservative on sexual matters, and Buddhist activists especially oppose liberalizing abortion laws."

But is there really a contradiction here?

I am someone who attempts to practice Buddhism. This religion like any other is divided between prolife and prochoice, and All Our Lives as an organization is open to people of all faiths and none. But Buddhist ethics do call for respecting both the unborn child's and the pregnant woman's lives.

Buddhist qualms about abortion generally have to do with reverence for life, not with sexual repression. Buddhist values call for sexual responsibility, to be sure, but modern understandings especially take such responsibility to include comprehensive sex education, the practices of contraception and safer sex, and LGBT rights.

And how is "a huge and active sex industry"–treating sex like a commodity marketed through a labor-exploitative industry–not simply the flip side of being "conservative on sexual matters"?

More to the point: many abortions worldwide, including those in Thailand, in places where abortion is legal and in places where it is not, are driven and historically have been driven by the intense shaming and ostracism forced upon single women and their children. At the same time that nonmarried women and any children they might conceive are subjected to these injustices–women's abilities to make their own choices, and informed choices, about having sex and preventing unintended pregnancies are often undermined by conservative sexual beliefs.

As a Buddhist I pray daily to relieve "suffering and the causes of suffering." I am praying for all who belonged in those small bodies– and for the women in whose larger, hopefully still living bodies these unborn children grew. For the unmentioned men who were partners to these pregnancies. For all who inflict miseries on women with "unauthorized" pregnancies, miseries so intense that abortion appears the only way out of being slut-shamed and trampled upon. For countries and cultures worldwide to learn, as quickly as possible, what precisely it means to respect the two profoundly interconnected human lives and bodies who are involved in each and every pregnancy, before, during, and ever after birth.

No doubt there are people of all faiths who pray for and nonreligious people who intend something very similar through their thoughts and deeds.

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The law problem

Last Saturday, I had my first long-form interview on the Shared Sacrifice BlogTalkRadio show. It was more than a little nerve-wracking. The great thing about Shared Sacrifice is that guests get a full hour to talk about the issues that are important to them. The difficult thing is — guests get a full hour to talk about the issues that are important to them! I'm very much an introvert, so it's rare for me to talk to anyone for an hour straight about anything. It went pretty well, with one exception. The question of legal policy came up, as it always does, and I had a lot of trouble with it. It's very hard to answer. I know what's wrong. It's wrong that unborn human beings have no status in law. It's wrong for the destruction of one of our daughters or sons before birth to be considered the equivalent of an appendectomy. It's also wrong that Amalia in Nicaragua can't be treated for cancer because she's pregnant. It's wrong that a woman who has a miscarriage could face prosecution in Utah. It's wrong that Christine Taylor could fall down a flight of stairs and then be arrested for attempted feticide after she went to the emergency room to see if she and her baby were OK. I know what I want. I want social and legal recognition that in every pregnancy, there are two (or more) lives whose needs and interests we need to balance. What I don't know is how to get there from here. I don't know how to get to the point of balancing two people's interests when we only acknowledge one person's existence. I also don't know how to legally acknowledge the personhood of the unborn, in anything remotely resembling the current political climate, without inviting situations like Amalia's and Christine Taylor's. I know what we can do. We can make the case for the human personhood of both pregnant women and the children they carry. We can urge people to consider that when they have sex, they are responsible for the well-being not only of themselves and their partners, but of any children they might conceive as well. We can work for women's freedom to make all nonviolent choices regarding sexuality and reproduction. We can work for laws that directly benefit both mother and child, such as the expansion of prenatal care in Nebraska. Beyond that … I'm just not sure. I would very much like to hear the thoughts of readers and my co-bloggers. What laws can pro-balance people favor to bring about justice for women and children without contributing to the further oppression of either party?