What the Heck
After what I’d perceived as a long period of everyone gradually getting saner about pregnancy—especially people mostly recognizing that a pregnant woman is still a free adult, retaining both her decision-making faculties and her basic human rights—it looks like portions of the United States have abruptly decided that, no, they’d actually rather treat their pregnant mothers as breeding cattle.
If it was just one incident I could write it off as an aberration; two, a coincidence; but three is conspiracy, right?
Well, horrifying exhibit number one: Samantha Burton. Twenty-five weeks pregnant, she came to the hospital when she began experiencing premature contractions. After examining her, the doctor prescribed full bed rest—effectively telling her to spend the next fifteen weeks confined to a hospital bed. Samantha, a working mother with two other small children to care for, objected that this would be impossible for her.
At this point:
Burton wanted to leave and get a second opinion, but the hospital blocked her departure and set up a hasty court hearing in her hospital room. Burton was sworn in and handed a telephone, with Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper on the other end of the line. She had no lawyer and no legal experience, but Burton was expected to argue her case against her obstetrician and the hospital’s attorney.
Her request to go to another hospital was denied. The judge ordered Burton to remain in Tallahassee Memorial and submit to any medical treatment that doctors decided was necessary to preserve the life and health of her fetus. And because the fetus was in the breech position, the judge also ordered Burton to submit to a caesarean section whenever her doctors said it was time.
Burton, who had broken no law, was essentially imprisoned at Tallahassee Memorial and denied control over her medical care. Three days later, doctors performed an emergency cesarean section, but Burton’s fetus was dead.
Appalling. Utterly appalling. Samantha Burton was legally imprisoned, stripped of all powers of self-determination, and subjected to forced surgery—all because, apparently, she made the mistake of being pregnant in Florida.
Don’t get pregnant in Iowa either. Horrifying exhibit number two is Christine Taylor, who in her second trimester accidentally fell down the stairs.
Paramedics rushed to the scene and ultimately declared her healthy. However, since she was pregnant with her third child at the time, Taylor thought it would be best to be seen at the local ER to make sure her fetus was unharmed.
That’s when things got really bad and really crazy. Alone, distraught, and frightened, Taylor confided in the nurse treating her that she hadn’t always been sure she’d wanted this baby, now that she was single and unemployed. She’d considered both adoption and abortion before ultimately deciding to keep the child. The nurse then summoned a doctor, who questioned her further about her thoughts on ending the pregnancy. Next thing Taylor knew, she was being arrested for attempted feticide.
Christine Taylor spent two days in jail before she was released. The D.A. investigated her for three weeks before ultimately declining to prosecute. All because she shared, in what she thought was confidence, her doubts and fears with the medical personnel that were supposed to be caring for her.
Now obviously all of this is happening around the margins of the abortion debate, so I should say that I have really mixed feelings about abortion. I don’t think there’s a magic line at birth, or between the second and third trimesters, where something that was previously an inhuman, unfeeling bundle of cells suddenly becomes a real baby: I think it’s a real baby pretty early on, actually. I’m not sure abortion is ever a good choice (although sometimes it is the best available choice).
But even when it’s not the best available choice, even when it’s a bad choice, even in situations that I personally would consider immoral: I’m still pro-choice. I still believe in allowing women who want them access to safe abortions, because otherwise we create a world where pregnant women who take “suspicious” falls are thrown in jail. Or a world where teenagers hire men to beat them into inducing miscarriage. If this happens in places where abortion is legal, at least theoretically—although access to safe abortions is still highly dependent on location and wealth and, for teenage girls, may not exist at all—I don’t have to think very long to imagine what kinds of horrible situations develop when desperate women have no safe recourse for ending an unwanted pregnancy. In fact I don’t have to imagine at all: we already know perfectly well what happens when abortion is illegal, and in my moral calculus those societies are more horrible than a society where we allow some babies to be killed before they’re born.
I can understand, however, those who weigh the same issue and come to a different conclusion. I can understand it very easily. Even pro-lifers, however, generally shy away from the idea of punishing women who have been driven to seek abortions. They want to criminalize the doctors who perform abortions, but as the pro-choicers have been pointing out recently, anti-abortion activists generally don’t want to see desperate women jailed for the crime of seeking to end their pregnancies.
Well, except in Utah. For horrifying exhibit number three, we return to the case I linked above, of the pregnant teenager who hired somebody to beat her up in an attempt to induce miscarriage. As it turns out, although the Utah authorities did jail her and tried their best to prosecute her, “the charges were dropped because, at the time, under Utah state law a woman could not be prosecuted for attempting to arrange an abortion, lawful or unlawful.”
They’d like to fix that now.
A bill passed by the Utah House and Senate this week and waiting for the governor’s signature, will make it a crime for a woman to have a miscarriage, and make induced abortion a crime in some instances.
According Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, what makes Utah’s proposed law unique is that it is specifically designed to be punitive toward pregnant women, not those who might assist or cause an illegal abortion or unintended miscarriage.
The bill passed by legislators amends Utah’s criminal statute to allow the state to charge a woman with criminal homicide for inducing a miscarriage or obtaining an illegal abortion. The basis for the law was a recent case in which a 17-year-old girl, who was seven months pregnant, paid a man $150 to beat her in an attempt to cause a miscarriage.
In addition to criminalizing an intentional attempt to induce a miscarriage or abortion, the bill also creates a standard that could make women legally responsible for miscarriages caused by ‘reckless’ behavior.
In other words, if god-forbid I were to lose my pregnancy, under this new law I could be convicted of murder and jailed for life. After all, I eat soft cheeses and lox bagels: many authorities would tell you that’s “reckless.” Or as women’s rights advocates have pointed out, a wife who fails to leave her abusive husband could also be prosecuted and punished, if his beatings cause her to lose the baby. It was reckless of her to remain in that situation.
Moreover, “Utah’s bill would apply throughout the entirety of a woman’s pregnancy. Even first trimester miscarriages could become the basis for a murder trial.”
This is just so insanely wrongheaded, it’s hard to believe it’s happening, even in Utah. And the cumulative effect of all these cases is staggering to me. What is this, the war on pregnant ladies? What the heck is going on out there?