In cases like mine, when there is no detectable heartbeat, the trauma may primarily be to women’s mental health. But when there is a detectable heartbeat and there are other pregnancy complications, there are physiological stakes, including that women can and have died. In Poland, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, a 30-year-old woman named Izabela died of septic shock this year in Pszczyna after doctors declined to intervene to save her life. The fetus’s heart was still beating, so physicians may have been afraid to break the country’s laws because the penalty is spending three years in prison, according to reporting in The Guardian.
Izabela isn’t the only one. In 2012, before Irish abortion restrictions were rolled back in 2018, a 31-year-old woman named Savita Halappanavar died in similar circumstances. In 2016 in Italy, where abortion is legal until about the 12th week, a woman named Valentina Milluzzo died of sepsis because her doctor refused to help her end her twin pregnancy, even after one twin no longer had a heartbeat. “According to the woman’s relatives, the gynecologist, who was a conscientious objector” — something that’s legal under Italy’s abortion law — “refused to perform an abortion of the second twin after the loss of the first fetus. He remarked that ‘as long as it [the fetus] is alive, I will not intervene,’” wrote Elena Caruso in the academic journal Feminist Legal Studies.
If you think this wouldn’t happen in the United States, think again, because there is evidence that it is already happening. At Catholic hospitals, which are expected to follow directives set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to never allow abortion services, women may not be getting the full slate of medical options when they present with an ectopic pregnancy.
In September, Ghazaleh Moayedi, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Texas, sounded the alarm in these pages. “Pregnancies that face complications will now be at greater risk. Under this new law, the only abortion exception allowed is for a medical emergency. That might mean if a woman will imminently lose an organ or die without intervention. But how we judge that risk will play out individually with each hospital’s policy, in each clinic,” she wrote. “I can think of no other area of health care in which we would wait for someone to worsen nearly to the point of death before we offered intervention. It’s just unconscionable.”
When I read some of the testimony of reproductive choice opponents, I think about how certain they sound about what life is. Situations like mine, which existed in a liminal state for weeks, defy easy categorization and require intimate and informed medical care, not blunt force laws that don’t consider these delicate scenarios.
And when I look at polls in which a low percentage of American voters list abortion rights as a top issue, I wonder if those voters have considered how a lack of access to these procedures may affect them, even if they would never have an elective abortion. Those two weeks were among the worst of my life, and thinking about anyone having to prolong that kind of purgatory just about breaks my heart.