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Opinion | The Anti-Abortion Movement Is in Denial

It is always painful to grapple with realities that contravene your most deeply held beliefs.

A major theme of recent feminist writing has been the chasm between the rhetoric of sexual liberation and many women’s depressing experience of casual sex. I’ve met many idealistic Jews, raised to always give Israel the benefit of the doubt, who’ve been floored when they saw the occupation of Palestine up close. Plenty of people convinced themselves that because the impetus behind pandemic school closures was noble, the results wouldn’t be devastating.

Perhaps some in the anti-abortion movement are wrestling with a similarly discomfiting gap between intentions and effects right now. That, at least, is the most sympathetic reading of the angry denial of prominent abortion opponents when confronted with a predictable consequence of abortion bans: delayed care for traumatic pregnancy complications.

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last month, there’s been a steady barrage of horror stories, including several of women refused abortions for life-threatening pregnancy emergencies. Rakhi Dimino, a doctor in Texas, where most abortions have been illegal since last year, told PBS that more patients are coming to her with sepsis or hemorrhaging “than I’ve ever seen before.”

Some foes of abortion appear unbothered by such suffering; Idaho’s Republican Party recently rejected language from its party platform that would allow for abortions when a pregnant woman’s life is at stake. Others, however, seem to be struggling to reconcile their conviction that abortion bans are good for women with these evidently not-good outcomes. The result is frantic and sometimes paranoid deflection.

In National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis, who has written for Times Opinion calling for a fetal personhood amendment to the Constitution, suggested that pro-choice activists are the ones sowing confusion about how abortion bans affect miscarriage treatment. “Abortion supporters are muddying the waters on purpose, with the sole aim of undermining pro-life laws,” she wrote. The influential anti-abortion strategist Richard M. Doerflinger accused his opponents of “revving up a public relations apparatus to spread false and exaggerated claims in order to ‘paralyze’ physicians and discredit the laws.” LifeNews.com tweeted that doctors are “willing to put women’s lives at risk to create viral stories making abortion bans look culpable.”

To believe this, you have to believe that not just doctors, but also hospital attorneys and ethics boards, are collaborating to withhold care from anguished women in order to generate political propaganda.

Recently NPR reported on the ordeal of Elizabeth Weller, a Houston woman whose water broke at 18 weeks. With little amniotic fluid left, her fetus had almost no chance of survival. Continuing the pregnancy put Weller at risk of infection and hemorrhage. She decided to terminate, but when her doctor arrived at the hospital to perform the procedure, she wasn’t allowed to because of Texas’s abortion ban. The fetus still had a heartbeat, and Weller didn’t yet show signs of severe medical distress. She waited for days, getting sicker, until a hospital ethics board ruled that she could be induced.

Weller’s story is at once shocking and, to anyone who has followed the issue closely, predictable. Even before the Supreme Court allowed states to ban abortion, there were instances of egregious miscarriage mismanagement at Catholic hospitals, which operate under guidelines prohibiting abortion.

A 2008 article in The American Journal of Public Health detailed cases in which “Catholic-owned hospital ethics committees denied approval of uterine evacuation while fetal heart tones were still present, forcing physicians to delay care or transport miscarrying patients to non-Catholic-owned facilities.” According to a report by a Michigan health official obtained by The Guardian, one Catholic hospital subjected five women to dangerous delays in the treatment of miscarriages over just 17 months. In 2013 one of the women, Tamesha Means, sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, though her case was dismissed.

Given this history, it is ironic to see DeSanctis use the example of Catholic hospitals to argue that abortion bans don’t interfere with miscarriage care. For decades, she wrote, “Catholic hospitals, which don’t perform elective abortions, have somehow managed to treat pregnant women with ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages.”

In fact, one reason Catholic hospital policies around abortion and miscarriage haven’t been even more devastating is that, with Roe standing, other hospitals served as a release valve. In a 2016 A.C.L.U. report, for example, several doctors described caring for patients transferred from Catholic hospitals that wouldn’t treat their pregnancy-related emergencies. One doctor, David Eisenberg, recalled a patient who was transferred to his hospital from a Catholic institution 10 days after her water broke. Her sepsis was so severe it left her with a cognitive injury. “To this day, I have never seen someone so sick — because we would never wait that long before evacuating the uterus,” he said.

Abortion opponents write off reports about abortion bans making miscarriage more hazardous because they distrust the people publicizing them. Many wrote off news of a 10-year-old rape victim forced to seek an out-of-state abortion for the same reason. In a tweet, DeSanctis called the uproar over miscarriage care a “disingenuous sideshow concocted by concern trolls to undermine every pro-life law in the country.”

I’ll cop to wanting to undermine anti-abortion laws; I believe they put people’s health at grave risk, but that’s far from the only reason I oppose them. But dismissing an argument because of the motive of the person making it is a classic logical fallacy, the sort of thing you resort to when you’d rather not deal with the argument itself.

Members of the anti-abortion movement, including DeSanctis, often claim that abortion is never medically necessary. If they can’t bear to look clearly at the world they’ve made, maybe it’s because then they’d have to admit that what they’ve been saying has never been true.

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