Just let her die (but it’s okay because science!)

Illinois congressman Joe Walsh has recently gone on record saying that “life of the mother” exceptions in abortion laws – you know, the ones favored by moderate (really?) Republicans – are unnecessary. But they aren’t unnecessary because we should just let the fetus-farm die. No, they’re unnecessary because, thanks to science, women just don’t die from trifling little things like pregnancy anymore. According to Walsh:

There is no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing, with advances in science and technology.

Huffpost has more details here.

Walsh is, of course, utterly wrong. Not only do American women still die from pregnancy-related complications, maternal morality rates actually rose significantly in the period of 1998-2005 (when they were higher than they’d been at any time in the previous 20 years).

13 thoughts on “Just let her die (but it’s okay because science!)

  1. Rep. Walsh doesn’t appear to have been denying that there is such a thing as maternal mortality. What he was asserting was that there are no health circumstances medically justifying direct abortion, i.e. no circumstances in which the life of a mother may only be saved by direct termination of the life of the unborn child. Whether Rep. Walsh is wrong in this is beyond my knowledge, but it’s worth noting that he is not without expert authority directly supporting him on this. For example, among the findings of the International Symposium on Maternal Health, a medical symposium held in Dublin last month, was that “direct abortion is not [currently] medically necessary to save the life of a woman.”


    Google reveals that similar joint declarations have been made by some groups of expert medical practitioners going back at least 20 years. Again, whether this is correct is beyond my ken, but it is only fair to note that such statements do appear to furnish support for the statement made by Rep. Walsh (at least as I interpret his statement). Under such circumstances, I think it is not prudent to state that he is “utterly wrong” unless that is a statement made on the speaker’s own authority. Better to note that there is expert disagreement over whether Rep. Walsh is right or wrong (assuming there also authorities who think he is wrong), or perhaps that Authority X thinks Rep. Walsh is utterly wrong.

  2. Hmmm…..not to mention that during this time period abortions were legal, including the “life of the mother” exception.

    Let’s not even go to the obvious fact that all men are just waiting for their wives, girlfriends, significant others, to die so they can move on to the next one…..assuming, of course, that there’s a man in the picture at all.

  3. A spokeman for the Dublin group appears to have this profile:

    Eoghan de Faoite is a 24 year-old full time
    medical student at the Royal College of
    Surgeons in Ireland. Since 2002 he has been
    the Chairman of Youth Defence, Ireland’s
    largest and most active pro-life group.
    He has organised & led nationwide pro-life
    information tours, directed highly effective
    political lobbying campaigns, galvanised and
    motivated the youth of Ireland to speak out
    against abortion.
    Eoghan has been a constant &
    uncompromising pro-life voice in the Irish
    media and has spoken at numerous pro-life
    events across Europe and North America.

  4. Nemo,
    You’re right – as far as I can tell – that Walsh is saying that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life or preserve her health, because of “advances in. . .technology.” I would’ve thought maternal mortality rates would be enough, by themselves, to suggest that this is a bizarre overstatement. It doesn’t *follow* that at least some of the deaths in question could’ve been prevented by abortion, sure. But it does show that “science and technology” haven’t managed to make having babies a completely safe endeavor. Now, maybe it’s the case even though women die from pregnancy-related complications, abortion is never medically relevant in trying to save their lives. I’ll admit that this is logically possible. But surely you concede that it’s doubtful?

    Regardless of that dialectic, though, we can easily point to cases where abortion is (or, sadly, would’ve been) a live-saving treatment. For example, this tragedy:


    Or what happened to this woman:


    And we can look at what happens to women in countries with blanket bans on abortion:


    And we can look at statistical correlation between access to abortion and decline in maternal mortality:


    Does any of this prove that it’s not *logically possible* for these women’s lives to be saved without the use of abortion? No, it doesn’t. But I think it gives you pretty good evidence that abortion saves lives.

    Some people (including a reporter for the Irish Times – though you’ll forgive me for not taking the Irish Times to be a reliable source when it comes to abortion!) disagree, and think that abortion doesn’t save lives, or at least isn’t required to save lives. That doesn’t mean that Walsh’s statement isn’t utterly wrong, nor does the mere presence of disagreement mean that there isn’t an obviously right thing to think. Some people deny climate change. Some people think the earth is 5,000 years old. Some people think the earth is flat! The presence of disagreement doesn’t undercut the overwhelming evidence and consensus in any of these cases.

    Abortion saves lives. It’s ludicrous to deny this.

  5. What is the definition of “direct abortion”? From what little research I’ve done, this is Catholic terminology. It seems the Catholics are OK with “indirect abortion”, which is when the life of the mother is in jeopardy, such as ectopic pregnancy, but there seems to be quite a lot of debate as to what constitutes “direct abortion” and “indirect abortion”. For example, terminating a pregnancy in order to receive cancer treatment, I think would be considered a “direct abortion”, but if the mother is hemorrhaging badly and about to die and the only way to save her is to take the fetus, this would be “indirect abortion”. Perhaps someone with a better understanding can give more expert definitions.

  6. Also, rather than leaving all this up to lawmakers, how about we leave it between the doctor, the patient, and the priest. Then we don’t have to parse definitions.

  7. The pro-life youth defense has this statement:

    The Symposium’s conclusions were issued in the Dublin Declaration on Maternal Healthcare which states:

    “As experienced practitioners and researchers in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.
    We uphold that there is a fundamental difference between abortion, and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child.
    We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.”

    So for example, “delivering” the foetus before it can live outside the womb does not count as abortion if – as with severe eclampsia – it is done to save the life of the mother. I do wish this had been explained to the bishop who excommunicated a nun for agreeing to having the foetus removed to save a mother with a failing heart. He said she approved an abortion, a heinous killing.

    Let’s also note that some very distinguihed philosophers have thoroughly questioned the double-effect defense the Dublin group appears to be invoking.

  8. Just popping in to confirm that the distinction between direct and indirect abortion in Catholic terminology does indeed rely on the principle of double effect. Thus any action that directly and intentionally causes the death of the fetus is direct abortion, while any action that is intended to, and directly causes, some other good end, but which also inevitably results in the death of the fetus, is considered indirect abortion.

    Also, a number of contemporary Catholic moral theologians have eyed this distinction with suspicion. On the one hand, it is frankly indistinguishable from semantic logic-chopping to outsiders (by which I mean, not just non-Catholics, but also Catholics who have only a basic Sunday school education); and even sincere use of the principle must often acknowledge a gray area, rather than a bright line, in the area of intention.

    And on the other hand, it can lead to the perpetration of more harm than would otherwise be necessary to achieve the desired good end. Ectopic pregnancies are the classic example here: because direct abortion is immoral, you cannot simply remove the implanted embryo: you have to actually perform a hysterectomy, on the grounds that the Fallopian tube is now, essentially, a diseased organ that you are removing to save the woman’s life. Principle of Double Effect, meet Hippocratic Oath. :b

    And that’s not even mentioning the disingenuous misuse of the principle to draw a thin veil of technical respectability over an act that is actually immoral. (Which might fool the canon lawyers, but won’t fool God.)

  9. But, here in the U.S. we supposedly have separation of church and state, so the Catholic Church shouldn’t be providing the definition of what is a legal or illegal abortion, nor how procedures should be done. If a doctor gave me a hysterectomy for an ectopic pregnancy, when just taking the embryo and leaving me still fertile would have been enough, I’d sue for malpractice.

    Politicians should not be making these kinds of medical and moral decisions for women who may or may not be Christian. Plus, every mother’s assessment of risk will be different. If I have four young kids at home, my risk assessment of a precarious pregnancy may be significantly different from a women who has had a very hard time getting pregnant and feels this might be her one and only chance. These are difficult decisions that should be left to the woman they concern and whomever she chooses as her advisers.

    And though significant progress has been made in science and technology, pregnancy and child bearing, unfortunately, remains a risky business.

  10. @Merry: I’m focusing on Catholic thought in my comments simply to explicate it for the discussion, since it is the driver behind the Catholic pro-life movement. I am not asserting here that it should be the basis for civil law.

    Plus, every mother’s assessment of risk will be different. If I have four young kids at home, my risk assessment of a precarious pregnancy may be significantly different from a women who has had a very hard time getting pregnant and feels this might be her one and only chance.

    Indeed, one of the weaknesses of strict double-effect analysis of abortion is that it isolates the surgical (or medical) act of abortion from everything else that ought properly to go into a moral decision. A woman with four young children not only is not risking her only chance to have children; she also has morally significant responsibilities to the children she already has, and likely to other people in her life as well. This issue too is discussed by Catholic moral theologians.

    I’ve read one scholar who asserts that the principle of double effect was never intended to be a single test by which you could strictly rule on the morality of an action, but rather, was intended to be a hermeneutic that would be used as just part of the analysis that goes into a moral decision. Such decisions are, in general, to be made by an individual with a well-formed conscience by means of intellectually honest analysis, prayerful reflection, and consultation with others.

  11. CC, look at the first link in #4. If you banned abortions even when the mother will die, 2 lives are lost instead of one.

Comments are closed.