Saving a Mother’s Life: The Case for Abortion

It used to be that most politicians, even those calling themselves “pro-life”, would allow for abortion for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. That’s been the case for a long time. I can recall as a young woman, in the days before the Roe v. Wade decision January 22,1973, hearing of women making their case to a hospital that their pregnancy was life-threatening and should be allowed. (Of course, I also knew of women who had to drive from Ohio to New York, one of the two states, the other being Hawaii, where abortion was legal at the time.)

But recent moves by the U.S. Supreme Court, Catholic bishops and the actions of a pharmacist in Idaho make me concerned that even that narrow exception will no longer be a consensus position. I know that many younger women think that those who have warned in election after election that women could lose autonomy over reproductive decisions have “cried wolf,” and that despite election losses their rights remain. (Maybe not quite as intact as they believe). But I would argue that the anti-abortion forces have become politically stronger than ever. 

The political power of the U.S. Conference of Bishops was evident during the health care debate last year. The Bishops had forcefully lobbied “pro-life” Democrats to insist on the position that even private insurance companies could not cover abortion services. In Catholic Churches, abortion far overshadows political discussions of other Catholic concerns, such as war, poverty and the death penalty, and church-goers are reminded to vote against pro-choice politicians every fall. As a result, last November, the U.S. House of Representatives, with the votes of 64 Democrats and 176 Republicans, accepted the Stupak-Pitts amendment. 

Now the U.S. Conference of Bishops has approved the action of Phoenix, Arizona Bishop Thomas Olmsted to revoke the Catholic affiliation of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, because it allowed an abortion deemed medically necessary to save the life of the mother. The woman developed primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), and by the 11th week of her pregnancy was critically ill. PPH and pregnancy is, according to one medical journal, a “lethal combination.” 

The hospital refused the demands of the bishop to promise that they would not allow such an abortion again, saying that “morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die we might be able to save.” Sister Margaret McBride was “automatically excommunicated” for allowing the procedure. 

The pharmacist in Idaho refused to fill a prescription to stop a woman’s bleeding because she may have had an abortion. That pharmacist would act as judge, jury, and legislature in determining that the punishment for a woman who had an abortion should be potentially life-threatening hemorrhage. The pharmacist claims that the refusal to fill methergine is permitted under Idaho’s so-called “Freedom of Conscience for Health Care Professionals” allowing providers to decline to participate in an abortion. 46 states have such laws. Methergine is a drug given after childbirth, miscarriages or abortions to control bleeding, to protect or save the life of the woman and does not induce abortions. 

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, headed by Justice Roberts, decided by a 5-4 vote in Gonzalez v. Carhart, to uphold the constitutionality of the 2003 ban on “partial birth abortions” despite the fact that the law did not even make allowances to save the life of the mother. The New England Journal of Medicine noted that “this is the first time that the Court has ever held that physicians can be prohibited from using a medical procedure deemed necessary by the physician to benefit the patient’s health.”  It reminds me of the 1963 novel I read as a teenager, The Cardinal, which depicted the anguish as the cardinal-to-be allowed his beloved sister to die rather than approve a (late-term) abortion.

It’s important to note that the Republican co-sponsor of the Stupak amendment, Joe Pitts (PA- 16), now heads the subcommittee under Energy and Commerce that deals with health care.  He has a 100 percent score from the National Right to Life. And that the 112th Congress has even more anti-abortion members than it did when Stupak-Pitts was passed. The Supreme Court, with its decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, has demonstrated that precedent (perhaps precedent such as Roe v. Wade?) is not “inexorable” in the words of Justice Roberts.

I think it's time that women start worrying that, instead of making abortion rare by increasing access to family planning services and health care, and assisting those who choose to put their child up for adoption, Congress and the courts will make abortion rare by continuing to whittle away at our rights until not even the exception for the life of the mother exists.

Mary Jo Kilroy served in the 111th Congress, representing Ohio's 15th District. Throughout her career in public service as a Franklin County Commissioner and Columbus School Board member, she has been a strong voice for health care reform, a strong public education system, community development initiatives and jobs. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.


  • Erin Matson

    Thank you for this post and your leadership.

    Last night, I was horrified to discover House Republicans on the floor conducting an extended, one-sided conversation (dominated by male speakers) about abortion rights, or rather a desire to strip them away in their entirety. This while the vast majority are looking to government to take action on what matters most: employment and relief from the burdens of the recession.

    Many horrifying things were said, one that stands out in particular is from Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN): “There is no medical indication on this earth for a third trimester abortion.”

    In light of this statement and many others, I believe exactly what you do: the slip-and-slide fundamentalists continue to extend in the wall separating church and state may soon to turn to legislating away even the most urgent and life-saving abortion care. We cannot allow our legislators to turn pregnancies gone horribly wrong into de facto and de jure death sentences.

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