This week, a tragic story about a couple who lost a wanted pregnancy went viral. Taylor Mahaffey went into labor just shy of twenty weeks of pregnancy. Let’s get a few facts straight. A fetus is not viable this young. The earliest a fetus can survive outside the womb is 22 weeks, and then there’s only a 10% chance, which goes up as the length of gestation increases. Another fact, Texas, where the couples lives, outlawed abortions after twenty weeks unless the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus has abnormalities incompatible with life, neither of which was the case for Ms. Mahaffey. This law was passed in 2013.
Best practice in this case, and what Ms. Mahaffey wanted because she did not want her baby to suffer, would be to induce labor. But, even though she was just shy of 20 weeks, the hospital did not want to run afoul of the law and sent her home. For three days she felt her child struggle within her. Then she started bleeding, but since there was still a fetal heartbeat, she was sent home. After four days and several trips in and out of the hospital her waters broke and she delivered her son stillborn.
I am appalled that Ms. Mahaffey’s life was put at risk for a fetus that had no chance of surviving. I am appalled that best medical practice was discarded for fear of legal repercussions. I am appalled that Ms. Mahaffey and her husband suffered for four days knowing that their wanted pregnancy was ending and that their agency in how to handle a tragic situation was stripped from them.
And I am appalled that, even though this is happening to other women across the country, pro-lifers continue to rationalize this away. Here are arguments that I see.
1. You should hope for a miracle/when I was in a similar situation, I waited for things to end naturally because that’s what our bodies intended to do and it worked out wonderfully. I see this one and variations a lot. And it makes me see red. If you are in that situation and want to pray for a miracle or let your body do it’s work naturally, great! That is YOUR medical choice. It is your body at risk, your choice to make. Here’s the thing. Letting our bodies work the way nature intended does not work so well for other people. Google Savita Halappanavar. Further, OTHER PEOPLE MAY WANT A DIFFERENT CHOICE! Other women may not want to risk medical complications when they are told their fetus is not viable. Other women may want to get it over with and move on. Other women may worry that their fetus is suffering, is being crushed by their womb, is struggling for no reason because there is no hope of survival and may want to end their suffering. People are different. How one person deals with a tragedy is different from how others deal with the same tragedy. If you want to stick a nonviable pregnancy out to the bitter end and pray for a miracle, great! That’s your right! But it is not right for you to tell other people what to do in a similar situation. Suppose the tables were turned and the woman’s life was always given top priority and women were forced to abort nonviable pregnancies (I am NOT advocating this, but suppose this were the case?) Now you understand what you are putting women through when you deny them the agency to make the best medical decisions they can for themselves. I cannot say it enough, these decisions need to be between a woman and her doctor.
2. This is about murdering babies, no one thinks about their suffering. No one wants to murder babies. People who make this argument tend to see pregnancy as black and white. And they also seem to believe it always results in healthy babies and mothers. But here’s the thing. Maternal mortality in the US is unacceptably high. And even when women survive, not all pregnancies result in healthy babies who survive. In this case, something that the article made clear, the Mahaffey’s fetus’s feet were dangling from her cervix for four days. Mahaffey describes him as “struggling” in the womb. She and her husband state they did not want him to suffer. They were thinking about their son’s suffering! It why they wanted to end the pregnancy. Once again, some people want to hope for a miracle, hope that the doctor is wrong, etc. Other people focus on the quality of life and do not think there is anything noble about suffering needlessly. And the former should not be able to dictate the medical decisions for the latter!
3. I don’t believe this story because a family member went through something similar and got good, compassionate care. I’m glad you had support during a tough time. However, this law was enacted in 2013, so very recently. Also, Texas is a huge state, so people are going to have different experiences depending on where in the country they are, the religious affiliation of the hospital they are at, their medical insurance, etc. Further, other women are coming forward across the US with similar stories.
Taylor Mahaffey suffered for four days, feeling her wanted son die within her, knowing that he was not going to survive. Her ability to control the medical decisions that impact her body was stolen from her. This is cruel. Her life was put at risk for a nonviable pregnancy. Best medical practice was put aside for fear of legal repercussions.
Pregnancy is a complex situation. It is a grey area. Women can die (and in Ireland, have died) by being denied the best medical care while pregnant for fear of being prosecuted by the law. Each pregnancy is unique. Each challenge is unique. And each family is unique. How each family faces adversity is unique. What is comforting to some families, such as bucket lists for the nonviable fetus, are torture for others, and vice versa. Some people value life at all costs, other people value the quality of life.
We need to acknowledge the harm these laws are causing. We have to acknowledge that different people are going to react different ways and find different thing comforting in a crisis. And we need to trust women and their doctors with their personal medical decisions. The clergy and politicians need to butt out.