Michelle Goldberg: Why is the right making miscarrying women suffer?

It’s common for opponents of abortion to claim that abortion is never medically necessary.

(Liz Moskowitz/The New York Times) A critical care nurse, who requested anonymity to discuss her experience, at her home in Texas on July 15, 2022. While pregnant, her water broke at 19 weeks. When doctors would not conduct an abortion until she was actively sick, she and her husband flew to Colorado for the procedure.

It’s getting hard to keep track of all the stories of women being denied care for miscarriages and otherwise having their lives endangered because of state abortion bans.

The Washington Post reported on a woman who had to travel to Michigan after a doctor in her home state refused to end an ectopic pregnancy because of the presence of fetal cardiac activity. (Ectopic pregnancies, in which an embryo implants outside the uterus, never lead to a live birth and are the leading cause of first-trimester maternal death.)

In an interview with The Associated Press, a doctor described a patient who was miscarrying in Texas and had developed a uterine infection. She couldn’t get the necessary treatment — an immediate abortion — as long as the fetus displayed signs of life. “The patient developed complications, required surgery, lost multiple liters of blood and had to be put on a breathing machine,” The AP reported, all because, as the doctor said, “we were essentially 24 hours behind.”

A doctor in Wisconsin, Carley Zeal, told The New York Times about caring for a woman having a miscarriage who had been denied treatment at a hospital. By the time she found Zeal, The Times reported, “the woman had been bleeding intermittently for days,” which the doctor said put her at “increased risk of hemorrhage or infection.”

Some in the anti-abortion movement insist that the doctors refusing to treat these women are mistaken about what the laws in their states say. “To the extent that doctors or attorneys are confused about whether necessary women’s health care is forbidden under pro-life laws, the fault lies in large part with pro-abortion activists, who have been intentionally muddying the waters,” tweeted Alexandra DeSanctis Marr, a writer for National Review and the co-author of “Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.”

If that was the case, one might think opponents of abortion would be eager to see their laws clarified. After all, the suffering caused by mismanaged miscarriages doesn’t serve the cause of fetal life. Ultimately, it will likely be detrimental to the anti-abortion movement. In Ireland, it was the death of Savita Halappanavar, who developed septicemia after being refused a termination while she was miscarrying, that spurred the successful campaign for legalized abortion there. Preventing such deaths should be as urgent a priority for those opposed to legal abortion as for those who champion it.

But it isn’t. Last week, the Biden administration released guidance that under federal law, hospitals must provide abortions when they’re necessary to stabilize patients suffering medical emergencies, or transfer them to a hospital that will. Texas is suing to prevent that policy from going into effect, saying it would “transform every emergency room in the country into a walk-in abortion clinic.”

Idaho’s Republican Party recently changed its platform to call for the criminalization of all abortions without exception. According to a blog post by Idaho Reports, a public policy television program, some delegates shared concerns about ectopic pregnancies and proposed an exemption in the platform when a woman’s life is in “lethal danger.” The exemption proposal was voted down, 412-164.

In The Times, the president of Texas Right to Life, John Seago, acknowledged that abortion bans could delay intervention during miscarriages. Doctors, he said, cannot decide that “I want to cause the death of the child today because I believe that they’re going to pass away eventually.”

I thought I was sufficiently cynical about the anti-abortion movement, but I admit to being taken aback by this blithe, public disregard for the lives of women, including women suffering the loss of wanted pregnancies.

I suspect that part of what’s happening is the right following its own rhetoric to its logical conclusion. It’s common for opponents of abortion to claim that abortion is never medically necessary. Among conservative elites, this argument relies on semantic trickery, defining the termination of pregnancy to save a woman’s life as something other than abortion. Hence when the president of Americans United for Life testified before Congress, she argued, about the high-profile case of the 10-year-old rape victim, “If a 10-year-old became pregnant as a result of rape and it was threatening her life, then that’s not an abortion.”

This stance allows some opponents of abortion to avoid reckoning with the consequences of the laws they support. Others, however, see those consequences fully and are fine with them. Scott Herndon, an Idaho Republican who recently unseated an incumbent state senator, was the politician who proposed the abortion criminalization language in his party’s platform. A website he runs, Abolish Abortion Idaho, says, of legislation he pushes, “Doctors may not intentionally kill the child in their medical attempts to treat the mother.”

On the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, Herndon posted a Facebook video arguing for murder prosecutions for abortion patients as well as abortion providers. “This body inside the mother’s body is not her body, and we need to get over the lie that mothers are not accountable,” he said. Men like him are making laws now. Don’t expect mercy.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.