Population Matters

Sorry, Joe Walsh, Pregnant Women Do Die

November 16th, 2012

Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, running for re-election in Illinois’s Eighth Congressional district, caused a political sensation last month when he told reporters that there should be no abortion exception for the “life of the mother” because “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” in which a woman dies. Joe Walsh, ultimately, lost to Democrat Tammy Duckworth, but the abortion debate in this country is far from over.

Despite a Fox News exit poll indicating that 59 percent of voters this year believed that abortion should be legal in most cases, Walsh and other social conservatives are not about to give up on their efforts to ban abortion in all cases, including cases where the life or health of the mother is endangered.

Advances in modern medicine notwithstanding, women do die from pregnancy-related causes, particularly in cases of an ectopic pregnancy and preeclampsia. In the U.S., where abortion is constitutionally protected, most women in these life-threatening circumstances are saved by a physician-recommended abortion. But, in countries where abortion is banned or access to abortion services is severely limited, women too often do die as a result of a pregnancy.

If the Joe Walsh’s of the world want to avoid reading all the medical literature on this subject, perhaps they should pick up a copy of the Irish Times, which reported this week on the death of Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist who died at University Hospital in Galway last month. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to the hospital experiencing back pain on October 21st. It was determined that she was miscarrying and that the doctors would not be able to save the fetus.

Her husband recounts their ordeal to the Irish Times:

“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.

“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.

“The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”

At lunchtime the fetal heart had stopped and Ms Halappanavar was brought to theatre to have the womb contents removed. “When she came out she was talking okay but she was very sick. That’s the last time I spoke to her.”

At 11 pm he got a call from the hospital. “They said they were shifting her to intensive care. Her heart and pulse were low, her temperature was high. She was sedated and critical but stable. She stayed stable on Friday but by 7pm on Saturday they said her heart, kidneys and liver weren’t functioning. She was critically ill. That night, we lost her.”

This is a tragedy that should never have happened, and unfortunately it is not an isolated incident. Tragedies like this happen every day in countries where abortions are illegal or highly restricted. While abortion is constitutionally protected in the United States, states around the country have been chipping away at women’s ability to access abortion services, and the attacks are not limited to the states.  Last October the House of Representatives passed legislation (H.R. 358) that would allow hospitals that receive federal funding and who are morally opposed to abortion to refuse to treat a woman who requires an emergency abortion in order to save her life. Current law and precedent require that the hospital must give life-threatening cases whatever care is needed – including abortion care.  Thankfully, President Obama has promised to veto this bill if it ever reaches his desk, helping to ensure, for now at least, that tragedies like Savita’s death will not happen in the U.S.

So yes, Joe Walsh, women do die from pregnancy-related causes, and abortions are needed from time to time to save the life of the mother. Savita died when she so easily could have lived, and what happened to Savita could—and does—happen in medically advanced countries, particularly those that ban abortion services or severely restrict access to them.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy

Children by Choice, Not by Chance

November 15th, 2012

In releasing its 2012 State of World Population report yesterday the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) made a plain and succinct case for family planning:  having children by choice, not by chance, leads to healthier families and communities.  But as common sense as that may seem to most of us, too many women in the world still have children by chance, not by choice.   As Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, said yesterday, “Family planning is not a privilege, but a right. Yet, too many women—and men—are denied this human right.”

Currently there are 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy in the next two years, but who are not using a modern contraceptive method. Meeting their need for contraceptives would cost little—an additional $4.1 billion a year—but the impact would be enormous:   54 million fewer unintended pregnancies, resulting in 26 million fewer abortions, 16 million of which would be unsafe.  And that, in turn, would make a world of difference. As Dr. Osotimehin put it yesterday:

“Family planning has a positive multiplier effect on development. Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive. Women’s increased labour-force participation boosts nations’ economies.”

The report notes, however, that access to contraceptives is just one of many barriers that women face when they seek to space or limit their pregnancies.  Poverty and gender inequality are among the biggest barriers. In order to ensure everyone is able to access to family planning UNFPA recommends a multi-pronged approach that would: strengthen health systems, introduce or enforce law that protect individuals’ rights, reduce poverty, challenge harmful traditional practices, eliminate child marriage, end discrimination, remove logistical impediments, and ensure a broad range of supplies.

In addressing these barriers the global community needs to make universal access to family planning a higher priority and recognize that access to family planning is a human right:  adults and youth, wherever they live, should be able to decide the number, timing and spacing of their children.  We still have a long ways to go, however, in making that right a reality.   In far too many countries, it is still a privilege, not a right.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy