One afternoon in the spring of 1974 I left work early because I was not feeling well. I had developed stomach pains that seemed to be getting worse. I hoped it was a stomach bug and if I went home and rested for a while, I’d feel better. I didn’t. By the middle of the night, I could not stand up because the pain was so extreme. My husband took me to the emergency room and by morning I had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. I had spilled nearly two quarts of blood into my abdomen and was in shock. The surgeon removed my left fallopian tube and the embryo which had mistakenly planted itself there.

I was lucky.

It would seem cruel and illogical to allow a woman suffering from a tubal pregnancy to bleed to death rather than end an already doomed pregnancy. Certainly, you might be thinking, such surgery would not be considered an abortion. To the contrary, when I nearly bled to death in 1974, all abortions were illegal in Italy and the laws were absolute and were rigidly enforced. Women experiencing the same medical condition as mine, were allowed to die as they waited for the pregnancy to end itself. The same is true in the world today where absolute abortion bans exist.

The North Dakota Legislature is considering laws which would make all abortions, potentially even ones like mine, illegal. The “personhood” laws proposed do make exceptions for ending a pregnancy such as mine, but only if “in reasonable medical judgment” a woman’s life is at risk. In my case, emergency surgery may have been allowed under the proposed North Dakota legislation.

The argument is made, however, by some supporters of the law that there are no cases where ending the pregnancy is necessary to save the life of the mother. If an ectopic pregnancy, they maintain, is allowed to continue to it’s natural conclusion, the pregnancy will end on it’s own. Removing the embryo at that point is technically not an abortion because it is no longer alive. As a justification for delaying treatment of ectopic pregnancies, some advocates of the law point to extremely rare cases in which a pregnancy outside of the uterus has been carried to term and a live baby was the result. So what is a “reasonable medical judgement?” Statistics on maternal death due to untreated ectopic pregnancies are often twisted and turned to try to prove that even an ectopic pregnancy does not justify an abortion. But, I am not a statistic and I know that if my doctors had been required to wait longer to intervene, I would have died.

Declaring in law that personhood begins at conception and that every person so defined deserves the same protection under the law is absolute.   Legally and ethically, exceptions become difficult.   If an exception is allowed to save a mother’s life and physical health in the case of ectopic pregnancies, then how is the mother’s mental health also not a legitimate reason for an exception? Can mental and physical well-being be separated? Who decides the definition of a reasonable diagnosis of harm or threat to life? Is a politician better qualified to determine where the line should be drawn than a doctor?

The pain of my rupturing ectopic pregnancy was excruciating. It exceeded the pain of childbirth. That treatment for this or other situations might be delayed until the mother is facing a life threatening emergency seems inhumane to me. The decision to operate in 1974 was between me and my doctors. That was exactly who should have made the decision. Now these choices are being taken over by politicians debating statistics and hypothetical situations.

A friend once characterized my being opposed to anti-abortion laws as being “pro-abortion.” I am not. I don’t think all abortions are good choices. Some may not be ethically defensible or morally just. There may be other choices which would be better for everyone involved. I don’t think I am qualified to make a judgement for others. Women should be given information, counseling and support when they find themselves facing difficult or unwanted pregnancies. Women need balanced and realistic information to allow them to make informed choices about their own health and well-being and for the health and well-being of their children. These are moral, ethical and medical decisions that should be made by the woman and her doctor.

Personhood legislation is about ending legal abortions. Ending legal abortions will not, however, end abortions. It will put women’s lives at risk by increasing the number of illegal, unsafe abortions and potentially forcing doctors to wait to end life-threatening pregnancies while someone else decides if their diagnosis is “reasonable.”

To protect the life of the unborn we need to make the economic lives of mothers and fathers better, to provide access to affordable prenatal and postnatal health care, quality child care for working mothers, feeding programs, and parenting education. We need to support funding for adoptions, and to enforce child support by non custodial parents.

I am not objective on the subject. I’m alive because my doctor and I had the choice to quickly end my first pregnancy.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


3 thoughts on “Personhood

  1. Kitten

    “…how is the mother’s mental health also not a legitimate reason for an exception?” I think about that a lot. I’m part of a support group with women who have had to make the difficult decision of terminating pregnancies that were doomed, but very much wanted, before their babies were technically dead. Their lives and health were not at risk by any stretch, but the thought of carrying around a dying baby–who would not survive birth–for several more months was too much to bear. Some women choose to carry such pregnancies to term, and that is their right. No one should be forced to continue a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances, but especially not in a case like this. It’s not a tricky subject at all. No one but a woman and her doctor should have any say in whether or not a pregnancy should be ended for any reason. Period.

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