Commentary Abortion

Death in Ireland is a Wake Up Call to Fight Bans on Later Abortion Here at Home

Susan Yanow

Recent press about the death of Savita Halappanavar, admitted to a hospital in Ireland with medical complications in a 17 week pregnancy, is a grim reminder about the impact of abortion restrictions on women's lives.

See all our coverage of the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar here.

Recent press about the death of Savita Halappanavar, admitted to a hospital in Ireland with medical complications in a 17-week pregnancy, is a grim reminder about the impact of abortion restrictions on women’s lives.

In Ireland, abortion is legal only to save a woman’s life. In the last two years in the United States, nine states have passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks (in Arizona abortion is banned after 18 weeks) except to save a woman’s life. But as the death of Ms. Halappanavar so poignantly illustrates, “risk to a woman’s life” in emergency situations is extremely difficult to assess.

Savita Halappanavar was 31 years old, and had a wanted pregnancy. She began suffering severe back pain, was admitted to the hospital and was told that she was miscarrying. As the pain increased and her health worsened, she and her husband requested that the pregnancy be terminated. Because the fetus still had a heartbeat, however, she was denied her right to a safe abortion. After three days in the hospital, Savita Halappanayar died. The doctors attending her did not determine that her life was sufficiently at risk to warrant performing an abortion.

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Could this happen in the United States? In short, it certainly could. Let’s remember the 1988 case of Michelle Lee, a resident of Louisiana who had a serious heart condition and was waiting for a heart transplant. She became pregnant, and because of her medical condition could not be seen at an outpatient abortion clinic. She was sent to the only hospital in Louisiana with appropriate services, Louisiana State University. However, as reported at the time:

A committee of five LSU doctors concluded that Lee’s chance of dying was not greater than 50 percent. And under Louisiana law, a public hospital could not perform an abortion on Lee unless her life were endangered. They decided her case didn’t meet the test.*

What must the chance of dying be for a woman to “qualify” for a life-saving abortion? In Louisiana, a 50 percent chance of death was not enough. Who knows how the doctors in Ireland assessed the risk to Savita Halappanavar?

In the states that have passed limits on when an abortion can be performed, lawmakers are expecting physicians to juxtapose their assessment of medical risk to a given woman with the legal risk of prosecution if, after the fact, there are “second guesses” about whether the woman was at sufficient risk to trigger the legal exception the abortion ban.  This untenable intrusion of law makers into medicine puts physicians into an impossible situation. 

We have a sobering lesson to learn from Ireland – when doctor’s medical judgement is compromised by restrictive abortion laws, it is women’s health and women’s lives that suffer.


*Activists mobilized and raised $8,000 to help Michelle Lee get a life-saving abortion in Texas. Today, Texas is one of several states considering a ban on abortions after 20 weeks in the next legislative session.

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Selects Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to Join His Ticket

Ally Boguhn

And in other news, Donald Trump suggested that he can relate to Black people who are discriminated against because the system has been rigged against him, too. But he stopped short of saying he understood the experiences of Black Americans.

Donald Trump announced this week that he had selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) to join him as his vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, and earlier in the week, the presumptive presidential nominee suggested to Fox News that he could relate to Black Americans because the “system is rigged” against him too.

Pence Selected to Join the GOP Ticket 

After weeks of speculation over who the presumptive nominee would chose as his vice presidential candidate, Trump announced Friday that he had chosen Pence.

“I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate,” Trump tweeted Friday morning, adding that he will make the official announcement on Saturday during a news conference.

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The presumptive Republican nominee was originally slated to host the news conference Friday, but postponed in response to Thursday’s terrorist attack in Nice, France. As late as Thursday evening, Trump told Fox News that he had not made a final decision on who would join his ticket—even as news reports came in that he had already selected Pence for the position.

As Rewire Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson explained in a Thursday commentary, Pence “has problems with the truth, isn’t inclined to rely on facts, has little to no concern for the health and welfare of the poorest, doesn’t understand health care, and bases his decisions on discriminatory beliefs.” Jacobson further explained: 

He has, for example, eagerly signed laws aimed at criminalizing abortion, forcing women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds, banning coverage for abortion care in private insurance plans, and forcing doctors performing abortions to seek admitting privileges at hospitals (a requirement the Supreme Court recently struck down as medically unnecessary in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case). He signed a ‘religious freedom’ law that would have legalized discrimination against LGBTQ persons and only ‘amended’ it after a national outcry. Because Pence has guided public health policy based on his ‘conservative values,’ rather than on evidence and best practices in public health, he presided over one of the fastest growing outbreaks of HIV infection in rural areas in the United States.

Trump Suggests He Can Relate to Black Americans Because “Even Against Me the System Is Rigged”

Trump suggested to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he could relate to the discrimination Black Americans face since “the system [was] rigged” against him when he began his run for president.

When asked during a Tuesday appearance on The O’Reilly Factor what he would say to those “who believe that the system is biased against them” because they are Black, Trump leaped to highlight what he deemed to be discrimination he had faced. “I have been saying even against me the system is rigged. When I ran … for president, I mean, I could see what was going on with the system, and the system is rigged,” Trump responded.

“What I’m saying [is] they are not necessarily wrong,” Trump went on. “I mean, there are certain people where unfortunately that comes into play,” he said, concluding that he could “relate it, really, very much to myself.”

When O’Reilly asked Trump to specify whether he truly understood the “experience” of Black Americans, Trump said that he couldn’t, necessarily. 

“I would like to say yes, but you really can’t unless you are African American,” said Trump. “I would like to say yes, however.”

Trump has consistently struggled to connect with Black voters during his 2016 presidential run. Despite claiming to have “a great relationship with the blacks,” the presumptive Republican nominee has come under intense scrutiny for using inflammatory rhetoric and initially failing to condemn white supremacists who offered him their support.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Tuesday, Trump is polling at 0 percent among Black voters in the key swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

What Else We’re Reading

Newt Gingrich, who was one of Trump’s finalists for the vice presidential spot, reacted to the terrorist attack in Nice, France, by calling for all those in the United States with a “Muslim background” to face a test to determine if they “believe in sharia” and should be deported.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton threw her support behind a public option for health insurance.

Bloomberg Politics’ Greg Stohr reports that election-related cases—including those involving voter-identification requirements and Ohio’s early-voting period—are moving toward the Supreme Court, where they are “risking deadlocks.”

According to a Reuters review of GOP-backed changes to North Carolina’s voting rules, “as many as 29,000 votes might not be counted in this year’s Nov. 8 presidential election if a federal appeals court upholds” a 2013 law that bans voters from casting ballots outside of their assigned precincts.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the election goals and strategies of anti-choice organization Susan B. Anthony List, explaining that the organization plans to work to ensure that policy goals such as a 20-week abortion ban and defunding Planned Parenthood “are the key issues that it will use to rally support for its congressional and White House candidates this fall, following recent setbacks in the courts.”

Multiple “dark money” nonprofits once connected to the Koch brothers’ network were fined by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this week after hiding funding sources for 2010 political ads. They will now be required to “amend past FEC filings to disclose who provided their funding,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Politico’s Matthew Nussbaum and Ben Weyl explain how Trump’s budget would end up “making the deficit great again.”

“The 2016 Democratic platform has the strongest language on voting rights in the party’s history,” according to the Nation’s Ari Berman.