Pregnancy is a life-threatening condition. Women die from being pregnant. We have known that for thousands of years.
They die from hemorrhage, infection, pre-eclampsia (which can lead to fatal seizures), obstructed labor, amniotic fluid embolism, thromboembolism, a ruptured uterus, retained placenta, hydatidiform mole, choriocarcinomaand many other causes that fill the obstetrics textbooks. Modern medicine can prevent and treat many, but not all, of these conditions. Some potentially fatal problems cannot be foreseen or prevented. Pregnancy always comes with some irreducible risk of death.
There are factors that put some women at higher-than-average risk of death from pregnancy: age (to be an early adolescent is more dangerous), high blood pressure, many previous pregnancies, diabetes, obesity, a history of cesarean delivery, uterine abnormalities, a scarred cervix, a placenta previa (in which the placenta covers the cervix). A placenta previa can result in sudden, catastrophic hemorrhage that is fatal, and it can require a cesarean delivery — which carries its own risks — since a normal vaginal delivery is impossible.
The measure of risk to a woman’s life from pregnancy itself is called the “maternal mortality ratio.” That is the number of women who die of causes related to or aggravated by pregnancy per 100,000 live births.
In Alabama, the overall maternal mortality ratioin 2018 was 11.9 per 100,000. Among white women, the 2018 maternal mortality ratio was 5.6; among black women, it was 27.6, making black women in Alabama almost five times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women. For the United States overall, the maternal mortality ratio was 20.7.
By comparison, a study in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology on abortion mortality from 1998 to 2010 found that for the 16.1 million abortions performed during that time, the overall death rate was 0.7 per 100,000 procedures. The death rate for early-abortion procedures — those that took place within the first eight weeks of the pregnancy — was less: 0.3 per 100,000.
Pregnancy is dangerous; abortion can be lifesaving.
Alabama’s new law claims that it does not prohibit abortion if there is a “reasonable medical judgment” that the pregnancy poses a “serious health risk” to the woman. An abortion may be performed if a “reasonable medical judgment” “necessitates” that a pregnancy be terminated to “avert her death or to avert serious risk of substantial physical impairment of a major bodily function.” The definition of a “major bodily function” is not given, nor is it distinguished from a minor bodily function.
But pregnancy itself poses a “serious health risk” — including the risk of dying and losing all bodily functions. A woman’s life and health are at risk from the moment that a pregnancy exists in her body, whether she wants to be pregnant or not.
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Warren M. Hern and originally published at The New York Times. Title changed by P&P.]