Catholic Church

by Jodi Jacobson, Editor in Chief, RH Reality Check

March 21, 2012 – 12:31pm

El Salvador today is not a good place to be a woman. In 1998, the government passed a new Penal Code creating a complete ban on abortion. No exceptions. This was a shift from an earlier law which allowed abortions in cases of threats to the health or life of the woman, as well as for rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormality. Passage of the ban made El Salvador one of only five countries in Latin America–including Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic, and Chile–that maintain an absolute ban abortion.

And now women’s groups are fighting it. Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights joined with local Salvadoran organization Colectiva de Mujeres para el Desarrollo Local to file a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights protesting the current law and based on the case of a woman who died in prison after being jailed for a miscarriage.

Reading the words of the ban underscores just how draconian it is. Chapter II of El Salvador’s reformed Penal Code, dealing with “Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development,” penalizes women who induce their own abortions; give their consent to someone else to induce an abortion; doctors, pharmacists or other health care workers who practice abortions; persons who encourage a woman to have an abortion or provide the financial means to obtain an abortion; and persons who unintentionally cause an abortion. According to an October 2010 shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Report on Violations of Women’s Human Rights Due to the Complete Criminalization of Abortion:

El Salvador’s restrictive abortion laws were further solidified in 1999 with a constitutional amendment defining a human being “from the moment of conception.

For good measure, and to make sure these laws were strictly enforced against apparently dangerous women trying desperately to control their lives, the country established a policing apparatus to prosecute, investigate and denounce any suspicious activities in public hospitals and other places in the country.

El Salvador’s ultra-conservative Catholic Church hierarchy played a leading role in passing the new law banning abortion under any circumstance.human rights analysis conducted in the years after the new penal code was put in place underscores how the shift in the Church’s leadership and philosophy, from the seventies when it focused on social justice and organizing peasants to the nineties, when things changed dramatically, contributed heavily to passage of the ban. According to the analysis, the Roman Catholic Church and right-wing Catholic groups in countries like El Salvador… “exert direct influence on regulatory changes that limit the exercise of women’s rights, counter to international agreements.”

The Catholic Church’s role as a protector of social justice and human rights, and its impact on social issues changed… with the appointment of the new Archbishop of San Salvador. He is a member of the right-wing Opus Dei and has the support of the ruling class as well as close ties with right-wing nongovernmental organizations. This change has influenced the stance of both the Church and the government with regard to social issues that affect women in particular.

In 1997, the Church and right-wing Catholic groups joined with others in a full-on campaign against abortion, mobilizing students from Catholic schools, campaigning through the media and using other means of pushing for the passage of the new penal code and the complete ban until it was passed.

Since its passage, according to CRR, “the ban has resulted in tragic and often fatal consequences” for the women living in the country, resulting in “the arbitrary imprisonment of women suffering from miscarriages and complications in their pregnancies.”

Such was the case of “Manuela” (a pseudonym). According to CRR, Manuela was a 33-year-old Salvadoran mother of two who was  convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering an apparent miscarriage and severe complications giving birth. No trial, no appeal. Thirty years.

From the moment Manuela arrived at the hospital seeking emergency health  care, slipping in and out of consciousness and hemorrhaging, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder.

Manuela  was sentenced to 30 years in prison without ever having a chance to  meet with her lawyer, without an opportunity to speak in her own defense, and without the right to appeal the decision. Shockingly, the  judge overseeing her case said that “her maternal instinct should have  prevailed” and “she should have protected her child.”

After several months in prison, it was discovered that the visible tumors Manuela had on her neck for which she sought medical care several times without being accurately diagnosed, was advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a  disease that likely lead to the severe obstetric emergency she suffered.

“Tragically,” continues CRR, “Manuela did not receive the appropriate treatment for her disease and died in prison in 2010, leaving behind her two young children.”

Her illness could have been caught earlier if she had received adequate  medical attention when she consulted about her tumors in years prior, and if medical officials treating her during her emergency paid any  attention to her condition, rather than focusing on reporting her to  authorities.

This case exhibits all the most draconian aspects of already-draconian anti-choice laws, many of which are in now in force in various parts of the United States. Profound and fundamental mistrust of women. Abusive laws that remove from women any choice in whether, when, with whom, and under what life or health circumstances to have a child or another child. Policing of maternity wards. The criminalization and arrest of women who have had miscarriages. Disregard for the right to life of living, breathing women.

“El  Salvador’s laws have turned emergency rooms into crime scenes,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of CRR, “forcing pregnant women to live under a dark cloud of suspicion. The  international community must come together to demand an end to this  cruel treatment of women and make a commitment to safeguard fundamental  reproductive rights.”  Like Manuela, many women in El Salvador who miscarry or experience emergency obstetric complications are charged with aggravated murder, for which they can be  imprisoned for up to 50 years, and subsequently spend decades behind bars.

Is this just? Is this what is meant by “right to life?”

The legal campaign by CRR and Colectiva de Mujeres marks the first time an international judicial body will hear the case of a woman imprisoned for seeking medical care due to  obstetric emergencies, as a result of a total abortion ban. The case  argues that El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion violates a number of  human rights, including the right to life, right to personal integrity  and liberty, right to humane treatment, and the right to a fair trial and judicial protection.

“Salvadoran  women have been unjustly persecuted by their government for far too  long,” said Mónica Arango, CRR’s regional director for Latin America and  the Caribbean. “We are bringing Manuela’s case before an international  human rights body so women won’t suffer the same tragic fate, and El  Salvador can finally be held accountable.”

“Liberalizing  restrictive abortion laws, like El Salvador’s, is essential to saving the lives and protecting the health of millions of women across the  globe every year,” said Northup. “Study after study has shown there are no positive outcomes to banning abortion outright.”

recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute  underscores what has been shown before: Restrictive abortion laws are not associated  with lower rates of abortion. According to the study, the 2008 abortion rate in Latin America—a region where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries—was 32 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, while in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad  grounds, the rate is just 12 per 1,000.

Apart from the very real, though largely invisible tragedies of women like Manuela imprisoned for miscarriage or those who may have been arrested for thwarting a law that assigns absolutely no value to their lives, there is another critical issue here as well.

The proliferation of abortion bans and other such laws at the state level in the United States, the efforts to eliminate access to contraception for a large share of women in this country, the heavy involvement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in laws and policies governing women’s rights, the increasing degree of degrading speech about women used by politicians together underscores just how much closer we are  every day to a theocratic/right wing state like El Salvador. How far will we let things slide before the lives and health of ourselves and our daughters mean nothing?  And how long will we stand by while the “religious right” abuses women, whether they live here or in El Salvador?

Follow Jodi Jacobson on Twitter, @jljacobson

Catholic Hospitals Expand, Religious Strings Attached

Published: February 20, 2012

As Roman Catholic leaders and government officials clash over the proper role of religion and reproductive health, shifts in health care economics are magnifying the tension. Financially stronger Catholic-sponsored medical centers are increasingly joining with smaller secular hospitals, in some cases limiting access to treatments like contraceptionabortion and sterilization.

Catholic hospitals have a broad mission for medical care, says Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association.

In Seattle, Swedish Health Services has offered elective abortions for decades. But the hospital agreed to stop when it joined forces this month with Providence Health & Services, one of the nation’s largest Catholic systems.

In late December, Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky turned down a bid by Catholic Health Initiatives, another large system, to merge with a public hospital in Louisville, in part because of concern that some women would have less access to contraceptive services.

And in Rockford, Ill., there is resistance to a plan by OSF HealthCare, run by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, to buy a hospital because of new restrictions that would require women to go elsewhere if they wanted atubal ligation after a Caesarean section.

About 20 such deals have been announced over the last three years, by one estimate, and experts expect more as stand-alone hospitals and smaller systems with no Catholic ties look to combine with larger and financially stronger institutions, in part because changes under the federal health care law are forcing all hospitals to become much more efficient.

There is already considerable tension between Catholic-run medical institutions and the Obama administration over insurance coverage for contraception for employees. The cultural divide over reproductive health is playing out on the campaign trail as candidates debate hot-button issues like abortion and contraception.

But while the growth of Catholic-run hospital networks is a testament to their long history and operational skill, local and state officials, doctors and advocates in many communities are concerned that some procedures that run counter to Catholic doctrine may no longer be available or will be much more limited. Some doctors fear they may not be able to do what’s best for patients, forced to wait to treat a woman who is miscarrying, for example, or to send arape victim elsewhere for an emergency contraceptive.

The restrictions at any given hospital may not be clear. “Women simply don’t know what they’re getting,” said Jill C. Morrison, senior counsel in health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center.

The confusion is likely to increase.

“We are starting to see what was rare in the past,” said Lisa Goldstein, who follows nonprofit hospitals for Moody’s Investors Service and predicts more such partnerships. The institutions themselves are grappling with how to remain true to Catholic doctrine and serve a broader community. About one-sixth of all patients were admitted to a Catholic hospital in 2010. In many smaller communities, the only hospital within miles is Catholic.

“That is a constant challenge,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents the nation’s roughly 600 Catholic hospitals. “It’s a challenge we take very seriously.”

Being a Catholic hospital means adhering to the church’s religious directives about care, Sister Carol said, but she says hospitals also see their mission much more broadly, including caring for those who are less fortunate and treating patients with respect.

At the Seton Healthcare Family in Texas, a unit of Ascension Health — the nation’s largest Catholic system and largest nonprofit system — officials say partnerships with struggling community hospitals are integral to their mission. Seton’s first partnership, in 1995, was to operate Brackenridge, a public hospital in Austin, because Seton was “not doing enough to care for the poor and vulnerable in central Texas,” said Charles J. Barnett, an Ascension executive.

In that case, Mr. Barnett says the system never agreed to provide services like elective abortions and sterilizations, and public officials and hospital administrators initially struggled to find a compromise. Although another system eventually offered sterilizations on a separate floor of the hospital, complete with a separate elevator, another hospital now provides those services.

One large system, Catholic Healthcare West in San Francisco, announced in January that it was severing its formal ties to the church to better work with hospitals that did not share its faith. The system, renamed Dignity Health, operates 25 Catholic hospitals, which will remain Catholic, and 15 non-Catholic hospitals. While none of Dignity’s hospitals will provide elective abortions or offer in vitro fertilization, the non-Catholic hospitals will not have to adhere to the church’s religious directives.

Dignity officials declined interview requests.

Even as Catholic Healthcare West, however, the system was not without controversy. One of its Catholic hospitals performed what it considered a life-saving abortion in 2009, but the local bishop in Phoenix disagreed, and the nun who allowed the procedure was excommunicated.

In many communities, like Rockford, the question is an intensely practical one: How will patients, particularly women, use services barred by the church? Because none of the city’s three hospitals perform elective abortions, the debate has largely focused on whether a woman who has a C-section can have her tubes tied afterward.

“It would just be an inconvenience to the patient and the physician, who has to make life-and-death decisions,” said Dr. Ronald Burmeister, a retired obstetrician in Rockford who is concerned about the merger.

The merger itself was prompted by the increasing need for hospitals to combine. Despite the federal government’s concern about possible antitrust implications, many believe the city can support just two hospitals. “Rockford needed a strategic partner,” said Andrew K. Bachrodt, a managing director for Kurt Salmon Associates, which advises nonprofit hospitals. OSF already owns a Rockford hospital, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center.

OSF says Rockford needs fewer hospitals and wants to expand its network to better serve the area. “It’s all about how to deliver care, coordinated and efficient care,” said Robert C. Sehring, an executive at OSF.

OSF has already developed an arrangement in which affiliated doctors can prescribe birth control pills through a separate practice.

A woman who wanted a tubal ligation immediately after a C-section would be able to go to a competing hospital, if her insurance plan allowed. “It’s not like we’re eliminating female sterilization procedures,” said Kris L. Kieper, the chief executive of the YWCA in Rockford, who serves on an advisory committee for the OSF hospital there.

In Louisville, the debate focused on contraceptive services, like elective sterilizations, that had been provided by the University of Louisville Hospital, one member of a planned three-party merger that would have created a large statewide system. There was considerable uncertainty over whether University Hospital would be required to follow Catholic policies, according to a report by the Kentucky attorney general. Officials initially said the hospital would follow Catholic directives but then focused on certain procedures.

“While this evolving explanation may represent an accurate description of the proposed legal structure of the consolidation, it has cast a cloud of vagueness and skepticism over the issue in the public eye,” the report concluded.

Asking women to go across town to another hospital for services is not a solution, said Dr. Peter Hasselbacher, a retired university official who follows health policy in Kentucky. And while women in Louisville generally have a choice of hospitals, women in rural communities may not, he said, adding that many of Catholic Health Initiative’s Kentucky hospitals are the only hospital available.

Catholic Health says there was never a possibility that University Hospital would be allowed to perform services like elective sterilizations. “Our position around the ethical and religious directives never changed. How we communicated that evolved and changed over time,” said Paul Edgett, a senior vice president at the system.

Mr. Edgett says the system will consider future partnerships with non-Catholic hospitals, including University Hospital, as it seeks to position itself as a stronger system as health care evolves. “We all have to adopt and adapt,” he said. But, he added, “we’re not going to compromise our values in the process.”

Mary Cuddehe

January 4, 2012   | 

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Daniela Castro, a 21-year-old administrator for a Mexican children’s charity, got to the hospital just before dark. It was a warm, cloudless July night in 2010, and Daniela grabbed the arm of her boyfriend of three years, a handsome architecture student named Carlos Bautista. The two walked through the entrance confidently. If anything, they looked more like a pair of teen models than a couple of criminals. But Daniela was at the hospital that night because she had taken abortion pills that made her sick. Abortion is banned throughout Mexico, and authorities in her native Guanajuato, a mid-sized state in the center of Mexico with an ultraconservative reputation, like to enforce the law.


The state has opened at least 130 investigations into illegal abortions over the past decade, according to research by women’s rights groups, and fourteen people, including three men, have been criminally convicted. Given Mexico’s 2 percent national conviction rate during its most violent period since the revolution, that’s a successful ratio.

But Daniela did not have such numbers in her head when she told the attending physician her story. A few days earlier, she and Carlos had turned to Carlos’s mother for help. Of their parents, Norma Angelica Rodriguez, 41, was the most likely to be sympathetic. She had been a young mother herself, and she knew of a pharmacy in town that would sell Misoprostol—an over-the-counter ulcer drug that women take to induce labor—without asking a lot of questions. Rodriguez knew this because, like the estimated 875,000 Mexican women who have abortions every year, she had once needed the drug herself.

The doctor listened to Daniela, then slipped out of the room and made a call. Guanajuato hospitals are expected to report suspicious miscarriages just as they would a gunshot wound. It wasn’t long before a couple of officers arrived, followed by a lawyer from the district attorney’s office, who took out a note pad. “So, Daniela, how many people have you had sex with?” he asked, jotting down the answers. “And who gave you those pills?” That night, the DA opened an official probe into Daniela’s case. If convicted, both she and Carlos’s mother—though not Carlos—faced up to three years in prison.

* * *

Mexico has thirty-two states if you include Mexico City’s federal district, and until the spring of 2007, when Mexico City legalized it during the first twelve weeks of gestation, abortion was illegal in all of them. It was rarely prosecuted, though, and there were also legal exemptions. Every state had one for rape, and many to save the mother’s life; one state even had an exemption for economic hardship. Access, though, was another story. I once asked Rigoberto Velarde, the silver-haired state coordinator for Guanajuato’s Maternal Health Program, where a pregnant rape victim could get the procedure that was her legal right. Velarde drew back in his chair, widened his eyes and looked at me like I was crazy. “She can’t do that!” was his reply. Mexico’s abortion laws date back to the 1930s, and in the intervening decades two parallel systems have developed. Wealthy women could go to a private doctor or, since Roe v. Wade, travel to the United States. But any woman at the mercy of the public health system was pretty much on her own.

Mexico City’s legalization law, which required city hospitals to provide the service free, was the first in Mexico and one of few like it in Latin America (in many states the tide is turning in the other direction: in 2008 Nicaragua instituted a criminal prohibition on abortions, with no exemptions; in 2009 the Dominican Republic did the same). A month later, the National Human Rights Commission, whose director opposed the law, and the attorney general filed appeals with the Supreme Court, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. A long and closely watched debate roiled Mexico off and on for a year, until the justices finally voted to uphold the law, in August 2008. Abortion was now legal—and free—in the capital of one of the world’s most Catholic countries. It looked like a great victory for feminists.

* * *

Up until 2007 there had only been advances on abortion,” Elsa Conde, a former Mexico City legislator and the director of the National Alliance for the Right to Choose, one of the country’s leading abortion rights groups, told me in the summer of 2010. Advocates like Conde had spent decades chipping away at state-level bans. In 2004, for example, they got Baja California Sur to amend its rape exemption so that victims would actually be able to get legal surgeries at public hospitals; the following year the state reduced its maximum penalty to two years in jail. “But then we started seeing setbacks,” Conde went on. “And since October 2008, all we’ve seen is setback after setback after setback.” That year, lawmakers next door, in Baja California, passed a controversial fetal-rights constitutional amendment. While it did not technically change the existing rules—abortion could not become more illegal, after all—it codified one of the key goals of the US Christian right since Roe v. Wade: legally protected life beginning at “the moment of conception.” And an amendment is much harder to overturn than a law. By the end of 2009, fifteen more states had passed versions of this extreme ley anti-aborto.

The amendments were similar to a measure recently defeated in a Mississippi referendum but being prepared in other parts of the United States. In fact, the US “personhood” movement has been taking lessons from its neighbor to the south. In September Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected constitutional challenges to the ley anti-aborto in two states, providing a new spring of confidence for US anti-choicers. “This decision in Mexico provides proof that it is a viable strategy that is working in other places,” said Gualberto Garcia Jones, a legal analyst with Personhood USA. “If it had gone the other way, we would have seen pro-lifers say, If it can’t work in Mexico, it can’t work in the US.” Seventeen Mexican states—more than half the country—now have a fetal-rights amendment on the books. (Chihuahua has had one since 1994, and the seventeenth state, Tamaulipas, approved one in 2010.) This would be like the Mississippi ballot succeeding and then spreading to twenty-five states between now and the end of 2012.

The sweep was so fast and successful that no one had ever seen anything like it. Two of the three main national parties sponsored the amendments—President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) as well as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Being anti-abortion was inherent in the PAN agenda, and the party’s state congressmen were strategizing about how to fight Mexico City’s legalization law at national meetings as early as the fall of 2007, according to a legislator who attended. (“Vicente Fox made ‘the Catholic look’ fashionable again,” Roberto Hernandez, a political analyst based in Mexico City, once told me.) The PRI’s participation was more of a departure from that party’s centrist foundations, and not all the rank and file were on board, but the PRI had been badly splintered since losing the presidency to the PAN in 2000, and the party core, perhaps sensing a change in the public mood and determined to take back the presidency in 2012, has supported the ley anti-aborto.

Catholic civic groups had done their part. Jorge Serrano, the skinny, flat-topped director of Pro-Vida, a prominent anti-abortion group based in Mexico City, became a fixture as he choreographed protests against the capital’s legalization law (one day a group of women who had had enough of his crusading showed up to taunt Serrano with a “rainstorm of thongs”—bunches of thong underwear stapled to their placards). The Mexican division of the Knights of Columbus got involved, too, mailing lawmakers plastic fetuses representing the various stages of gestation.

But as far as the feminist movement was concerned, the Catholic Church played the lead role. This was so widely believed, it was taken as fact. I was told more than once, for example, that Norberto Rivera, Mexico City’s archbishop, had hosted a fancy dinner for PAN governors and their wives during which he urged them to pass the ley anti-aborto as he pressed special rosaries from the pope into their hands. A PRI state congresswoman told me she had met a Vatican emissary who was traveling from state to state on a hush-hush lobbying mission. More recently, a bishop from Mexicali spurred the conspiracy mill when he implied that the pope had called the Supreme Court justices to influence their votes to support the ley. (The diocese declined to speak with The Nation.) But, as I learned one morning in the summer of 2010, a concentrated effort like this may not have been necessary.

That day I took a bus from Mexico City to Aguascalientes, a tiny, landlocked state in the heart of the country’s Bible Belt. Monica Delgado, the fresh-faced, preppy PAN congresswoman who drafted the Aguascalientes version of the ley, ushered me into her office in the Congressional building. There were different floors for the different parties, and the PAN floor was decorated with posters for an anti-abortion group called Vifac, whose motto is “We celebrate life.” Delgado explained that, like most PANistas, she was disturbed by the Supreme Court decision upholding Mexico City’s abortion-rights law and wanted to “bulletproof” her state against any progressive incursions. After she had finished drafting the amendment, Delgado said, she and the eight other PAN state lawmakers walked across the plaza to meet the local prelate. It sounded like the beginning of a joke: nine congressmen go to see a priest. But Delgado didn’t see anything funny or strange about the visit. The prelate had been nagging her and her colleagues in his weekly radio address, and the meeting was a “courtesy,” she said. “We had to go over and tell him, ‘It’s already been presented!’” Delgado’s proposal eventually stalled because of resistance from local feminist groups and one liberal PRI congresswoman who controlled a crucial committee. But with priests and politicians this close, it wasn’t hard to imagine the same scene playing to a different outcome in other states, regardless of any organized intervention by high-ranking clergy.

* * *

According to Diego Valadés, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, state constitutional amendments nearly always take at least a couple of months to be approved. And yet when it came to fetal rights, lawmakers in most states where the ley anti-aborto passed managed to muscle it through in a matter of days. “There has never been anything like it; it was an almost synchronized series of events,” said Valadés. But like any work hastily composed, the ley was imperfect and seemed to place the IUD and in-vitro fertilization—not to mention exceptions to the abortion restrictions that were still on the books in many states—into a legal gray zone. “They say we protect life since conception—except for these causes that we already had,” said Fatima Juarez, a demographics expert at the Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico City. “How can you reconcile ‘We protect since conception’ and ‘You can [terminate a pregnancy] for economic reasons’? It’s illogical.” Now many fear that women who terminate a pregnancy for any reason can be prosecuted for infanticide.

Instead, state prosecutors dusted off the old abortion penal codes—most of which call for prison terms or fines—and opened investigations: ten in Veracruz, thirty in Puebla and thirty-one in Hidalgo. In 2009 in the southern state of Quintana Roo, a Mayan woman was wrongfully jailed for what turned out to be a spontaneous miscarriage, and in 2010 an 11-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather was denied an abortion because she was four months pregnant—one month past the allowable twelve weeks. The cases became a flashpoint in the national debate over abortion and the fairness of the ley, and when I called Elsa Conde again this past August, she described what she said was a mini-backlash to the backlash: four more states had strengthened access to abortion for rape victims. But Conde was quick to add that pro-choice advocates remain in a “position of defense.” “Basically,” she said, “we’re just trying to make sure no other states adopt the ley anti-aborto.”

In May 2009 the ley was approved with a two-thirds majority in Guanajuato. Just nine years earlier, the state congress had voted to eliminate the exemption for rape victims, but the governor was forced to veto it after a public outcry. In 2009 public school teachers staged a bonfire of middle school biology textbooks, and subsequent editions had some noteworthy changes in the chapter on sex: life now begins at the “moment of conception,” and virginity is “a treasure.”

But if one episode cemented Guanajuato’s conservative status, it came in the summer of 2010, when Centro Las Libres, a women’s health group in Guanajuato City, broke the news that seven women were in prison on a charge that amounted to infanticide—homicidio con razón de parentesco, or homicide of a family member—with a maximum penalty of twenty-nine years. Some had already spent more than six years in prison, so their sentences said more about the cruelty of the Mexican criminal justice system than the new ley anti-aborto. But the women became symbols of the dangerous consequences of criminalizing abortion and a focal point for the left in organizing against the ley. All the women said the fetuses they were accused of murdering were stillborn or miscarried. Yolanda Martínez, who says she didn’t even know she was pregnant, was alleged to have left a nearly full-term fetus to die in an outhouse. But police had first arrested her on suspicion of abandoning another infant—not hers, it turned out—found that day in a different part of town. Once she was in custody, her house was searched, and officers emerged with blankets that they claimed had held her dead newborn. Susana Dueñas says three experts declared the baby she was accused of killing a stillbirth, but the judge sided with a fourth opinion, of a doctor on the prosecutor’s payroll. After a media outcry, the state reduced the penalty for the type of homicide they had been charged under—from twenty-nine to eight years. In September 2010 all seven women were released for time served.

* * *

Las Libres is not the only women’s rights group in Guanajuato, but it is the most vocal. It was the unrelenting campaigning of Las Libres that was crucial in getting the seven women released, and when the New York Times ran a story about it, the group’s director, Veronica Cruz, appeared in the accompanying photo, protectively embracing one of the newly released women.

The first time I met Cruz was on an overcast morning in the summer of 2009. Forty years old, with a round face and light brown hair, she has the energy of a longtime activist. She is earnest but cynical. Inside the Las Libres headquarters on the outskirts of Guanajuato City, she introduced me to a petite woman dressed in white named Rosario. She was 20 and had recently completed a nine-month probation sentence. Her story was shocking to me at the time. She had taken abortion pills, fallen ill with nausea, gone to the hospital and been reported to the police. She said the staff had mistreated her, calling her names, completing the abortion surgically without anesthesia (which is standard) and allowing medical students into the room to take pictures with their cellphones. She paused and started to cry. About a month after the surgery, she said, she was lured out of her house in her slippers by men in an unmarked van and taken to jail in handcuffs. Her family borrowed the money to pay the $800 bond.

But it turns out that going to the hospital is a common way for Mexican women to get caught. According to the US-based Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization, the abortion-related hospitalization rate in Mexico is high—17 percent in 2006 (it is 0.3 percent in the United States). This is because so many abortions are clandestine, exposing women to physical as well as legal risks.

This past June I went back to Guanajuato to see Cruz. I found her curled up in a chair, gossiping with her sister, who helps run the office, and another volunteer. Cruz said that a couple of women had recently been arrested but that she wasn’t following their cases. “Honestly, it’s just too many to keep up with,” she said with a shrug. Daniela Castro’s was one of the last like it that Las Libres had pursued, so she picked up the phone to call her.

Daniela agreed to meet me at a cafe across from a large salmon-hued cathedral in the plaza of a nearby town. She looked carefree and summery in a floral A-line skirt and a fitted white T-shirt. But it was just a year before that Daniela woke up every morning worried that she was going to prison, and her life seemed to be falling apart. “My friends stopped talking to me, and they even wrote messages on my Facebook,” she said. Carlos quit the local university for a cheaper school two hours away so they could afford a private attorney, but he proved as useless as the public defender. For a while, they had no idea what to do. “We were thinking about running away to the United States—like wetbacks,” Daniela said, shaking her head. Las Libres heard about the case and connected Daniela with a group of pro bono lawyers from Mexico City who complained to the state Human Rights Commission. They argued that Daniela’s hospital interview was inadmissible because she hadn’t had a legal representative present. That small oversight seemed to be all that was needed: a few weeks later, Daniela’s case was closed for lack of evidence.

After we talked, Carlos and Daniela offered me a ride to the bus station. Carlos had been quiet most of the afternoon, but he suddenly chimed in as he was driving. “At the time there were all these kidnappings going on, all these people on the street kidnapping and murdering,” he said. “And yet we were the ones they had down at the prosecutor’s office.” Then he fell silent again, edging the truck around a corner.

December 6, 2011 – 12:39am

Poland tends to get associated with a number of different things depending on interests and geographical location. The French perceive us as skilled plumbers, the Japanese and music lovers think of Chopin, and Americans and food lovers associate Poland with superb sausages. However, if you’re interested in reproductive rights what comes to mind when Poland is mentioned is not classical music or good simple food, but an awfully restrictive anti-abortion legal framework and a strong political will to make things worse (I wrote more about the anti-abortion laws and their history here). Over the past 20 years the political allegiance of those in power didn’t seem to matter much, left or right—they were always mostly white males over 45 with no intention of getting into trouble with the Catholic Church by talking about reproductive health, or anything to do with sex for that matter, including sex education in schools or even contraception.

However, just last month a historical thing happened in Poland (a few actually). For the first time in recent history, we re-elected the same government. This was big news back in Poland. Many people, whatever their feelings towards the somewhat hilariously (in English) named Prime Minister Donald Tusk, were pleased with the thought that we are coming of age as a democracy. Others were excited that the far right, Eurosceptic, nationalist (and I could just keep the negative adjectives coming) Jaroslaw Kaczynski—the identical twin brother of the former president who died in a plane crash last year—did not win the elections. Some were also genuinely pleased that Tusk—a self-proclaimed, liberal conservative—stayed in power. But make no mistake, Tusk and his Civic Platform party are liberal when it comes to economy and deregulation and conservative when it’s about social issues. Although Mr. Tusk grandly declared that “he will not kneel in front of bishops” and that he “answers to the people and not the Catholic priests,” he has not in fact done anything which the bishops would have looked upon unkindly.

In his previous four years as head of the Polish government, Tusk has literally not done a single thing to improve the current, appallingly bad, reproductive health situation in the country. There is still no evidence-based sex education in the vast majority of schools; contraception (other than barrier methods) still has to be prescribed by a gynecologist and is still expensive and not refunded; abortion is legal but only if the pregnancy is the result of a crime or the health or life of the fetus or mother is endangered (and even then it is very difficult to obtain). Things don’t seem to be looking too good, do they? And there’s more—Elzbieta Radziszewska, the equality minister for the past four years, was openly anti-feminist and anti-gay.  For example, she said on live television that she “will not take these arguments seriously because they are coming from a gay man.”  (I should also note that the man in question was not publicly out at the time she made her outrageous statement.)

So in a country with no sex education, (practically) no abortion, and a homophobic equality minister, things couldn’t really get much worse (not within the legal framework of what the EU allows for, anyway). Therefore, it was with some hope that I looked forward to the current elections. However, a month down the line, my feelings are mixed to say the least. Let’s take a look at some of the good stuff first.

  • Anna Grodzka—the first transsexual parliamentarian EVER ANYWHERE— got elected to the Polish parliament. What’s more, she got elected from Cracow—the capital of the conservative Polish south. Now, there’s a victory for tolerance and inclusion if I ever saw one.
  • Wanda Nowicka—the head of the Polish Planned Parenthood International affiliate also got elected and became the deputy speaker of the Parliament.
  • Robiert Biedron—an LBGTQ activist got elected as the first openly homosexual parliamentarian.

Oh, and the homophobic equality minister got sacked (only about three-and-a-half years too late).

It being Poland and the government being “liberal-conservative,” not all the news is this good, of course. The major negative jaw-dropper is the new Minster of Justice. When gossip first broke, on the eve of the official announcement, that Jaroslaw Gowin might get the Ministry of Justice, everyone thought it was a joke. I didn’t even bother reading about it because the idea seemed so ridiculous. And good for me, because I got an additional 12 hours free from worrying about the state of the Polish legal system and particularly the abortion laws.

The thing is, Jaroslaw Gowin as minister of justice is no less ridiculous, now that it’s true, than it was when we all thought it was just a bad joke. Gowin is a philosopher with no legal background whatsoever. Somewhat weirdly, the prime minister said that his lack of legal training or education is in fact an advantage, because he has no vested interests or dues to pay. That he may have absolutely no idea what he’s doing didn’t seem to occur to Tusk as a potential issue. All this may look like just another crazy “he’s my good buddy and I owe him a favor” ministerial nomination, if not for fact Gowin is also a Catholic fundamentalist and an affiliate of the notorious Opus Dei.

Gowin has a PhD in philosophy and his previous ventures into law-making could be seen as somewhat relevant to his education. He was appointed by the prime minister to write the bioethics (aka in-vitro) bill. Personally, Gowin believes in-vitro to be dehumanizing baby-killing (instead of a solution for infertility), but he was gracious enough to put his Catholic views aside when writing what may become the law of the land in a supposedly secular country. Well, he sort of tried to put his views aside (I think). He ended up drafting a bill, which if turned into law would allow only married couples to create no more than two embryos which could not later be destroyed (or used for scientific purposes). Also, no woman older than 40 would be allowed the treatment (even though women older than 40 are the primary audience for such treatment). Gowin confessed that if it were up to him, he would straight out put a moratorium on in-vitro procedures and have none of this godlessness happening in the country that spawned the previous Pope.

And, in case there was any doubt about his views on terminating pregnancies—according to the new Minister of Justice, abortion is bad and should be completely delegalized. However, Gowin said he won’t attempt that because it might turn out to be counterproductive and end up winning more support for the “leftist/liberal/communist” pro-choice agenda. The fact that if he de-legalized abortion in a sovereign state that declares the separation of state and church in the constitution he would be blatantly writing the law according to the wishes of another country’s leader (the Holy See) is not an issue for him.

Overall, the view for the next four years is a mix of the good and the scary. The ultra-Catholic minister of justice with no previous experience in serious law-making is definitely pretty depressing; but to lighten the mood Poland now has a deputy speaker of the parliament who is vocally pro-choice and got elected by talking about abortion and women’s rights. And the first openly homosexual member of parliament will also, whether the conservatives like it or not, lead to a “normalization” of the concept of same-sex public figures. Just recently, Julia Pitera, the prime minister’s anti-corruption expert, made a complete fool of herself on live television by saying that Biedron cannot use the term “below the belt” (as in, “this argument is below the belt”) because he’s gay and that makes it obscene. I kid you not, she actually said this on live television. The journalist interviewing her looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether she was crazy and hearing things or whether Pitera was crazy and actually did just say what she thought she said. Needless to say, the prime minister who tolerated his homophobic equality minister for the past four years did absolutely nothing about this. (On a side note, the prime minister himself has used the term “below the belt” numerous times but Pitera said that it is okay for her boss to say that, because he’s heterosexual.)

In his exposé the prime minister said it’s not the government’s role to bring about social revolutions—by which he most likely meant that there will be no civil partnerships for homosexuals (or heterosexuals for that matter), because yes, Poland is a country where letting two adults formally sanction their relationship amounts to a revolution if they happen to be of the same sex. We haven’t even gotten close to seriously considering the refunding of contraception or infertility treatment or to instituting evidence-based sex education in schools. I’d rather not think what the prime minister would say about teaching 15-year-olds about the importance of consent and STI and pregnancy prevention. He’d probably call that a total social meltdown.

So it seems we’re up for more of the same—the “abortion consensus” will remain the travesty that it is, and the conservatives will not allow for the refunding of contraception or proper sex education in schools. But the winds of change are blowing. Homophobia is no longer okay and getting elected by talking about abortion is obviously entirely doable. Polish people (at least some of them) feel the need to drop the corset of Catholic morality that’s been stifling proper debate and not permitting people to be treated as reasonable adults who can make their own informed choices. Hopefully, these four years will result in more debates about reproductive rights and health than ever before, and then, maybe the next government will finally bring about some real legislative and practical changes.

The President of the Russian Federation , Dmitriy Medvedev, signed “Basics of the protection of the health of the citizens of Russian Federation ” act. The draft  went through three readings in the State Duma (lower house of Parliament) and was the subject of wide debate in Russian society with interventions from the Orthodox Church, civil society and academia, and was heavily criticized by the Head of the National Medical Chamber of the Russian Federation , Mr. Leonid Roshal. For its final reading, more than 300 amendments were presented, 109 of which were adopted. The new law introduces a new “silence period”, ie. a mandatory waiting period before performing an abortion. According to the article 55 § 3, abortions conducted on a woman’s request within first 12 weeks of pregnancy will require a waiting period of 48 hours in the case of pregnancy in the 4th-7th week or 11th-12th weeks, but not later than end of 12th week of pregnancy and with waiting period of 7 days in the case of the pregnancy of 8-9th weeks. The law also sets the provision for obtaining an abortion in Art 56 § 4 that reads: “Abortion is conducted on social grounds until 22 weeks of pregnancy and in case of medical need, irrespective of the duration of pregnancy” (social grounds are set by the Government of the Russian Federation). Additionally the law introduced the possibility of conscientious objection. It allows doctors to obstain from performing abortion but  in the case of refusal of the treating doctor to follow and treat the patient and in the case of notice in written form about the refusal to conduct an abortion, the official (head) of the medical organisation (division of medical organisation) must organise a replacement of the treating doctor. He new bill further guarantees free family planning consultations; free medical assistance during pregnancy, during delivery and post-pregnancy; provision of nutrition for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as well as children under 3 years old.


Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, reviews Sara Dubow’s book Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America.

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America
Sara Dubow, Oxford University Press, 2011, 320 pp.

Recent discussions about the permissibility of later abortions have raised interesting questions about how we regard the fetus. How much value do we accord to life that has been conceived but not born? Has the way we assess this changed? Does our expanding knowledge of the science of fetal development mean that it should?

For decades, opponents of abortion have called on us to “confront the reality of abortion,” asking us to admit that the embryo is “human and alive” and that abortion “stops a beating heart.” They have accused the prochoice movement of devaluing the fetus, of denying that it is different than any other “blob of tissue” or of likening it to an unwanted growth, a “cancer” or a “parasite.” Their assumption, on the level of rhetoric or conviction, has been that prochoice politics is built on ignorance of what the fetus truly is. Today their challenge to us is this: as modern science tells us more about human development, as 4D scans show us the true face of the fetus, how can we allow its ending through late-term abortion?

Indirectly, implicitly, this book addresses that question.

Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America is not an argument about abortion, nor a vehicle for the beliefs of the prochoice movement. Sara Dubow, a historian at Williams College in Massachusetts, has written a detailed and scholarly study of the way value has been attributed to fetal life over the last century. “A fetus in 1870 is not the same as a fetus in 1930, which is not the same as a fetus in 1970, which is not the same as a fetus in 2010,” Dubow says. The change, she explains, is not driven by knowledge about the fetus, but by the emotional and political investment people have in it. Through their approach to the status, development and significance of the fetus, “people— individually and collectively—expressed their assumptions about personhood, family, motherhood and national identity.” How we understand and relate to the fetus is driven by social values and political circumstances far more than by biology or theology.

The book dismisses the idea that the advances in our knowledge about the developing fetus should shape our attitude to fetal status in respect to abortion. It shows that the fascination with fetal feeling, experience and appearance, which seems newly stimulated by today’s scientific discovery, has been a part of the medical, cultural, social and political discourse for more than a century. The form that this discussion takes and the conclusions that are drawn from it have been driven by cultural values and not by accumulated knowledge or new discovery. Throughout modernity, support for women’s choice about the future of her pregnancy was never built on ignorance of fetal life. Instead, it was based on the understanding of the fetus partnered with the concept of what pregnancy, giving birth and raising a child means for a woman.

Today’s commentators assume that, regarding fetal life, our trajectory has been to accumulate evidence that there is little difference between the unborn and the born. Dubow’s first chapter demonstrates how untrue this is. The progression of scientific thinking in relation to the fetus, from Aristotle until the mid-nineteenth century, was not so much a journey to discover how alike babies and fetuses are, bringing us closer to a view that the fetus is deserving of more respect. Rather, she illustrates that the voyage has been one to discover the differences between embryo, fetus and baby. A famous late-fifteenth century drawing by Leonardo da Vinci is generally regarded as the first accurate presentation of the fetus in utero (in “fetal position” ). While feminists have criticized the accuracy of da Vinci’s representation of the uterine context (which appears opened like a Fabergé egg), there can be little criticism of his rendering of the fetus. It is astonishingly similar to the photographs we see today in modern scans and medical textbooks—we are touched by how much it looks like a born “baby.” But in 1487, many would have been surprised by how un-like a man it was. Before then, the fetus was typically illustrated by various kinds of imagined homunculi—little humans—or cherubic infants. (A rich collection of illustrations is included in Karen Newman’s essay, Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science and Visuality, published in 1996 as part of Stanford University Press’s “Writing Science” series.)

Twenty-first century science’s knowledge of the fetus has not exposed the reality of fetal life, nor has it made public support for later abortions untenable. As Dubow reminds us, the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson first started to gain recognition for his photographic images of the fetus in the early 1950s.

Nilsson’s iconic series of fetal photographs, which first appeared in the 1965 Life magazine article “The Drama of Life before Birth,” have become the classical reference for feminist discussion of fetal imagery. They employ all manner of deliberate technical presentation and descriptive techniques to evoke “fetal personhood.” And yet, despite the photographer’s intent to dramatize life before birth, just two years later in Britain, and nine years later in the US, abortion was legalized.

In truth, the public has been exposed to, and fascinated by, accurate representations of the fetus for well over a century. Dubow cites the displays of anatomically correct wax models of human embryos, the centerpiece of an 1893 Chicago exposition that attracted crowds of visitors. Forty years later, the fetus was still a public draw, motivating exhibitors to go further to meet the audience for realistic representation. In 1933, some 20 million visitors paid 10 cents each to see a “graduated set of human embryos and fetuses” preserved in formaldehyde “to illustrate the development of an unborn baby from the first month to the eighth.” At this time they were seen as scientific curiosities—educational specimens. Times change, however, and Dubow recounts that, when a similar exhibition was mounted in 1977, the organizer was arrested and charged with the illegal transportation of human remains. Dubow discusses in some detail the changes that had occurred in the intervening decades—how the preserved fetus had turned from a scientific specimen to an emblem of the American family. My point is more straightforward: for more than a century people have known that in later pregnancy fetuses look like babies, and yet they have continued to make legal, moral and public policy decisions related to abortion regardless.

Just as there has been a long-standing interest in what the fetus looks like, so there has been similar interest in what fetuses feel and know. Dubow writes of research at the Samuel S. Fels Research Institute for the Study of Prenatal and Postnatal Environment in the late 1940s, which attempted to address social, psychological and physiological aspects of fetal behavior. She documents studies of “prenatal life” reported in the popular press of the time, such as a magazine article suggesting the new questions being researched: “What happens to a baby before he is born? Is he sometimes uncomfortable? Does he feel motions? Can he hear? Can he think? Is he capable of learning?” Dubow suggests that “prenatal psychology” got a stamp of approval as early as the 1940s, though without any implication of a protected status or fetal life.

The controversies regarding second trimester abortion in the 1970s illustrate most clearly how politics and advocacy are not framed by scientific or medical perception—it is politics that drives perception.

On April 11, 1974, Boston City Hospital physician Kenneth Edelin was indicted for manslaughter following a second trimester abortion. Although the Supreme Court Decision in Roe v. Wade had provided a relatively liberal framework for abortion, this case was complicated by tensions around race, class, ethnicity and concerns about the unchecked authority of doctors and scientists. In a hysterical environment excited by allegations that elective abortions were producing a supply of fetuses for research purposes, some of which were supposedly “kept alive” for experiments, Edelin was accused of causing the death of a fetus. He was said to have deprived a 24-week-old fetus of air after he had carried out an abortion by hysterotomy— by making an incision in the uterus. Edelin denied he had asphyxiated the fetus after delivery, but he was unashamed about his actions as an abortion doctor, which were not intended to result in a live birth. Under cross-examination he confirmed his belief that he owed no duty to the fetus. He was not concerned whether the fetus was live or dead at the start of the procedure since his only concern was for “the mother,” and even if he had thought that the fetus was alive after delivery he would not have called a pediatrician because “this being an abortion before viability,” he thought that an attending pediatrician would have been “number one, contrary to the patient’s wishes, and number two, contrary to good medical practice.”

Edelin was convicted following a sham of a trial, which Dubow describes in detail. The account is fascinating, but even more astonishing were the media reports, which gave unequivocal backing to the abortion doctor. The Boston Globe described Edelin as “a victim of judicial inadequacy that no society should tolerate.” The Washington Post wrote that the Edelin conviction brought “‘disgrace and shame’ to the State of Massachusetts and the entire judicial system … and warned that the impact of the decision ‘on the practice of medicine and on medical research in Boston, and elsewhere, is likely to be enormous.’” The New York Times called the decision “unbelievable” and feared that “it will now become more difficult than ever for women to obtain abortions when they are in the second trimester after conception.”

The case caused the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) to issue a statement reaffirming their support for “unhindered access by women to abortion services,” and warned that the profession, “must guard against local jurisdictions or vocal minorities imposing their ethical positions for medical care on family planning and abortion on patients and doctors who do not hold those positions.” The Planned Parenthood Federation of America worried that the decision “will make doctors fearful of performing abortions.” The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) was concerned about the affect on “women with no financial means or alternative options.”

Edelin’s conviction carried with it a maximum sentence of 20 years, but he was sentenced to one year of probation, suspended until the anticipated appeal. In 1976, a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts overturned the conviction.

We can ask—if Edelin were to come to trial today, what chance would there be that the media, ACOG, Planned Parenthood and abortion lobbyists like NARAL would stand together in unequivocal, unapologetic support for a second trimester abortion doctor found guilty of manslaughter?

Sadly, I think we have to concede that many would say—even if convinced of the righteousness of the doctor’s actions—that public support would be unwinnable. Today, late abortion is something even some who call themselves “prochoice” will no longer defend. Their retreat is not because they have learned more about the fetus, but because they have failed to learn what they should about women’s lives.

Dubow’s work shows that, from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, “the fetus has been a vehicle through which people have wrestled with assumptions about science and religion, anxieties about demography and democracy, beliefs about feminism and motherhood, and ideas about conservativism and liberalism.” This will be as true for the future as it has been for the past. Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America tells a story beginning a century ago, when the fetus was framed in a historical context during which, “embryology became a science, obstetrics became a profession, abortion became a crime, birth control became a movement, eugenics became a cause and prenatal care became a policy.” The challenge we face today is to understand the context in which our appreciation of the fetus is currently framed, and our task is to shape that context and not passively accept it.

In 1996, Edelin, who went on to become a chairman of Planned Parenthood, addressed the matter of whether the loss of a fetus in abortion was always a tragedy. He wrote: “Many women choose abortion because of the tragedies in their lives and in the circumstances surrounding their pregnancies. For these women, abortion is not a tragedy; instead it liberates them from tragic circumstances. Women must never be left out of the abortion debate, or the debate about fetal research, medical progress or moral politics.” He was right. Dubow provides the evidence: it is not fetal science that teaches us what we know to be right. Instead, through the years we interpret and understand that science in the context of what appears right from our own and society’s perspective.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of BPAS, and author of Unplanned Pregnancy: Your Choices.

This review is published in Conscience magazine, Volume XXXII, No 2, 2011. Reprinted with kind permission on Abortion Review:


WASHINGTON — After an emotional floor debate, the House of Representatives on Thursday passed theso-called Protect Life Act, which prohibits women from buying health insurance plans that cover abortion under the Affordable Care Act and makes it legal for hospitals to deny abortions to pregnant women with life-threatening conditions.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a proponent of the bill, told voters last week that its purpose is “to ensure that no taxpayer dollars flow to health care plans that cover abortion and no health care worker has to participate in abortions against their will.”
In fact, the Affordable Care Act already keeps public dollars separate from the private insurance payments that cover abortion. A federal judge ruled in August that the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List had to stop making the claim on its website that “Obamacare” subsidizes abortions because the assertion is false.
“The express language of the [Affordable Care Act] does not provide for taxpayer-funded abortion,” the opinion states. “That is a fact, and it is clear on its face.”
H.R. 358, introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), goes beyond the issue of taxpayer dollars to place actual limits on the way a woman spends her own money. The bill would prevent a woman from buying a private insurance plan that includes abortion coverage through a state health care exchange, even though most insurance plans currently cover abortion.
An even more controversial aspect of the bill would allow hospitals that are morally opposed to abortion, such as Catholic institutions, to do nothing for a woman who requires an emergency abortion procedure to save her life. Current law requires that hospitals give patients in life-threatening situations whatever care they need, regardless of the patient’s financial situation, but the Protect Life Act would make a hospital’s obligation to provide care in medical emergencies secondary to its refusal to provide abortions.
“Congress has passed refusal laws before, but it’s never blatantly tried to override emergency care protections,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’ve heard proponents of this bill say that women don’t need emergency abortion care, but that is really just willful blindness to the facts.”
According to the American Journal of Public Health, Catholic hospitals already have a years-long history of ignoring the emergency care law to avoid performing abortions. In late 2009, an Arizona bishop excommunicated a nun who authorized an abortion procedure for a woman who otherwise might have died of pulmonary hypertension at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said she personally faced a situation in which an abortion was medically necessary.
“I was pregnant, I was miscarrying, I was bleeding,” she said on the House floor Thursday. “If I had to go from one hospital to the next trying to find one emergency room that would take me in, who knows if I would even be here today. What my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to do is misogynist.”
Despite a strong showing in the House, the bill is unlikely to pass in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and the White House said on Wednesday that President Barack Obama will veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.
“The Administration strongly opposes H.R. 358 because … the legislation intrudes on women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care and unnecessarily restricts the private insurance choices that women and their families have today,” the White House said in a statement.

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