Anti Abortion Laws Mean Erosion of Rights for Pregnant Women


In 1987, hospital administrators at George Washington University Hospital in D.C. went to court to force 27-year-old Angela Carder, six months pregnant and ill with a rapidly metastasizing tumor in her lung, to undergo a C-section against her will. The goal was to “rescue” her fetus, they argued in court filings, despite the fact that the baby was extremely premature and Carder’s own obstetricians didn’t think it was appropriate to intervene on the baby’s behalf until at least 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Carder’s family tried desperately to stop the surgery, fearing that she was too sick to survive the procedure. She’d had cancer almost continuously since she was 13, and had already lost her left leg and hip to the disease. Nor did Carder herself want the C-section: when her doctor explained the risks, she said, repeatedly, “I don’t want it done.”

Nonetheless, despite her lawyer’s frantic last-minute calls to the judge for an emergency stay, Carder was wheeled into the operating room. Her fetus died two hours later. Carder held on for two days before she, too, died.

The Carder case is the most infamous example in U.S. history of a woman’s most basic civil rights being ignored simply because she was pregnant. This weekend, in an infuriating, terrifying editorial in the New York Times, Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin of Advocates for Pregnant Women showed that her case isn’t an isolated one. In a growing number of states, anti-abortion laws, whether they’re “personhood” amendments or backdoor efforts to ban abortion through nuisance TRAP laws, are contributing to a climate where pregnant people’s rights are ignored.

“Such laws are increasingly being used as the basis for arresting women who have no intention of ending a pregnancy,” Paltrow and Flavin write. “And for preventing women from making their own decisions about how they will give birth.”

Skeptics will argue that Carder’s death was nearly 30 years ago. But the Iowa woman mentioned in Paltrow and Flavin’s article, who was arrested for “attempted fetal homicide” after falling down a flight of stairs? That was Christine Taylor, and it happened in 2010. The charges against her were only dropped, according to a Nation article about her case, “when prosecutors discovered that Taylor was in her second trimester, not her third, when criminal penalties could apply.” A pregnant woman named Bei Bei Shuai was jailed on fetal homicide charges in 2011 after she tried to commit suicide. Her baby, born by emergency C-section, died three days later. Shuai, had eaten rat poison after her boyfriend abandoned her, but went to the hospital soon after, and, in the words of her attorneys, consented “to every test and every procedure that she was told would ensure the safety of her baby.”

Doctors and hospital administrators in many states don’t hesitate to call the cops even in instances where the pregnant person’s wishes just differ from their own. When Lisa Epsteen of Tampa tried to give birth at home in 2013, her obstetrician threatened to call the police unless she reported to the hospital for a C-section. Just this past July, a Florida woman was forced by a hospital ethics panel to give birth by C-section, despite going to court to try to win the right to a VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section).

Paltrow and Flavin released a study last year showing hundreds more examples, from 1973 to 2005. They found over 400 cases in 44 states, with low-income women and women of color especially vulnerable to forced legal and surgical intervention from the state.

“We should be able to work across the spectrum of opinion about abortion to unite in the defense of one basic principle,” they write. “That at no point in her pregnancy should a woman lose her civil and human rights.”

It’s a completely non-controversial opinion, one that we shouldn’t have to make a case for in the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for a time when the Handmaid’s Tale was a grim dystopian fantasy, and not some kind of how-to manual.

Image via Shutterstock

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