Abortion & The “Health” Of The Mother

During last night’s final presidential debate, in addition to stroking Joe The Plumber’s ego, John McCain used oh-so-retro air quotes to emphasize his stance on abortion and abortion legislation.

Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He’s [for] health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, ‘health.’

All the air quotes really did was call my attention to that notion — the health of the mother — and what that really means. By the tone of McCain’s fingers, you’d think that means when the woman has a cold, she can have a late-term abortion. So I decided to find out, in general, what the “health of the mother” really entails.

Late-term abortions, or abortions after the 20th week of gestation, are extremely rare. Data from 2003 suggests that only 1.4% of abortion were late-term. Restrictions on late-term abortions are currently a state’s issue as determined by Roe V. Wade. Currently 36 states have actual bans on late-term abortions. Thirteen states prohibit abortion after a certain number of weeks’ gestation, ten states require a second physician to approve, and nine states have laws that require a second physician to be present in order to treat a fetus if born alive. The Supreme Court has said that these bans must include exceptions for threats to the woman’s life, physical health, and mental health. The Supreme Court determined that “only the physician, in the course of evaluating the specific circumstances of an individual case, can define what constitutes “health” and when a fetus is viable…and states cannot require additional physicians to confirm the physician’s judgment that the woman’s life or health is at risk.”

Even still, four states allow late-term abortions only when the woman’s life is at risk, while another four allow them when the woman’s life or physical health is at risk, but not mental. Additionally, pro-choice groups believe these states use a definition of “health” that is extremely narrow. According to the Guttmacher Institute:

Although the vast majority of states restrict later-term abortions, many of these restrictions have been struck down. Most often, courts have voided the limitations because they (1) do not contain a health exception, (2) contain an unacceptably narrow health exception or (3) do not permit a physician to determine viability in each individual case but rather rely on a rigid construct based on either specific weeks of gestation or trimester. Nonetheless, statutes conflicting with the Supreme Court’s requirements remain on the books in some states.

In a nutshell, the Supreme Court was very specific in their ruling for Roe V. Wade that doctors performing late-term abortions in states with restrictions are the ones who should determine whether the mother’s physical health, mental health, or life is at risk; that some states still only allow late-term abortions if the mother’s life is at risk; and that when cases that are believed to be unconstitutional are brought to state courts, usually the law finds in favor of the rulings dictated in Roe V. Wade. Therefore, when politicians and lawmakers (like McCain and Palin) discuss reforming the laws on late-term abortions, they mean to overturn Roe V. Wade and potentially make abortion a state’s issue (if that) where state governments can decide if, when, how, and why abortions AND late-term abortions are allowed.