In today’s Washington Post, a young third-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham explains the road she has travelled, from being “adamantly opposed to abortion” as a teenage daughter of “conservative Christians,” to becoming president of a group of pro-choice medical students, who envisions her career in obstetrics and gynecology including the provision of abortions.
There are several historical (and I fear even medical) matters about which this young woman appears greatly confused. One wonders, for instance, whether this future obstetrician has learned from her embryology textbooks that every fetus, every embryo, is a unique, distinct, self-directing, living member of the human species. Any rights that our young med student has by virtue purely of her humanity today, she had from the moment of her conception. And if the unborn child has only those rights that those with political power choose to give him or her, then that fact applies to all of the rest of us too, and it behooves us to scramble for whatever power we ourselves can get.
But allow me to focus on one thing our young student simply has altogether wrong as a matter of fact. Telling of a patient who (she believes) needed a late-term abortion (but not very late, if she had “almost 20 more weeks” to go), she writes:
She was past the point where she could legally terminate the pregnancy in Alabama. If she could get an appointment in Atlanta within the next week, she might be able to have the procedure there. Beyond that, there were only a few physicians in the nation who would perform an abortion in such a case.
These three sentences mix up legal questions with practical ones. There may be, as I have been told, very few options for a late-term abortion in Alabama (which I would regard as a very good thing, of course). But our author more or less states that the patient could not “legally terminate the pregnancy in Alabama,” and this is plainly false. There is no state in the Union in which an abortion at any stage of pregnancy is simply illegal for a willing physician to perform. There might be restrictions placed on how such abortions are performed, or whether women have to wait to get them, or are subject to informed consent requirements, or other conditions. But assuming there are doctors willing to abide by such conditions, there is no such thing as an abortion that is illegal, owing purely to the moment it takes place in the term of pregnancy, anywhere in the United States.
This is the combined effect of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, companion cases from Texas and Georgia decided on January 22, 1973. Roe seemed to permit states to prohibit abortions taking place after viability (when a live birth is possible), so long as there is an exception allowing such abortions as “necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.” Then Doe informed us that such “medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the wellbeing of the patient.” With “emotional” and “psychological” health sufficing to sanction an abortion–and with physicians the final judges of whether such “factors” were present–the exception thus swallowed up the rule, and the possibility of postviability abortions being prohibited outright vanished entirely.
Our young medical student might ask her professors if they’ve ever heard of a doctor being successfully prosecuted, in any American jurisdiction, for the mere performance of late-term abortions, without something more being involved, at any time since 1973. It hasn’t happened, and Roe and Doe are the reason. And then she might want to rethink her choice of a career that considers a little girl or boy in the womb to be the obstetrician’s patient if the mother desires her or him, but to be a disposable thing with no rights if she doesn’t.