Bad Medicine: The War on Women Gets Medieval
The Supreme Court's retrograde decision in "Whole Women's Health v. Jackson" hurtles the United States back to the Dark Ages.
On Friday, the Supreme Court decided, five to four, that it is legal for states to deny potentially life-saving medical treatment to pregnant women.
Most of the coverage lamented the erosion of rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade, bemoaned the dysfunction of the Roberts Court, tossed around quaint legal terms like stare decisis that have been rendered effectively meaningless, and forecast further erosion of civil rights in future SCOTUS decisions—and with good reason. But let’s eschew the highfalutin, Gorsuchian language of the broken legal system and tell it like it is: by not enjoining Texas’s restrictive S.B. 8 law, five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are cool with pregnant women dying unnecessarily.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor—one of the only members of the Court still tethered to practical reality—brought this up during the oral arguments: “When does the life of a woman and putting her at risk enter the calculus?” To rapey drunk Brett Kavanaugh, to Clarence “Pubic Hair on a Coke Can” Thomas, to clerico-fascist Sam Alito, to cult handmaiden Amy Coney Barrett, and to pompous sesquipedalian Neil Gorsuch, who lent his purple pen to the majority, the answer can be summed up in two words: It doesn’t.
The issue of abortion has been so politicized by the Orwellianly named “pro-life” movement that the entire subject is coated with the sanctimonious patina of Christian religiosity. Instead of treating abortion like the medical procedure it is, we hear words like “womb” and “sacred,” and are sucked into a philosophical debate about when life begins. (The Bible says life begins at conception, they insist, despite not being able to track down the relevant passage.)
When the anti-choice zealots are not acting holier-than-thou, they are spinning horror-movie tales of evil abortionists plucking fully-formed, cooing 40-week-old fetuses from the uteri of unsuspecting mothers and gleefully smashing in their newborn skulls. In their fantastical telling, the State wants to come for our babies, like the State wants to come for our guns. In actuality, the State doesn’t have the time or the inclination to come for either—the State has more pressing matters to deal with than interceding in a decision between a pregnant woman and her doctor. Moreover, what the zealots describe so ardently in the aforementioned scenario is homicide, not abortion.
The decidedly less lurid truth is that abortion is a medical procedure—you get one at a clinic, not a church—and many abortions are performed to save the life of the mother. Denying pregnant women access to abortion is no different, fundamentally, than denying women with breast cancer access to chemotherapy. Thanks to the odd ruling in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, and those five hardline Leonard Leo acolytes occupying the Supreme Court, pregnant women in Texas are effectively denied that right—for now, and probably for good.
Some individuals in the fascistic “pro-life” bubble are so indoctrinated in the movement’s cynical propaganda, and so sure of their own moral and intellectual superiority, that they are completely divorced from reality. Alexandra DeSanctis Marr, a visiting fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and a writer at the National Review who covers abortion, a week ago tweeted, “Abortion is never medically necessary to save a woman’s life.” Could a maternal-aged human possessed of ovaries, uterus, and Fallopian tubes, who writes about abortion for a living, really not know that this statement is complete horseshit? Did DeSanctis Marr dispatch this communiqué for propaganda purposes, to push back on Sotomayor’s “life of a woman” quote? Is she yet another rightwing provocateur, trolling the other side? Or is she just daft?
I don’t know, but DeSanctis Marr’s use of the word “never” means that a single, solitary example of abortion saving a woman’s life invalidates her assertion. Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN and a columnist for the New York Times, countered with: “Maybe you should consult an expert. I’ve personally saved lives doing abortion. But you could also ask Savita Halappanavar’s family as she died because she was denied an abortion.”
The example Gunter cites is, sadly, accurate. Halappanavar did indeed die because she was denied medical treatment, on account of Ireland’s medieval (and since lifted) ban on all abortions. As the New York Times explains:
Dr. Halappanavar, a dentist, and her husband, an engineer, were living in Galway in 2012 and preparing for the birth of their first child. That all changed when, 17 weeks pregnant, Dr. Halappanavar went the hospital with back pain on Oct. 21 and doctors said she was having a miscarriage.
Dr. Halappanavar was told that her fetus would not survive—but that she could not be given an abortion, her husband said. Ireland, she was told, is “a Catholic country,” and it would be illegal to terminate the pregnancy while the fetus still had a heartbeat, her husband said.
After being repeatedly refused an abortion, she waited days until the heartbeat stopped. The contents of her womb were removed on Oct. 27. By then she had an infection, and she died of septicemia the following day.
The replies to Dr. Gunter’s tweet are full of examples of women whose lives were saved by the procedure. I personally know women who would have died if they didn’t have abortions. So do you—even if you don’t realize it. (Just because it isn’t talked about at dinner parties doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, fellas). The simple truth is that without the abortion option, women are denied access to the full complement of medical treatments that can potentially save their lives. All the more reason that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be made by the pregnant woman and her doctor—not some state legislator with a Y chromosome.
It pleases “pro-life” ideologues to think that abortion is a simple, neat, black-and-white issue. It’s not. The real world is messy. There are as many reasons to have an abortion as there are women who get one. Furthermore, even a cursory study of any country that has had strict bans on abortion show that these bans are harmful to women—as Savita Halappanavar found out in Ireland, and hundreds if not thousands of others learned in Romania and elsewhere (including in this country, during the dark “coat hanger in a back alley” days).
Again: the Supreme Court has denied pregnant women a potentially life-saving medical treatment. This is like if SCOTUS denied men who suffer from erectile dysfunction access to Viagra and Cialis—except that a guy’s life is not in danger if he can’t get it up. It’s more like the Court preventing a syphilitic from having an injection of Benzathine penicillin G: We know this will save you, but we can’t allow it because Jesus. Sucks to be you.
The United States is supposed to be a progressive country, the land of the free. Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson hurtles us back to the Dark Ages. Whatever the so-called “pro-life” propaganda claims, bans on abortion are not morally good; they are barbaric. Lives are not being saved by banning abortion; to the contrary, women in Texas will die because of it. Not that Kavanaugh, Thomas, Alito, Barrett, or Gorsuch give a rat’s zygote.
“The Court should have put an end to this madness months ago, before S.B. 8 first went into effect,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “It failed to do so then, and it fails again today.” Madness is exactly the right word. But hey, at least Clarence Thomas and Scalito can still fill dick-pill prescriptions, should the need ever, ahem, arise.
As harmful as this ruling is to pregnant women in Texas, Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson is just the beginning. Even Federalist Society darling John Roberts, the eunuch Chief Justice, is concerned. As Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate,
The chief justice, concurring in part and dissenting in part, pointed out that the purpose of the law was to evade judicial review: “Texas has passed a law banning abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. That law is contrary to this Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey. It has had the effect of denying the exercise of what we have held is a right protected under the Federal Constitution.” He describes Texas’ enforcement mechanisms as “an array of stratagems, designed to shield its unconstitutional law from judicial review.”
Roberts closes with what looks a lot like yet another flashing red light signaling the end of democracy:
The clear purpose and actual effect of S. B. 8 has been to nullify this Court’s rulings. It is, however, a basic principle that the Constitution is the “fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” and “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Indeed, “[i]f the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.” The nature of the federal right infringed does not matter; it is the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system that is at stake.
Again, the Leonard Leo/dark money interlopers on the bench do not care. Because the America they envision does not align with the America that the majority of Americans wants, their only recourse is tyranny. Is there anything more totalitarian than the State forcing a woman to carry to term a pregnancy she does not want? As I wrote in “Leo the Cancer,”
Leonard Leo, as Jay Michaelson succinctly explains in The Daily Beast, believes that “most of the New Deal and administrative state are unconstitutional, that corporations have free speech and free religion rights, that women and LGBT people are not ‘protected classes’ under constitutional law, and that there is no right to privacy implied by the due process clause of the Constitution (i.e., banning abortion, contraception, and gay marriage are entirely constitutional). . . .”
The thing is, those are unpopular positions, reviled by a healthy majority of Americans. Given the demographic trends in the United States, the only way “The Crusaders” can bring the country back to the pre-New Deal era is to establish a dictatorship—a radical Catholic caliphate. Leonard Leo and his buddies are clearly okay with that. The Opus Dei prelature, remember, has its origins in Fascist Spain. The Roman Catholic Church is very much a top-down organization—what the Pope says goes. The late J. Peter Grace, the head of the American Knights of Malta, whose Maine compound Leo now owns, was involved in Operation Paperclip, and was therefore okay with Nazis. Steve Bannon wants to destroy the American administrative state. By eradicating the barrier between Church and State, Leo seeks the same outcome. Ultimately, what these men want is, to put it mildly, inconsistent with democracy. That makes them particularly dangerous.
Pregnant women of Texas are the first casualties of this illegitimate Supreme Court. They won’t be the last. Investigate Kavanaugh. Expand SCOTUS. The transition from democracy to dictatorship is well into the third trimester. We’re running out of time.
Photo credit: Detail of the lower two registers of a full-page miniature, with various medical treatments, and in the lower register, a nimbed seated figure blessing in the outer compartments, and a patient in bed in the center. Image taken from f. 9v of Chirurgia. Written in French.