Dominican pregnancy death sparks American demagoguery over life-of-the-mother cases

The girl’s mother, Rosa Hernandez

On Saturday, CNN reported on the leukemia death of a pregnant teenager in the Dominican Republic, which is being blamed on the Dominican constitution’s uncompromising anti-abortion language. Because chemotherapy could have harmed the unnamed girl’s unborn baby, doctors delayed the treatment for 20 days after hospitalizing her:

Her body rejected a blood transfusion and did not respond to the chemotherapy, and her condition worsened overnight, Cabrera said.

She then suffered a miscarriage early Friday, followed by cardiac arrest, and doctors were unable to revive her.

Representatives from the Dominican Ministry of Health, the Dominican Medical College, the hospital and the girl’s family had talked for several days before deciding to go forward with the chemotherapy.

The case sparked renewed debate over abortion in the Dominican Republic, with some lawmakers calling on officials to reconsider the abortion ban.

According to Article 37 of the Dominican Constitution, “the right to life is inviolable from the moment of conception and until death.” Dominican courts have interpreted this as a strict mandate against abortion.

The story has sparked a flurry of chatter in pro-choice circles including Jezebel, RH Reality Check, Addicting Info, and, all of which follows a common theme: uncaring pro-lifers are on the verge of dooming American women to a similar fate.

Now, I’m as thrilled as the next guy to be held accountable for laws passed in other countries, but this pro-choice fear-mongering doesn’t check out. First, there’s some indication that the blame lies not with the law, but with the doctors interpreting it:

Bautista Rojas Gomez, the Dominican minister of health, has publicly indicated he favors chemotherapy over protecting the pregnancy, but doctors are still reluctant to act for fear of prosecution.

Pelegrin Castillo, one of the architects of Article 37, says the constitutional ban does not prevent doctors from administering the treatment. It does, however, prevent them from practicing an abortion in order to treat the patient with chemotherapy.

“It’s an artificial debate,” Castillo said. “What we have clearly said is that in this case doctors are authorized by the constitution to treat the patient. They don’t have to worry about anything. They have the mandate of protecting both lives.”

Second, the closest any of the linked authors and commenters come to showing that American pro-lifers want to let pregnant women die is this quote RH cites:

“There are no exceptions in Personhood USA’s presidential pledge because there are no situations where it becomes necessary to dismember a baby,” said Jennifer Mason, spokesperson for Personhood USA, in a January press release.

“With the passage of federal or state personhood amendments, recognizing the personhood rights of both mother and child, women will still of course have access to life-saving treatments and medical care,” Mason continued. “Procedures to treat both mom and baby can potentially lead to happier outcomes for both patients, whereas abortion procedures, which are dangerous as it stands already, intentionally kill a child.”

But reading the rest of the press release makes clear that RH is taking Mason out of context:

Regarding cases where the mother’s life is at risk, the pledge states: “I believe that in order to properly protect the right to life of the vulnerable among us, every human being at every stage of development must be recognized as a person possessing the right to life in federal and state laws without exception and without compromise. I recognize that in cases where a mother’s life is at risk, every effort should be made to save the baby’s life as well; leaving the death of an innocent child as an unintended tragedy rather than an intentional killing.” […]

Dr. Patrick Johnston of the Association of Pro-life Physicians explains: “When the life of the mother is truly threatened by her pregnancy, if both lives cannot simultaneously be saved, then saving the mother’s life must be the primary aim.  If through our careful treatment of the mother’s illness, the preborn patient inadvertently dies or is injured, this is tragic and, if unintentional, is not unethical and is consistent with the pro-life ethic.”

American Life League, perhaps the largest national-level advocates for the personhood and no-exceptions wings of the pro-life movement, also make clear that they don’t consider such genuine life-saving treatment to be abortion, and aren’t interested in banning it. It’s not abortion because lethal force is not being directly inflicted on the baby, and the baby’s death is an unintended side-effect.

Contrary to the stereotypes our detractors constantly spread about us, pro-lifers understand the pain and nuance of such situations all too well. Recall that in 1996, pro-life Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s wife Karen underwent medically induced labor to save her life from an infection, resulting in the death of her premature baby. Fair-minded pro-choicers could have admitted that the Santorums’ ordeal revealed that pro-lifers are people too; instead, they accused Santorum of hypocrisy. For them, the personal is always political.

Though increasingly rare, there are pregnancies where complications make it impossible to pull both patients through safely. Pro-lifers understand this, but we’ll never settle how society should handle such situations as long as abortion apologists insist on denying that there are two patients.

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