In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision Dobbs v Jackson, there has been a good deal of confusion over the significance of its overturning of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey. Surveys show that a very large number of Americans, up to 68% in some polls, believe that Dobbs criminalizes abortion, which is not true. Dobbs simply makes the matter of abortion an issue for the states to regulate through their legislative processes. Because of Dobbs, each state may pass laws that either impose significant restrictions on abortion or allow broad access to it, depending on the views of that state’s electorate. Because the democratic process now directly shapes abortion policy in each state, it is very important for us to understand the issues so we can engage constructively in the public debate and clarify misconceptions and misinformation that would make people hesitant to support pro-life legislation.
This is true, for example, when it comes to policies aimed at protecting the life of a pregnant mother. Specifically, there seems to be some confusion about circumstances where there has been a miscarriage or an ectoptic pregnancy. A miscarriage refers to a situation in which a child dies of natural causes at some point during the mother’s pregnancy. In some cases, the woman is unable to naturally give birth to the remains of the miscarried child, which creates a serious risk of infection that would threaten the mother’s life. Here, the physician might perform what’s called a “dilation and evacuation” to surgically remove the body of the deceased child. Importantly, this procedure is also used regularly to perform abortions. But here’s the difference: a surgery that removes the body of an already-deceased child is totally different than a procedure aimed at killing an unborn child. The former is an example of good health care. The latter describes an abortion.
An ectopic pregnancy refers to a situation where a living human embryo, a human being in his or her earliest stages of development, implants in the mother’s fallopian tube instead of the uterine wall. Such a situation is fatal for the child, and poses a grave threat to the life of the mother. To treat this dangerous condition, a physician may perform what’s called a salpingectomy, which is the removal of the affected fallopian tube. The unborn child cannot survive such a procedure, but the death of the unborn child is not the direct intention of the surgery, though it is a foreseeable result. It is similar to the situation of a pregnant woman who discovers she has cancer, requiring chemotherapy. In such a case, a woman may elect to undergo cancer treatment even though it is likely to result in the death of her unborn child. Since the child’s death is a foreseeable result but not the primary aim of the treatment, it is morally permissible, according to the principle of double-effect. This is entirely different than the use of chemicals to intentionally end a pregnancy, which would fit the definition of an abortion.
Abortion is an emotionally-fraught issue that many of us find difficult to talk about. Now that the Court has returned it after 50 years to the political process of state legislatures, however, we must educate ourselves as an electorate. This will enable us to distinguish true statements about prenatal health care from misleading ones, so that we might support policies that truly serve the interests of both pregnant mothers and their unborn children, upholding their shared humanity – thereby preserving our own.
2 thoughts on “Clearing up Confusion after Dobbs ”
Brave piece to scratch the surface of such a difficult issue.
Father , thank you for a clear and concise presentation of these very important legal and medical facts. Confusion abounds and this is clarifying.