Yes, Pregnancy Can Be Life-Threatening—Here’s What to Know About Medically Necessary Abortions

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Senator Ted Cruz is receiving backlash for stating “pregnancy is not a life-threatening illness”—because some abortions are medically necessary. On top of that? The number of pregnant women who die each year in the U.S. proves pregnancy can be dangerous.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life or pro-choice, there’s one thing all Americans need to know: Ted Cruz is flat-out wrong when he tweeted that “pregnancy is not a life-threatening illness, and the abortion pill does not cure or prevent any disease.” In fact, the U.S. is facing a maternal mortality crisis, with about 700 women dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions each year. And for some pregnant people, abortions are medically necessary.

“The science of medicine is not subjective, and a strongly held personal belief should never outweigh scientific evidence, override standards of medical care, or drive policy that puts a person’s health and life at risk,” said a 2019 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) statement. “Pregnancy imposes significant physiological changes on a person’s body. These changes can exacerbate underlying or preexisting conditions, like renal or cardiac disease, and can severely compromise health or even cause death. Determining the appropriate medical intervention depends on a patient’s specific condition. There are situations where pregnancy termination in the form of an abortion is the only medical intervention that can preserve a patient’s health or save their life. As physicians, we are focused on protecting the health and lives of the patients for whom we provide care. Without question, abortion can be medically necessary.”

Still not convinced? In some cases, having an abortion is safer than giving birth.

“My liver had shut down, my kidneys had shut down, and they were expecting me to start seizing at any minute,” Cecily Kellogg, who was six months pregnant with twin boys in 2004 and needed an abortion after one fetus died, told USA Today of her experience. “I fought it. But they told me I would die—that it was either me and my son or just my son.”

And then there are so-called “late-term abortions“—which only make up about 1.3 percent of all abortions, by the way—that occur after 21 weeks gestation and could be necessary to save a woman’s life from conditions such as premature rupture of membranes and infection, preeclampsia, placental abruption, and placenta accreta.

“Women in these circumstances may risk extensive blood loss, stroke, and septic shock that could lead to maternal death,” the ACOG said. “Politicians must never require a doctor to wait for a medical condition to worsen and become life-threatening before being able to provide evidence-based care to their patients, including an abortion.”

That doesn’t even include the women who want to terminate a pregnancy due to causes like rape or incest, in cases where the fetus will not survive, or for those who want to preserve their emotional and mental health. In fact, women’s mental health could be at risk if they are denied access to an abortion.

Another reality: For some women abortions may not be “medically” necessary, but the decision to terminate a pregnancy can still be life-saving. According to a 2015 study, 95 percent of women—of varying race, education, and employment—who ended their pregnancies did not regret the decision. And, according to 2014 data from the Guttmacher Institute, the majority of people who have abortions are moms (59 percent of those who got an abortion that year had previously given birth). As Phoebe Zerwick wrote previously for Parents, “Their reasons for terminating a pregnancy are complex, from the state of their relationship, to personal finances, to reluctance to add another child to their family.”

And regarding that whole, “pregnancy is not life-threatening” thing, want to know the facts about having a baby in 2020? The U.S. is actually one of the most dangerous places to give birth in the developed world. While maternal mortality rates are decreasing globally, it’s getting riskier and riskier to give birth here. Depending where you live—for example, Illinois has the best maternal mortality rate while Arkansas has the worst—the danger could be even greater. Across the country, Black, Indigenous, and people of color—regardless of socioeconomic status—are disproportionately affected.

Despite this crisis, many women don’t know the signs of the most common causes of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S., including preeclampsia, eclampsia, and hemorrhage, or the fact that they have anything to worry about at all. That’s why the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just launched Hear Her, a national campaign to address maternal mortality issues.

“Pregnancy and childbirth should not place a mother’s life in jeopardy, yet in far too many instances, women are dying from complications,” CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. previously said. “This seminal campaign is intended to disrupt the too-familiar pattern of preventable maternal mortality and encourage everyone in a woman’s life to be attentive and supportive of her health during this important time.”

So, yes, pregnancy actually can be life-threatening—and so too can be denying a person a much-needed abortion.