When Natalie Roche’s mother was about to give birth in a New York City hospital, she overheard a police officer warn a woman in the next bed, “We are going to let you bleed to death if you do not tell us who your abortion provider is.”
That story inspired Roche to study medicine, specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, and, as an assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, become a staunch advocate of reproductive rights.
“Illegal abortions were far more deadly than what we could provide in a hospital,” she told the 140 people assembled in the social hall at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills who came to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Roe. v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions.
But the high court has grown more conservative in the passing decades, so members of National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section (NCJW), perceiving threats to the rights conferred under Roe v. Wade, gathered on Jan. 18 to join in a somber program titled “Danger: Pregnancy Ahead. Examining the Growing Number of Infringements on Women’s Access to Health Care.”
Alarmed at the possibility that the Supreme Court may revoke the rights conferred by Roe v. Wade, the audience heard a human rights attorney and four Rutgers Medical School physicians, including Roche, warn of potential serious consequences for the women of America.
Roche noted that maternal mortality is increasing. According to a ProPublica study, in 1990, there were 17 deaths of women per 100,000 births in the United States. In 2015, that number jumped to 26.4, making the U.S. the country with the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations. The second-highest mortality rate is in the United Kingdom, with 9.2 deaths per 100,000.
“People are going to continue to have abortions whether they are safe or unsafe,” said Dr. Mark Einstein, chair of the school’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health. “We want to make sure that people have safe care. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, we would be reopening our septic abortion ward in Newark. People die from that.”
Dr. Noa’a Shimoni, medical director of Rutgers Medical School’s Student Health Services, decried legislation in many states that regulates the size of rooms and corridors in women’s health clinics. “Having a wider corridor doesn’t improve patient care, but what it does do — and did in Texas — was decrease the number of abortion facilities from 42 to 19,” she said, adding sarcastically, “Nice job.”
Shimoni also attacked the passage of regulations that mandate doctors to give potential patients misinformation about abortions’ leading to breast cancer and fertility and mental health problems — “all not scientifically based,” she said.
But what is based in evidence, she said, is that there is a correlation between women who give birth after having unwanted pregnancies and their suffering from depression. And, she added, the “myth” that a fetus suffers pain “has been debunked…. The fetal nervous system is not developed enough in order to process pain.”
Lauren Barlog, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Newark and assistant professor at Rutgers Medical School, suggested that many unwanted pregnancies could be prevented simply by implanting women with intrauterine devices shortly after they give birth or have an abortion. Gynecologists assert that these are “optimal times” to provide women with such contraceptive help, but, said Barlog, “New Jersey does not provide insurance coverage for such a procedure.”
Attorney Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said her organization is dedicated to defending women for crimes related to pregnancy.
It takes legal aim at anti-abortion forces that are trying to restrict access to “reproductive justice,” which she defined as “access and affordability of medical care, health insurance, and education.”
While opponents speak about the “personhood” of fetuses, “we think about the personhood of women as well…. We can’t add personhood of the fetus without subtracting personhood of the pregnant woman. You can’t have just an abstract fetus; there is a woman involved, too,” she said.
Rosenbloom said her organization has defended not only women who have had abortions but those who have had unwanted miscarriages, because law enforcement agencies suspect those women of deliberately inducing those fetal terminations.
She warned that if abortion is recriminalized it will lead to greater numbers of women and women’s doctors prosecuted and placed behind bars.
Rosenbloom said 87 percent of the counties in the United States have no abortion providers, with most of those counties in rural areas. It means that self-abortions have been on the rise and that some women are forced to resort to obtaining medicines to halt their pregnancies.
But using such medications to end a fetus’s development can come with criminal penalties, she noted. In Georgia, a 23-year-old woman was charged with murder and faced life in prison or a possible death sentence for aborting a fetus, until a prosecutor realized that there was no state law against doing so.
She said some prosecutors across the country “want to be able to lock up pregnant women, when every single public health group and medical group dealing with women says threats of arrest do not help the babies, and they do not help the moms.”
After the meeting adjourned, Rosenbloom told NJJN that “it is hard to predict” whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned. “A lot of Republicans and a lot of very powerful people with a lot of money behind them are trying to take away the right to abortion,” she said. But a more severe effort would be a federal law that would prohibit individual states from granting women the right to an abortion. She said such a move would trigger a return to the days of dangerous and potentially lethal “back-alley abortions.”
“We are already seeing that now for poor women and rural women,” Rosenbloom said. “The lack of access is causing people to take matters into their own hands and put their lives and health at risk.”