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Few Politicians Actually Understand What "Health of the Mother” Really Means

When cancer was suspected during my pregnancy, I faced a decision no woman wants.

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I wonder whether mine is the kind of case politicians have in mind when they talk vaguely about outlawing abortion with exceptions for the health of the mother. There was disagreement among experts about whether continuing my pregnancy threatened my life, what kinds of treatment for cancer during pregnancy would be possible, and whether treatment would dramatically alter my chances of survival or my baby’s. Politicians like Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., who glibly stated recently that there is no such thing as a medically necessary abortion, seem little aware of how devastating situations like mine can be. No one other than the women and families who will live with the consequences should make those heartbreaking choices.

My case is rare. Indeed, only one in 1,000 pregnancies coincide with a cancer diagnosis. But I think that’s why my story matters: It underscores how difficult such dilemmas can be. It illustrates how important the promise of choice can be, especially when the decisions at hand are not the ones we wanted to make. Mothers whose impossible choices unfold in the midst of educational, financial, and social disadvantages for which they are not responsible are granted little mercy in our public discourse about reproductive choice. That is a shame, because my experience has taught me that we’re all doing the best we can in situations beyond our control. That is how we live into the next day, in hope and humility.

But humility is in short supply in a public debate on reproductive rights that favors sound bites and unyielding absolutes. These are decisions that call for uncommon emotional and ethical depth. Abortion is a complex ethical issue, one that tests the limits of our beliefs about autonomy and responsibility to others. It is never a good choice, but it may sometimes be the right choice. Just as that is true for the women who face such a choice, it is also true for us as a culture. We can understand abortion as fraught and respect those women who choose it as painfully cognizant of that very fact. If the women in situations like mine wrestle to make the best choices we can, then how can anyone — particularly extraordinarily privileged (and overwhelmingly male) judges and politicians — presume to make them for us?

I hope that my daughters will one day read this essay as their mother’s defense of both of them. I hope that they live in a world that respects their inherent dignity. Whatever impossible choices they face, I want them to know that I trust them to make those decisions on their own.

Suzanne Edwards is assistant professor in the English department at Lehigh University.