Will Alabama’s abortion ban be used to prosecute women?

By Lanier Isom

Representative Terri Collins insists Alabama’s abortion ban will not be used to prosecute women, but what politicians say and do are two different stories.

Look at Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute passed in 2006.

Originally meant to protect children from parents making meth in their homes, zealous prosecutors reinterpreted the law and used it as a weapon to lock up women who exposed their embryo or fetus to a controlled substance in utero. Who’s to say politically motivated prosecutors won’t do the same with the recent abortion ban in Alabama?

In 1998, I gave birth at the age of 33. I almost died. That day the hospital was understaffed. I pushed for three hours straight. No pause, no break. During my 18-hour labor, the doctor was nowhere to be seen. When she showed up, my son Clint’s head was positioned the wrong way, sunny side up, stuck in the birth canal. It was too late to perform a Caesarean. Near the end, my epidural wore off and Clint’s heartbeat dropped precipitously. The petite doctor turned to my husband Hugo, a former college athlete. “Help,” she said.

It took me five years to consider a second child.

Even though I was scared, I was thrilled when I became pregnant again. The day I went for the 12-week sonogram I thought I knew what to expect, so I urged Hugo to go ahead to an unexpected business meeting in Atlanta. The sonogram room where I first saw Clint’s strange shadowy white figure swimming inside me, heard the muffled underwater thumping of life coursing through him, through us, was the same as this one: small and quiet with bare, lifeless walls.

The technician, an older woman with stiff grey hair, squirted the cold jelly on what already felt like a whale belly. She moved the wand slowly over my taut skin, a ritual that seemed like a blessing. I wondered about her job the way I do when I have a mammogram or a pap smear. How could anyone stand seeing so much flesh, so much humanity, all of us different, but similar? I shuddered to think of such a job.

While she moved the wand in an efficient, methodical rhythm, I tried to calculate how many times she’d done this. Maybe 10 times an hour? Hundreds of times a week, thousands a year. Each one routine. I turned to the machine to decipher the Rorschach blob. Was it a boy or a girl? I marveled at the ghostlike silhouette and waited, staring at the ceiling, while she took measurements, quiet except for the machine’s clicks as regular as hiccups.

Her hand stopped gliding over my stomach, the brisk clicking sounds silent. “Uh oh,” she said still staring at the machine.

I twisted my body to see what she saw. The wand tried to slide off my belly, but she repositioned it. She motioned me to lie back down.

“What? Is there something wrong?”

She pointed to the screen. “I’m sorry.”

Her words suctioned the breath out of me.

She hesitated. “Looks like growth stopped around the 10th week.”

I tried to sit up, but she started swiping the wand again. I remembered the dream I’d had a couple of weeks earlier. I’d dreamed that I’d woken up one morning to discover the baby had died. In my dream, I’d had too much to drink and killed my own baby. In the morning light that day, I shook off my panic, ignored my intuition, and dismissed the truth my body was telling me. I realized with horror the dream was about two weeks ago, around the 10th week.

A few minutes later in the small bathroom, I tried to pull myself together. I called Hugo while the technician waited patiently. No answer. Only voicemail. I was alone in my shock and grief.

As days and weeks passed and I searched for material to read about other women’s experiences, I felt even more isolated. Many women seemed to have experienced this heartbreak, but no one was talking or writing about it then, even though 10-15% pregnancies end in miscarriages. Most occur within the first trimester, but 1 to 5% of miscarriages end during the second trimester. I had no idea how common this natural loss was for women and their families.

I was lucky. Within months, I got pregnant again and delivered a healthy baby girl, pushing only a couple of times during an easy labor.

But what if I experienced my miscarriage today? In Alabama, with its history of prosecuting women for criminal endangerment during pregnancy, women have already been punished for the outcomes of their pregnancies, 479 in 2015 according to al.com and ProPublica.

After I learned the news my child had died in utero of natural causes, would the technician have picked up the phone to call the police and start an investigation to make sure I hadn’t done something to myself to abort the fetus? What if my miscarriage had happened at home and I went to the hospital for medical assistance? Would they call the police to investigate me for a possible doctor-assisted abortion?

In our current punitive environment, pregnant women who experience bleeding or complications may avoid going to the doctor, fearful of being prosecuted, endangering their own life and the potential life they carry. America already has a maternal mortality crisis. Last year, the maternal mortality rate in Alabama was 11.9 per 100,000 white women. Among black women it was 27.6, making them 5 more times likely to die in a country where the overall maternal mortality rate is a shameful 20.7.

I never knew why my pregnancy ended so abruptly. I never will. Nature’s quirky, unpredictable. Spontaneous miscarriages occur naturally all of the time for women, most in the first trimester, but not always. Most occur due to abnormal fetal chromosomes, but medical science doesn’t know why. Doctors do know smoking, alcohol and caffeine increase the likelihood of pregnancy loss, as does diabetes, thyroid disease, and uterine or cervix issues.

With the recent legislation, politicians have now effectively put God on trial for involuntary manslaughter. With these new laws, if a woman miscarries, an inexplicable but normal part of creating life, she will be subjected to more pain and grief while an investigator makes her unintended loss a crime scene.

Recently in Missouri, the state department’s reinterpretation of the “informed consent laws” has mandated a state-sanctioned sexual assault on women demanding them to be subjected to two vaginal examinations before an abortion. We are returning to a time during the early and mid-twentieth century when “moral squads” roamed the streets and the government locked up women, not men, with sexually transmitted diseases, injecting them with mercury or forcing them to ingest arsenic. Now becoming pregnant in Alabama and other states with “heartbeat bills” means not only have abortions been criminalized but women also potentially face jail time through no fault of their own.


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