Imagine that you’re pregnant. But instead of celebrating, something went seriously wrong as the fetus developed, and you’ve been told by your OB/GYN that if you actually give birth the child will only survive for a few minutes, if at all. Or perhaps your doctor told you that your own life would be at serious risk from continuing this pregnancy. She knows you need time to absorb this and schedules another appointment in a few days to go over your options.
But just before that appointment you get a call from her office. They tell you that the OB/GYN you’ve been seeing is no longer available at that location. She is in the process of moving her practice out of state, about 100 miles away. You’re shocked because you don’t want to travel such a distance, and in fact you can’t due to work, financial constraints, or other obligations. Thankfully another doctor is available to see you at that office, so you make the appointment and show up.
As your new OB/GYN introduces herself, she’s wearing the same type of white coat your former doctor had worn and has the same concerned, serious manner of your prior doctor, but her manner is different. She’s using terms that your prior doctor never used, and every time you ask about potentially terminating this pregnancy she steers the conversation away, never answering your question directly. Her words are strange and anything but reassuring: She calls your pregnancy “pre-viable” and refers to the fetus inside you as a “preborn” child. She talks about the state’s new “regulations” that prohibit the termination of a pregnancy, which she refers to as “feticide.” Then you happen to glance over her shoulder and on the shelf sits a slim binder with the acronym “AAPLOG” in bold letters written along its spine.
It dawns on you that this doctor is trying to persuade you to continue your pregnancy, even though you already know you can’t. When you flat-out ask her about abortion she turns her head a bit, looks away from you and suggests you may have to consult another physician for that type of advice, one practicing out of state. Shaken, you ask her to clarify—perhaps make a recommendation or give a name of a doctor to call—and she apologizes but says she can’t help you.
Although it may sound bizarre, something like the situation described above is unfolding in numerous Republican-dominated states that have passed laws restricting or outlawing abortion, or criminalizing the behavior of any medical professionals who assist or aid a patient in terminating a pregnancy. In several states, as observed in a New York Times article by author Jessica Valenti, Republican legislators have made it exceptionally difficult to terminate a pregnancy even if the fetus is suffering fatal complications, or the pregnant person’s life is actually put at risk. As Valenti notes, in some states such as Idaho and Louisiana, this has literally mandated physicians to plan out “forced births” for patients whose pregnancies appear satisfactorily “life-threatening.”
As Valenti reports, rather than reconsider the wisdom of these laws, Republicans and the rabid Christian extremists who agitated and lobbied for their passage have instead focused on “manipulating medical and legal language” to try to make their devastating consequences more palatable to those pregnant individuals.
This summer, for example, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists [AAPLOG] published a “Glossary of Medical Terms” instructing doctors on what “life affirming” language to use. Under their guidance, a woman whose fetus has a fatal anomaly would be told not that the condition is terminal but that it’s “life limiting.” Similarly, if someone’s water breaks months before her due date, she would be informed not that the pregnancy is nonviable but that it’s “pre-viable.” The goal is in part to persuade women to carry doomed pregnancies, which can be emotionally and physically catastrophic.
As Valenti notes, the same forced birth organization, AAPLOG, also recommends that a pregnant person suffering from serious prenatal complications be forced to endure up to 24 hours of labor before an abortion may be performed, even if it requires blood transfusions and ICU care.
The nominal purpose of these efforts to “revise” standard medical terminology is to convince the pregnant patient that she is actually making an informed decision. In truth, however, as Valenti notes, “[T]hese are deliberate efforts to ensure that fetuses’ rights trump women’s rights, no matter the cost to women [and all pregnant individuals].”
Meanwhile, the same organization involved in distorting such medical language is working hand-in-hand with Republican state legislatures and governors to restrict the availability of abortion. As reported in 2020 by Marisa Endicott, writing for Mother Jones:
The nearly 50-year-old group may be still relatively unknown to the broader public, flying under the radar as an innocuous-sounding medical association, but the Trump era has opened the door for it to exert significant new powers: intermingling with key Trump personnel in charge of health policy, influencing administration staffing, and playing a major role in shaping the recent explosion of state-level anti-abortion legislation. AAPLOG doctors act as expert witnesses in state and federal legislative hearings and provide lawmakers with scientifically questionable claims to support abortion bans, mandatory ultrasounds, and abortion waiting periods. And then, when those laws are challenged in court, AAPLOG officials and doctors testify and submit amicus briefs on behalf of their cause.
Valenti explains how—with AAPLOG’s support—Republican legislators have fashioned laws such as those forcing pregnant patients to carry their fetus to term, even when the outcome to the patient themselves is potentially fatal.
If a woman in Idaho has a life-threatening pregnancy, state law dictates that the doctor must end the pregnancy in a way that provides “the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive,” which the State Supreme Court has interpreted to include performing a cesarean or vaginal delivery. Similarly, a bill proposed in Wisconsin this summer stated that a procedure performed during a medical emergency isn’t an abortion if a doctor “makes reasonable medical efforts” to preserve “both the life of the woman and the life of her unborn child”; legislators mentioned using a C-section and early labor, specifically.
In Idaho, the only exception to the trauma of unnecessary labor and delivery or C-section is if the woman’s life would be more at risk that way. In other words, instead of having minutes-long abortions, women will be forced by the state to endure major surgeries or traumatic vaginal deliveries, even if that seriously affects their physical and mental health.
As Valenti wrote one year ago, this focus on preserving “fetal rights” as opposed to the rights of the person who is pregnant has already led to some singularly bad outcomes:
In August, a woman in Texas who was denied an abortion for an unviable pregnancy ended up in the intensive care unit with sepsis. Another Texas woman, pregnant and in failing health, was recently told she shouldn’t come back unless she had a condition as severe as liver failure or stroke. A woman in Wisconsin was left bleeding for more than 10 days after an incomplete miscarriage just days after the Supreme Court’s decision; a doctor in Texas was told not to treat an ectopic pregnancy until it ruptured.
Some physicians apparently influenced by this “fetal rights” movement have even refused to prescribe certain medicines to women of “childbearing age,” regardless of whether they are pregnant or not. Kylie Cheung, writing for Jezebel, describes how a woman named Tara Rule is suing her neurologist and a New York hospital system for allegedly refusing to provide her with headache medication because she might one day become pregnant.
Last September, New York resident Tara Rule posted a raw, emotional video on Tiktok saying she had been denied a medication to treat a debilitating condition called cluster headaches, because her neurologist told her she was of “childbearing age” and the medication could cause birth defects to a hypothetical fetus.
Rule said that as she sat in her neurologist’s office at Glens Falls Hospital, she told him she never planned to have kids and would have an abortion if she became pregnant; referencing the overturning of Roe v. Wade, he responded that getting the care she was seeking is “trickier now with the way things are going.” He also said she should bring her partner “in on the conversation” on her medical care. Rule asked if the issue preventing her from getting the “highly effective” medication was solely that she could become pregnant and, “If I was, like, through menopause, would [the medication] be very effective for cluster headaches?” The doctor affirmed it would. He also asked about her sex life and whether she’s “with a steady person.” Rule shared audio recordings of the appointment on TikTok at the time.
As Valenti observes, even as Republicans begin to realize that their extreme positions on abortion are repugnant to the majority of Americans, they continue to try to “trick Americans into believing they’re somehow softening” those positions. But their latest tactics, such as emphasizing access to “birth control” or achieving some type of magical “consensus” on the number of weeks they would permit someone to terminate an unwanted pregnancy indicate they haven’t retreated one iota from their original goals. All they’re actually intent on is refashioning their language, sometimes (as Valenti’s article shows) by literally telling doctors what to say to achieve their ends.
But voters shouldn’t be fooled: “forced birth” is exactly what it sounds like, and it remains Republicans’ only objective, however they attempt to disguise it.