Opinion: Reducing unexpected pregnancies would diminish rate of abortions

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Jo Anne P. Davis Opinion contributor

Published 10:30 p.m. ET June 25, 2022

My own “Jane Roe” story occurred early in my career as a registered nurse. I worked in a labor and delivery unit where abortions were performed. In 1975, the state of Ohio legal limit to electively terminate a pregnancy was 20 weeks.

Abortion practice in that unit consisted of the doctor injecting saline into the uterus to stimulate contractions and cause the death of the fetus. We nurses were then left to manage the delivery of the fetus and placenta. They were weighed and then placed in a cardboard bucket labeled “products of conception.”

In comes a classmate of mine from nursing school for an abortion. For reasons I do not know I was assigned to her care. As a new nurse, I asked a more experienced one to help me estimate “Jane’s” gestational size, as I was not convinced that she was 20 weeks along or less. Nurses who participate in abortion care become skilled in this estimate, as a 20-week pregnancy extends to when the top of the uterus reaches the woman’s navel. “Jane’s” uterus was at least two fingers above her navel, leading us to suspect that she was somewhere between 24 and 26 weeks pregnant.

At that time, no one, especially nurses, would dare challenge a physician’s judgment and orders; nurses had no say in what they were forced to do. The physician injected saline into her uterus, labor began, and 5 hours later, a 1½-pound baby was born alive and breathing. We were appalled, angry, resigned and helpless.

Remember this is 1975. By the 1990s, that baby would immediately be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit with some chance of survival, though with all the attendant consequences of premature birth: risks of brain damage, blindness, developmental handicaps, and other effects. Instead, we watched the baby attempt to breathe for over an hour.

Maybe it was the combination of knowing “Jane” and the devastating experience of my role in her abortion that made me reconsider my role. I remained pro-abortion with no reservations. However, I was intensely angry at the physician who lied about her gestational stage, and by association, how could I trust what any physician performing abortions would do? Two years was enough, and I left to become a certified nurse-midwife (a CNM).

Midwifery is not only about the short-term joy of catching babies. It is the totality of women’s primary health care: annual screening exams (including assessment of their other health conditions), contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, menopause, and other reproductive health issues. The big one being unexpected pregnancy.

In the U.S., almost half of pregnancies are unexpected. Many unexpected pregnancies become welcomed and wanted. Other women experience a moral crisis as they face the profound impact pregnancy will have on their lives. In my experience, no woman took this stunning situation cavalierly.

Unexpected pregnancy is in large part the result of pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing campaigns to convince women that a given method is fail-safe. But unexpected pregnancy can occur even when women have carefully and conscientiously practiced their contraceptive method. For example, pharmaceutical companies tout theoretical failure, asserting that user failure is the cause of. The former is taken at face value, say 97%. The remaining 3% of unexpected pregnancies are considered “breakthroughs.” Yet women are almost always blamed for an unexpected “breakthrough” pregnancy because it is assumed that they failed to use the method properly. Three percent is an illusion concocted in a laboratory – we have been sold a bill of bad goods.

The real moral crisis is tragic in a different way than is abortion. We – the health care system and pharmaceutical companies – have failed women. Women’s health care providers almost universally will say (if asked), “this one is 97% effective,” and obscure that “there is a 3% plus chance you could get pregnant with this method.” Nor, do we consistently and fully explain how to use a contraceptive method correctly and consistently.

Here is where abortion and the reality of faulty contraception intersect. If women’s health care providers would be honest about the possibility of unexpected pregnancy, and/or insist that combining two methods would significantly reduce unwanted pregnancy, the rate of elective abortion would diminish. This solves nothing, other than protecting some women (particularly poor women, women of color, and those with very limited resources) from compulsory pregnancy and birth, which is much more dangerous than ending an early pregnancy.

The Supreme Court decision expected later this month will satisfy no one. So, for anti-abortion and pro-abortion people, and women in need, it still won’t be enough.

Nobody wins.

Jo Anne P. Davis lives in Northside. She attended the University of Cincinnati (BSN), St. Louis University (MS in Midwifery), and Vanderbilt University (PhD in Nursing Science).  For 25 years, Davis has practiced full-scope midwifery in a variety of settings, including home birth, academic medical centers, and community hospitals. Her teaching career includes Yale University, New York University, and Georgetown University.