On Thursday night, Wendy Davis, the former Texas state legislator and candidate for governor, wrote a column for CNN about her personal experience with having two abortions. She held out her story as support for advocates asking the US Supreme Court to strike down a Texas law that would close abortion clinics, which the court is reviewing this term. Davis wrote:
My story begins when I had a medically necessary termination of a nonviable ectopic pregnancy. And then, even more heart-wrenching, I made the decision to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy, when, during my second trimester, my then-husband and I discovered that our baby daughter was suffering from a debilitating brain abnormality.
This isn’t the first time Davis has told this story. It’s also in her memoir. And while Davis may believe she’s helping keep abortion safe and legal, her confusion of the facts may prove counterproductive and harmful for the cause of abortion rights.
Treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is not an abortion, even under Texas’ restrictive abortion laws. That’s because, by definition, an ectopic pregnancy is never viable. It’s when an embryo misses the mark and implants somewhere other than the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. While a baby cannot develop to term outside the uterus, such a pregnancy can be life-threatening for a woman because as the fetus develops, the tube can rupture and cause massive blood loss and deadly infection. Ectopic pregnancies account for anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of all maternal deaths in the United States.
When an ectopic pregnancy is caught early, doctors can now use a drug called methotrexate to dissolve the fertilized egg before it can do major damage to the woman, preserving her hopes of future pregnancies. Davis apparently wasn’t so lucky and says she had to have her fallopian tube removed. Even so, she lived to tell about it. But in her public comments, she insists on calling this surgery an abortion, which it isn’t. Even the Texas abortion law Davis is opposing, HB2, says quite clearly that “an act is not an abortion if the act is done with the intent to:…(c) remove an ectopic pregnancy.”
By repeatedly defining this procedure as an abortion, though, Davis may be unfairly stigmatizing women who’ve had the procedure and boosting the arguments of some of the anti-abortion movement’s most extreme elements—the “ectopic personhood” activists who would like people to believe that a baby can really survive to term inside a woman’s ovary or fallopian tube, despite all evidence to the contrary. And she’s lending linguistic support to the arch-conservative Catholic bishops who have also insisted that ectopic pregnancy treatment is the equivalent of an abortion.
These bishops have required Catholic hospitals to withhold treatment for ectopic pregnancy until a woman is in mortal danger—a move that also can leave a woman infertile even if she lives. Many Catholic hospitals are banned from using methotrexate entirely because of its association with abortion, leaving women with ectopic pregnancies at a much higher risk of complications and infertility. A 2011 National Women’s Law Center study reported on observations of several doctors who’d seen many cases of unnecessary fallopian tube ruptures in Catholic hospitals because of these edicts.
If Davis really wants to help preserve women’s reproductive rights, she should get her facts straight. She had just one abortion, and that’s probably enough to make her case. She doesn’t need another one.