As a hospital pediatrician, I find the argument that banning abortions protects children particularly hard to bear. The opposite is true: Antiabortion legislation hurts children. Parental health is infant health, and maternal health is fetal health. This is why news that the Supreme Court may soon strike down Roe v. Wade is so alarming: Children will suffer.
Current models estimate that an abortion ban would lead to hundreds of American maternal deaths each year because of the medical risks of continuing a pregnancy. And that’s to say nothing of the death toll of unsafe abortions. Each year, an estimated 68,000 women around the world die after undergoing an abortion outside a safe medical setting. The physical and emotional anguish suffered by the thousands of mothers unable to receive necessary termination for tragic medical conditions in pregnancy is impossible to quantify, as is the pain and suffering of babies born with congenital conditions that mean they will not survive into childhood.
The specter of living in an America without access to safe and legal abortion makes me think of a patient I will call Gina, 19 years old and barely out of childhood herself when she was admitted to my pediatric hospital just months after giving birth to her second child. In treating her acute medical conditions, I caught a glimpse of the physical and emotional hardships she had endured. At 15, Gina became pregnant after years of sexual abuse. She was ill equipped for single motherhood and lacked the supports either to raise her baby or to recover from trauma. A few years later, after her birth control failed, she survived a second pregnancy despite being plagued by life-threatening medical complications. As I stressed the importance of continuing the treatments I was prescribing her, she nodded kindly but asked again when she could be discharged. Her prematurely born baby was still in the neonatal intensive care unit. Gina hoped to nurse him one more time before heading home to feed her toddler.
Physicians like me continue to advocate for adequate maternal-fetal care that would remedy America’s woefully high maternal and infant mortality rate, which is more than double that of other wealthy countries. We demand comprehensive reproductive health care and education to optimize pregnancy timing and outcome. We implore legislators to help us address the societal stressors that a parent faces before, during, and after pregnancy and that can affect the child’s genes and cause long-term health issues. We champion life-saving parental leave and access to appropriate and equitable health care for all families.
Our cries remain unanswered. Many have pointed out that our efforts are most frequently and fervently rebuffed by so-called “pro-child” antiabortion advocates. The faction that would deny a pregnant woman autonomy over her own body is also the faction that would deny her, as a parent, a living wage, accessible health care, and social supports that she needs to assure her own well-being and that of her child.
They would refuse Angela, a mother caring both for her hospitalized, terminally ill toddler and a newborn at home, the bare minimum parental leave she needed to get through her impossible situation. At four weeks postpartum, Angela had to go back to work or lose the insurance that provided her dying child with care.
Few have the opportunity to see such injustices up close every day. While legislators read words on a page, pediatricians look into the eyes of parents like Gina and Angela, who deserve better. Their pain and resilience fill us with awe and empathy that are forever tinged with rage at the society that fails them and their vulnerable children — children who deserve health and stability that they may never know.
Dr. Rebekah Diamond is a hospital pediatrician in New York City and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Parent Like a Pediatrician.” Follow her on Instagram @parentlikeapediatrician.