Saturday, July 5, 2008

Does Obama Object to a Mental Health Exception for Late Abortions?

Relevant Magazine has published A Q&A with Barack Obama on its website.  The magazine invited readers to submit questions.  According to the magazine, "Most of the questions submitted centered on Obama’s personal faith and abortion.... He aimed to clarify his position on late-trimester abortions and addressed rumors surrounding his controversial vote on the 'born alive' bill."

During the Q&A, Obama was asked to clarify his position on "
third-trimester and partial-birth abortions."  He responded, in part:

...I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

This an unfortunate comment coming from a pro-choice candidate.  Abortions in the third trimester are rare (accounting for less than 1% of abortions in the United States).  But compelling mental health concerns, no less than physical concerns, account for the need for late abortions.  For example, when women seek abortions in the late stages of pregnancy, it is often because they are carrying a wanted pregnancy and have discovered that the fetus has a severe anomaly.  Should a woman be forced to carry to term a fetus that has Tay Sachs disease?  Imagine her daily life for those remaining weeks, having strangers congratulate her, ask her whether she's having a boy or girl, what she plans to name her baby.  Imagine her going through hours of labor and giving birth in the delivery ward, among all the ecstatic new parents.  Is this woman's situation not "significant" enough to merit an abortion?

Obama's answer seems to suggest that mental health issues arising from a pregnancy aren't "real."  Dismissive attitudes toward mental health are prevalent in the abortion context (although one would not expect Obama to share them). Disregard for the mental health of women seeking abortions clashes notably with the progress made by advocates seeking parity in the treatment of mental health issues.  As Cynthia Dailard writes in a 1999 article, Abortion Restrictions and the Drive for Mental Health Parity: A Conflict in Values? (Guttmacher Institute):

[R]ecent actions beg the question of why providing equitable treatment for people with mental illness is gaining currency in virtually every public policy context except abortion, where it is fast losing ground.

Obama was also asked how he planned to achieve "a reduction in the number of abortions under your administration."  He responded:

I think we know that abortions rise when unwanted pregnancies rise. So, if we are continuing what has been a promising trend in the reduction of teen pregnancies, through education and abstinence education giving good information to teenagers. That is important—emphasizing the sacredness of sexual behavior to our children. I think that’s something that we can encourage. I think encouraging adoptions in a significant way.

Clearly, on abortion as on so many other issues, Obama is conscious of the need to appeal to a broader swath of voters in the general election. But, as with his brushing aside of pregnant women's mental health concerns, it is disheartening to see him parrot the ineffective responses to the problem of unintended pregnancy, such as abstinence education, that conservatives have championed.

2008 Presidential Campaign, Abortion, Politics | Permalink

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