Give GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee some credit: He is willing to own the consequences of his policy positions, even when those consequences include forcibly subjecting a child and rape victim to severe pain, months-long physical debilitation, and catastrophic medical and psychological risks.
In the above video, CNN's Dana Bash asks Huckabee to comment on the case of a 10-year-old girl in Paraguay who became pregnant as a result of a rape by her stepfather, and was forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Paraguayan law prohibits abortion in nearly all circumstances, allowing only exceptions in cases necessary to preserve the life of the mother. The government refused to apply that exception, and the child was forced to carry her rapist's baby to term.
Huckabee, Bash pointed out, wants the US to impose a similar law prohibiting abortion even in cases of rape or incest. If he succeeded, child rape victims in America would be forced to endure the same horrifying treatment as the little girl in Paraguay, who goes by the pseudonym "Mainumby" in the press.
But when confronted with that prospect, Huckabee was serenely unconcerned.
I think what we have to do, Dana, is remember that creating one problem that is horrible — and it is horrible, let nobody be misled, a ten-year-old girl being raped is horrible. But does it solve a problem by taking the life of an innocent child? And that's really the issue.
Huckabee's cavalier dismissal of the health of a 10-year-old rape victim was shocking. But what makes his response most disturbing is that it's actually quite consistent with how pro-life activists tend to approach the politics of abortion. By focusing overwhelmingly on the fetus, they completely ignore a very important consideration: the painful, risky, debilitating nature of pregnancy itself.
Pro-life activists tend to focus on whether a fetus is a person, and whether life begins at conception. But even if you do believe that the fetus is a person at any given moment in the pregnancy, the nature of pregnancy is an inarguable medical fact: It involves taking the mother's body — her blood, her uterus, her vital organs — and using it to save the life of another person.
We have a term for that: organ donation.
It is uncontroversial in this country that other types of organ donation should never be forced. Parents are under no legal obligation to donate their organs to save their children's lives after they are born, even though there is no debate about the "personhood" of children who are living outside the womb. Yet when it comes to fetuses whose personhood is a subject of debate, pro-life activists demand that this obligation be legally enforced.
That demand is what makes Huckabee's comments about 10-year-old Mainumby so infuriating. But what he was saying was really in line with what pro-life activists say generally: that unlike any other person in any other situation, pregnant women and girls should not have the right to refuse to donate their bodies for the benefit of someone else. That the fetus has a superior right to the mother's body.
Pregnancy isn't like organ donation, it is a kind of organ donation
I want to be very clear here: I'm not just making an analogy between pregnancy and living organ donation. I am arguing that pregnancy is in fact an actual category of living organ donation.
Pregnancy of course does not (typically) require surgery, and is a bit different from other types of organ donation, in that the fetus is still inside the mother when it uses her organs, and for the most part the mother still gets to share them. But make no mistake: The fetus does use those organs and depend on them for survival, just as organ recipients outside the womb do.
To be sure, unlike some kinds of organ donation, if all goes well with a pregnancy, the mother gets her body back in good working order after about nine months. But that isn’t so different from bone marrow or liver donations, each of which eventually regenerates after a partial donation. And the physical burdens that pregnancy places on the mother can be debilitating.
The mother's uterus provides a safe space for the fetus to grow. Her body produces about 50 percent more blood in order to provide the growing fetus with oxygen and nutrients. Her lungs oxygenate it, her heart pumps it. Her digestive system produces the nutrients both of them need.
That is miraculous, to be sure. As it happens, I am currently about six months into my first pregnancy, and I am constantly amazed at the way my body turns out to know how to create another human life, without any need for input or guidance from me. It's like discovering that my car has been Optimus Prime all along.
But that also means I have no control over how the baby in my belly can use my body. She has access to my oxygen, my nutrition, my heart, my lungs. My organs respond automatically to what she needs, even if that means I am left exhausted or ill.
To me, that is all worth it: The thought of meeting my baby in a few months thrills me. I am a willing participant in this process. But not all women and girls who become pregnant are themselves willing participants. And that is a distinction that a lot of abortion opponents just do not seem to find very important. The idea that pregnancy and its physical burdens could be forced onto me, or, more specifically, could in many cases be forced onto a woman or girl who has not signed up for surrendering control over her internal organs, appalls me.
And yet pro-life advocates and GOP presidential candidates are arguing for exactly that. Pro-life lawmakers like to argue that they are opposed to "killing." But really what they are arguing for is different: a rule that forces women to let other people use their bodies to stay alive. They're arguing that the rights of the fetus should be elevated beyond what we would normally grant to a child, and that the rights of the mother should be lowered beneath the protections that individuals normally receive.
A law that gave all children such rights over their parents would be considered an appalling, extreme overreach. And yet arguments that abortion should be restricted are de rigueur in conservative circles. As a result, even more extreme positions such as Huckabee's are accepted as part of the mainstream political conversation.
Pregnancy is dangerous. Women should be allowed to take that into account.
There's another way that pregnancy is akin to organ donation: It comes with some unavoidable physical harm as well as the risks of complications, potentially fatal, for the donor or mother.
We often think of the dangers of pregnancy as a problem that modern medicine has overcome, or that is limited to poor women in developing countries. But that's not true: Although good medical care can make the risks of pregnancy much lower, it cannot eliminate them. And even uncomplicated pregnancies are still tremendous physical undertakings, with serious consequences and side effects.
Consider, for instance, what an ordinary, uncomplicated pregnancy involves: weeks of nausea and exhaustion in the first trimester. A depressed immune system, which is essential for preventing the mother's body from rejecting her growing fetus, but unfortunately leaves her susceptible to any stray virus that happens to float past. Hormones that soften the connective tissue of her joints and bones, leaving her susceptible to strains and other injuries.
And then, of course, there is the challenge of getting the baby out, which turns out to be a problem with no good solution. A vaginal birth is usually the best bet, but is very painful, often causes tearing, and can damage the mother's pelvic floor, sometimes seriously enough to require corrective surgery later. Aiding a vaginal delivery with instruments such as forceps or a vacuum makes tearing and damage even more likely, and can be even more painful if done without an epidural. That epidural, by the way? Though it's usually very safe, about 1 in 100 women will suffer minor complications such as crushingly painful headaches, and as many 1 in 20,000 will suffer permanent complications such as paralysis.
Cesarean sections, in which the baby is delivered surgically through an incision in the mother's abdomen, are likewise generally quite safe, and often are the best possible choice when it comes to preserving the lives of the mother and baby. But the baby-size incision that must be cut into the mother's abdomen can come with potentially severe side effects, including blood clots, infections, and scarring that can make future pregnancies more difficult and future births more dangerous.
And that's just when things go fairly well. There are a number of severe complications that can easily occur during pregnancy. Preeclampsia, for instance, in which the mother's body has a massive adverse reaction to the pregnancy, affects up to 8 percent of pregnancies worldwide. It has no known cure but to deliver the fetus and placenta — and left untreated can lead to organ failure and death.
Other complications are rarer, but still terrifying. I will spare you the gory details, which I've researched pretty extensively as my own personal means of coping with the medical risks of pregnancy. But the point is that the more I've learned, the more certain I've become that pregnancy can be magical, yes, but even the most magical pregnancy also comes with significant physical tolls and substantial medical risks.
Like an organ donation, that is something that makes it all the more beautiful if it's something you've affirmatively chosen, but all the more traumatic if you've been forced into it. The idea of forcing someone into an organ transplant is indeed so appalling that it is the subject of several horror films, not to mention urban myths the world over. But the idea of forcing someone, by law and against their will, to endure the physical tolls and dangers of pregnancy is somehow considered a mainstream political position.
It's time for the abortion debate in this country to come to terms with what pro-life politicians like Huckabee are really saying. Banning abortion isn't "preventing killing," it's forcing pregnancy. And forcing a person to substantially compromise her own health against her will for another's benefit, even her own child's, is wrong. We don't do that after birth. We shouldn't do it before it, either.