“She had a heartbeat too”: waiting for a dead woman End-shutdown

Before a speaking event last week, I memorized everything I could about the near-death experience Amanda Zurawski endured while losing her pregnancy. Of the demand Zurawski filed a complaint with four other women about abortion bans in Texas. I learned that doctors, fearful of breaking the law, refused to terminate Zurawski’s pregnancy when she burst at 18 weeks. Days later, when she was having a miscarriage, her fever rose to 103.2 degrees. Zurawski’s relatives flew in to see her in the ICU because they believed she was dying.

As I recounted the details to the audience, I could see people shaking their heads at how the state of Texas almost killed that woman.

It has become a disturbing ritual of my profession, this chronicle of the labor pains of the near-dead woman. My notebooks are full of the measures of her suffering: the peak of the fever, the pain of the infected uterus, pain severe enough to make you arch out of bed as in The Exorcist, as described to me by another near-dead woman. How old is the almost dead woman, and is she a mother, and could we take a picture? For generations, the near-dead woman has been the archetypal patient deserving of an abortion. That archetype traces its roots to the late 19th century, when physicians wanting to prove their superiority over lay quacks advocated making abortion illegal unless a patient was close enough to death, a determination that varied widely and could only be taken by a doctor. Today in the postroe landscape, the 12 states ban abortion everyone makes an exception if you are, to varying degrees, almost dead. As the Texas lawsuit shows, these exceptions, when interpreted by medical providers with the threat of prison hanging over their heads, are not enough to protect even near-dead patients from ending up in the ICU or having to flee the state.

Of course, spawning enough near-dead people will inevitably lead to a certain number of deaths.

I wonder who she is, our dead woman.

In Ireland, her name was Savita Halappanavar. She was a dentist. Her water broke at 17 weeks, just like Amanda Zurawski’s. Doctors in Ireland told her they couldn’t terminate her pregnancy because the fetus was protected by Ireland’s Eighth Amendment as long as she still had a heartbeat. She begged for an abortion. Like Zurawski, she developed sepsis. So she died. She was 31 years old. Her death ignited a political revolution that liberalized Ireland’s abortion laws. Thousands of people demonstrated in the streets with banners with Savita’s portrait reading “Never Again”. Six years later, Irish voters repeated the Eighth Amendment in a referendum. Under the right circumstances, one kill is enough.

I wonder if our dead woman is reading good night Moon your young son after a long day at work. I wonder if she’s logging into online night classes with her feet in a pair of fuzzy slippers. I wonder if she’ll rage and cry at the unfairness of it all, when she finds out that the doctors in her state won’t help her unless she’s nearly dead. She may not be a woman at all, but a trans man or a non-binary person who has already faced medical professionals inclined to discriminate against her very being. In a country where black women seek abortions at higher rates and die far more commonly from maternal health complications, our dead woman is likely to be black, and therefore likely to know that her death will be worth less.

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