Sunday, July 6, 2008

Having My Baby: Mental Health, Abortion & Barack Obama

Presidential candidate Barack Obama disfigured his speech a few days ago, stating he opposed the mental health exception for late-term abortions. According to The Swamp, yesterday Obama clarified his position inflight between campaign appearances.

At issue is the legal precendent that provides for late-term abortions (i.e., after about 22 weeks into pregnancy) when the mother is in "mental distress." Obama had initially stated he opposed such abortions, alarming many supporters.

This is symptomatic of a much broader and far more politically delicate crisis: persistently, severely mentally ill women getting pregnant. Almost anyone working with this population can recount their tales of women who are, say, schizophrenic, noncompliant with treatment, prostitute themselves, and use every sort of street drug imaginable. When they get pregnant, often multiple times, a crisis of conscience ensues.

On the one hand, these mothers typically continue smoking cigarettes and crack, drinking alcohol, and tricking with johns throughout their pregnancy. Their babies are born crack-addicted, HIV-positive, or with any number of other complications. Often the odds of a decent life are already stacked against these newborns. Why not, some would say, encourage an abortion when these sorts of risks are apparent early on?

On the other hand, even among the most mentally ill mothers, the primal link between her and her child is enormous. These women often refuse abortion, even when they know they are injuring the fetus. They insist on having their baby and keeping it although they cannot even adequately provide for themselves. More often than not, these children land into the state's custody, shuffling through the foster home system ill and angry. But this is not universally true. There are a few children born in these circumstances who, through some higher intervention, survive and even thrive. Who, then, are we to play God because of risk factors and possibilities?

No clear right or wrong course exists in this space. The inability of the state to confine or mandate treatment of these severely mentally ill and drug-addicted mothers, though, would seem to me a good place to start.

Many thanks to photographer Bill Davenport in Nova Scotia for the image, "Life 7 to 12 Weeks"!
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