June 1, 2022 – Kendra Joseph of San Antonio, TX, had given up on the idea of having a second child. At 40 years old, and with a daughter pleading for a sibling, she and her husband were nervous about the risk of trying for another child due to her advanced maternal age. Joseph had ended an earlier pregnancy at 15 weeks after finding out her son had Edwards syndrome, a genetic trait that’s fatal in most cases.
Now a new Texas law that bans abortion past 6 weeks would mean that if either she or her baby were at risk of dying, she might still have to carry the baby to term. For Joseph, it wasn’t worth the risk at first. Then in February, just as they had decided against another baby, the couple found out they were expecting. She’s thrilled about her pregnancy, but it’s also been a nerve-wracking few months.
“It’s scary being pregnant anyway,” she says, “but these new restrictions add a layer of stress.”
Twenty-eight states could ban or tightly restrict abortion if the Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. A leaked draft of the court’s opinion has been widely interpreted as signaling that the court will overturn the law. This means that women who are at a higher risk of pregnancy complications or those who have chronic conditions before getting pregnant could be at risk of dying if they can’t get an abortion.
According to the CDC, the maternal mortality rate in the United States in 2020 was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births – among the highest in the developed world. The rate is eight times as high as it is in countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and New Zealand.
“Many of the women I take care of have a pregnancy that presents a real and present danger to their health, and this often goes along with the fact that they’re very unlikely to have a healthy baby,” says Chavi Karkowsky, MD, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Maternal mortality, she says, can be caused by health conditions that some women may not know about before getting pregnant. (For example, finding out she had cervical cancer at a prenatal visit and then having to choose between chemotherapy and her baby.) And there are also life-threatening conditions caused by pregnancy, like preeclampsia, which can cause high blood pressure and kidney damage, as well as gestational diabetes. Research has also shown that the risk of maternal mortality increases with age.
University of Colorado researchers, in a study published in the journal Demography, found that banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 20% increase in maternal death. For Black women, the increase in mortality could be as high as 33%, due to higher rates of poverty and less access to health care, says Amanda Stevenson, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Colorado and one of the study’s authors. Black women in the U.S. are more than three times as likely to die as a result of pregnancy complications due to poor exposure to health care, structural racism, and chronic health conditions, according to the CDC.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, more women will likely die because remaining pregnant poses a far greater mortality risk for them than the risk associated with an abortion, says Stevenson.
For women with high-risk pregnancies who need an abortion, traveling out of state puts them at a health risk, says Jamila Perritt, MD, an OB/GYN in Washington, DC, and president of Physicians for Reproductive Health. In places where abortion is restricted, it can cause significant delays in accessing medical care.“Abortion is a time-sensitive procedure, and as the pregnancy progresses, it can become increasingly difficult to find a clinic that will provide care,” she says.
She recalls one of her patients who had a heart problem that required a pregnancy to be ended. The patient at first had to travel to find a doctor who could evaluate her unique condition, then go out of state to get an abortion. All the while, the clock was ticking and her health was at risk. In this case, the patient had the money to travel out of state, find child care, and pay for the procedure.
“This was a resourced individual, and while this was difficult for her, it wasn’t impossible,” says Perritt.
Many of the states with the highest maternal mortality rates, including Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, also plan to strictly limit abortions or ban them completely. Some abortion opponents insist this won’t harm mothers.
“The pro-life movement loves both babies and moms,” says Sarah Zagorski, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Right to Life. “It is a tragedy that Louisiana has high mortality rates among pregnant women. However, legal abortion does not improve these rates.”
But for many women who need an abortion, statewide bans may make it hard to get. This worries Kendra Joseph, who’s now 18 weeks into her pregnancy.
“I try to put the bad things that could happen out of my mind, but it’s really hard when you’re dealing with these totally unnecessary and cruel restrictions. We as women, we’re just losing so much,” she says.