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Experts warn 'life of the mother' exceptions for abortion could still punish women, doctors

The bill lawmakers are expected to pass would allow abortions to prevent substantial permanent impairment of the life or physical health of the pregnant woman.
Credit: WTHR

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers are moving quickly through the special session, expected to ban abortions in the state with few exceptions.

One exception that's continued through the Senate and, so far, in the House, would be to allow abortions when a doctor is acting to save the life of the mother. But doctors and legal experts are warning that kind of language is vague, and these critical healthcare decisions need to be made without fear they could be criminalized for saving a pregnant person's life. 

"It's really disappointing and it's scary for patients and for providers," said Dr. Caroline Rouse, a maternal fetal medicine physician at IU Health. 

Rouse has been closely watching this special session, following lawmakers' plans closely as they work quickly to ban abortions in the Hoosier State. She said the decisions being made in the Statehouse to ban abortion may directly impact the kind of lifesaving care she's able to legally offer her patients. 

“This is not black and white. There is no line before which something is only threatening to the health and not the life," Rouse said. "My job is to predict and prevent health complications and death as best I can and I’d rather do that as opposed to just waiting until there’s a catastrophe and then intervening. That goes against everything that I’ve trained for and studied for."

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The bill lawmakers are expected to pass would allow abortions to prevent substantial permanent impairment of the life or physical health of the pregnant woman. But Rouse said that's not as clear as lawmakers imagine it to be. 

If a doctor acts in their best medical judgment to save a patient's life through an abortion, she said many physicians now worry that if others view that same situation as non-life-threatening, physicians could face criminal penalties or even jail time. 

“There’s a lot of concern about needing to call a lawyer before making a medical decision for someone who is sick and potentially very, very sick,” Rouse said. "While we make every medical decision using the best medical knowledge and literature and experience we have, sometimes those decisions are fast and we don't have time to make medical decisions by committee and calling a lawyer and doing all these other things. So we're worried about it."

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IU law professor Jennifer Drobac said challenging in the courts to ensure a woman can legally have an abortion would take time - time many women won't have when it comes to making a decision.

"You need to have this procedure right away if you've discovered there's a problem or there's a pregnancy and you don't want to wait. And court cases can take months and years to percolate through for decisions," Drobac said. “Suing after the fact may not deal with all the problems that have been created because you couldn’t get a decision in the first instance. So again, there’s a no-win outcome here."

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Women forced to wait while a decision comes through the court system, Drobac said, could mean a woman dies from a healthcare complication or is forced to have the child anyway. 

If a doctor does act to save a woman's life by providing an abortion, Drobac said under this proposed bill, what happens to the woman and doctor legally could come down to what judge or prosecutor you face and their own politics. 

"Some judges may be very lenient and say, 'Yeah, close enough.' Some judges may not be lenient at all and say, 'No, you weren't close enough to death at all. You shouldn't have had this abortion.' And the prosecutor may go ahead and prosecute the doctor with criminal charges," Drobac said. 

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