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Abortion bans that grant exceptions to 'save the life of the mother' are a gray area


Florida now bans most abortions after six weeks. It is one of the states now involved in a growing debate over what it means when abortion law allows exceptions to protect the life of the mother. Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU in Tallahassee has this report.

REGAN MCCARTHY, BYLINE: It's a harder question to answer than one might think. And for Dr. Rachel Humphrey, the stakes are high.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: I really don't want to end up in prison. It was not what I hoped for when I went through medical school.

MCCARTHY: Humphrey has spent decades treating people with high-risk pregnancies in Florida, a state where doctors who participate in an abortion other than what's allowed by law could face felony criminal charges. That's created a chilling effect for doctors.

HUMPHREY: Which unfortunately means that physicians are choosing to keep themselves safe over helping moms.

MCCARTHY: Humphrey says, on the surface, an exemption to protect the life of the pregnant person makes sense.

HUMPHREY: But what it means is that they're ascribing to me and my colleagues superhuman ability to predict outcomes that we don't necessarily have that ability to predict.

MCCARTHY: For instance, Humphrey recently cared for a woman who had survived a heart attack not long before becoming pregnant.

HUMPHREY: I can't tell the patient with any precision what the chance is that she'll die during the pregnancy.

MCCARTHY: Humphrey says conditions common in pregnancy, like hypertension and bleeding, could put this patient's life at risk. But is that enough for Florida's exceptions to apply? It's not clear, Humphrey says, but she says the person who should be making the decision is the patient.

HUMPHREY: Let's say that this patient who's had heart attacks actually has children at home and has a great fear of dying because her mother died in mid-40s. Is it right to say that the politicians know better than any specific circumstance and that this patient has to take risks? It's just too vague.

MCCARTHY: Vice President Kamala Harris recently spoke in Jacksonville. She says that confusion puts patients in danger.


VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Folks, since Roe was overturned, I have met women who were refused care during a miscarriage. I met a woman who was turned away from an emergency room, and it was only when she developed sepsis that she received care.

MCCARTHY: But some abortion opponents say confusion about the life of the mother exception is caused by statements like Harris'. Kelsey Pritchard with the group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America says that's the reason doctors and patients are afraid.

KELSEY PRITCHARD: And I wish that we could all just come to this agreement that that is not OK to put women's lives in danger for political reasons.

MCCARTHY: The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration issued a set of temporary emergency rules in an attempt they say is to clear up confusion. The agency's leader posted on social media the rules are needed because abortion access advocates are, quote, "lying for political gain." Pritchard agrees.

PRITCHARD: It's pretty clear when you listen to any Democrat talk about the issue of abortion why it's needed. And unfortunately, it's because they've been relying on this false talking point that women will die if you don't vote the way they want you to vote or if you put in place a heartbeat law.

MCCARTHY: But Dr. Rachel Humphrey says the agency's guidance makes things more confusing. For one thing, it only addresses three conditions.

HUMPHREY: Here we are with layer upon layer of rules and layer upon layer of government intervention, which is not resulting in clarity or in better care.

MCCARTHY: The issue is also in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. President Biden's administration says a federal law that requires doctors to stabilize patients applies to abortion, even if the procedure is barred by state law. Many Republican-led states, starting with Idaho, have pushed back. Potentially, millions of voters will have the chance to weigh in on abortion access in November, including in Florida.

For NPR News, I'm Regan McCarthy in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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