In November Serena Williams, indisputably one of the greatest – if not the greatest – tennis player in history gave birth to her daughter by emergency Caesarean section. After the surgery, Williams reported to an attending nurse that she was experiencing shortness of breath and immediately assumed she was experiencing pulmonary embolism. The star athlete has a history of blood clots and had discontinued blood thinners before the surgical delivery. Contrary to William’s requests for a CT scan and blood thinners, medical staff assumed that pain medication had made her confused. A later CT scan confirmed Williams’ self-diagnosis. Stripping out the fact of Williams’ identity turns this near-miss into a terrifyingly common story in US maternal care, albeit one with a happier ending than many. The global trend in maternal death rates – the rate of women dying in childbirth and post-childbirth – has rapidly decreased over the past 15 years. At the same time, the US, despite recording one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world.
by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair
Early last summer, Facebook removed Women on Web’s page for ‘promoting drug use’. The Amsterdam-based organization connects women with doctors who prescribe the pills necessary for medical abortions and provides information on taking abortion pills, on contraception and on accessing abortion services in states where access to safe abortions is restricted or illegal. This followed an earlier interaction in which Facebook removed a photo of the organization’s founder, Rebecca Romperts, superimposed with instructions on the use of the pills. Facebook later apologized and reinstated the Facebook page, claiming that the removal was an error, and that the page served Facebook’s function of allowing individuals to organize and campaign for the issues that matter most to them.
Leaving aside the question of whether it was indeed an error, WoW have never existed without controversy. In February of last year, their sister organization Women on Waves made headlines when their boat was detained by the Guatemalan authorities while campaigning in Guatemalan waters. Women on Waves provides medical abortions to women once they are in international waters and thus operating under Dutch law, which allows abortions up to 21 weeks. Both organizations will provide access to abortion services up to 9 weeks, using a combination of medicines – misoprostol and mifepristone – which together induce abortion. The WHO estimates that the drug combination is used by 26 million women globally per year and is recommended as an abortifacient up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Women on Waves are one of many organizations that aim to allow women to access abortion services that are either explicitly illegal, or practically unavailable in their home countries. There are risks associated with taking the drug combination, but these are minimal, and far riskier is the danger of leaving women with access to illegal abortions which is often the reality of full abortion bans. In Guatemala, 65,000 women have illegal abortions every year, with a third of that number admitted to hospitals from complications associated with the backstreet procedure. A medical abortion before 10 weeks is safer than childbirth, and as safe as a natural miscarriage. Both drugs have been on the WHO’s list of essential medicines since 2005. Studies show a high level of effectiveness in self-sourced and administered abortion pills, such as the service offered by Women On Web, and outcomes generally compare favorably with in-clinic administration. Underscoring the importance of safe access to the drug combination, use of the pills is often studied as a self-administration method alongside getting punched in the stomach, taking herbs or homeopathic medicines, deliberately taking a high dose of hormonal pills, alcohol and illegal drugs.
In the complex web of restrictions on abortion access, parental consent laws and judicial bypass mechanisms play a small, but hugely significant part. States are entitled to enact parental consent and notification laws in relation to abortion care for minors, as long as they allow minors to ‘bypass’ this requirement judicially, an attempt to account for the myriad circumstances in which it will be impossible, difficult or dangerous for teens to tell their parents about their pregnancy and their wish to end it. Finding different justifications in different contexts, some laws appeal to the perceived immaturity of the individual in arriving at a decision without adult intervention; other legal schemes emphasize the critical importance of respecting the family unit, and by extension, the ability of parents to determine the medical treatment their child will receive. The exact stats, state by state, are available here.
The patchwork regime which governs the US rules on abortion access, administered by local courts presiding over the individual applications of pregnant teenagers, is a highly dysfunctional one, where standards of judgment can be entirely capricious. Judges are, after all, not medical professionals, nor are they therapists, health experts or developmental psychologists. The standard criteria pronounced upon by a judge at a bypass hearing is whether the minor is ‘mature enough, and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independent of her parents knowledge’ or that ‘even if she is not able to make this decision independently, the desired abortion would be in her best interests’. The gateway for unchecked judicial discretion is gaping. Markers of maturity are wholly subjective determinations, as are the metrics to determine whether a minor is sufficiently informed, or where her best interests lie. After all, for a staunchly anti-abortion judge, it is entirely possible that no-one could be informed about the process of abortion and yet rationally seek it, or that it could never be in an individual’s best interests to receive abortion care as a minor. The controlling law doesn’t foreclose on these possibilities.
The ‘Mexico City Rule’ is a Reagan-era regulation which bars US funding to worldwide NGOs which provide counselling relating to abortion, or referrals for abortion services, or which advocate for the expansion of abortion access. The regulation is a sticking point for the two-party reality of US politics, and has been rescinded by every Democratic president since Reagan, and reinstated by each Republican president. Trump is no exception, and his administration’s approach to the policy has been exceedingly expansionist; where the policy traditionally only applied to aid tied to family planning projects, the policy now extends to all international health care aid provided by the US government, amounting to almost $9 billion every year, and covering US aid policies in the areas of family planning and reproductive health, infectious diseases, TB treatment, children’s health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, water and sanitation programs, and tropical diseases.
The effect of the policy extends past the years in which it is actively in place. Population Action International reports on a reluctance on the part of US governmental officials and non-governmental partners to enter into agreements with organizations that may be ineligible for funding in the future based on the putative reinstatement of the policy, in effect operationalizing the policy beyond the times in which it is in active effect. Beyond the expanded remit given to the policy by the Trump administration, and the temporal expansion based on likely reinstatement, the wording of the policy itself goes some way to expanding the scope of the policy beyond what might be necessary in a vacuum. The structural effect of the policy is to prevent the funding of abortion access with US aid money (an outcome which is illegal regardless through the Helms Amendment) and abortion advocacy. The policy contemplates a neat categorization of organizations such that it is possible to carve out the aspects of a healthcare organization that deal with abortion care as an aspect of reproductive health and justice. Continue reading
I’m sure not how much time the average health law enthusiast spends on Instagram, but as a rare opportunity to see health regulation in real-time, I’d encourage logging onto the site, which curates content based on user profiles and by tags, and searching for the following tags; #thinspo, #thighgap, and #eatingdisorder. The site will either return no results, or will present the searcher with a warning message that “Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death” and encouraging the user to reach out for help, though the flagged content is still accessible if the user clicks-through. #thinspo (short for another neologism, ‘thinspiration’) is exactly what it sounds like – images designed to inspire an individual to restrict their diet, and exercise to attain what will generally be an underweight physique. Many social media sites have enacted similar bans on content as a reaction to the role that online communities can play in promoting eating disorders.
As a suite of illnesses, eating disorders have severe, and sometimes life-threatening medical complications. Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric illnesses; bulimia carries severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging including bone disease, heart complications, digestive tract distress, and even infertility, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) while carrying subclinical status in DMS-IV, carries similar levels of eating pathology and general psychopathology to anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, and a similar degree of danger to physical health to anorexia. Instagram had been criticised for its inaction in the face of an explosion of pro-eating disorder community activity on its site after Tumblr and Pinterest enacted bans on ‘thinspiration’ content, at which point many users migrated to Instagram’s platform. Five years on from the initial ban, some terms, like #starve and #purge will display the above warning message; other obvious tags for the pro-eating disorder community, like #skinnyinspiration and #thinspire attract no warning message and display images of emaciated women, romanticizations of eating disorders, images of individuals destroying food, and in line with clinical understandings of how eating disorders manifest themselves, images of self harm.
This week, Ireland made international headlines as the governing political party announced a date-range for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, the provision which recognizes a fetal right to life, and places it on an equal footing to the right to life of the woman carrying the fetus. The move wasn’t a surprise to Irish voters – the referendum had been promised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar since his election last June, and comes after decades of protest and organization by a multitude of activist groups, protesting what they view as an archaic, unworkable and agency-destroying constitutional provision that has led to the exporting of abortion care for Irish woman to the UK and Netherlands, and the deaths of women in Ireland. The implications of the Eighth Amendment for access to abortion care are obvious enough – it is illegal in almost all cases. Less prominent has been the pronounced effect that this constitutional ban on abortion has had for medical treatment and care in pregnancy, where the doctor involved is, constitutionally speaking, treating two patients with equal rights to life.
The only scenario in which an abortion in Ireland is legally permissible is in cases where the woman’s life is at risk from the continuance of the pregnancy. In all other cases, including cases where the fetus is non-viable, where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where the fetus will risk the health of the woman, but not her life, abortion is illegal. Criminal punishment for illegally procuring an abortion runs to a prison term of 14 years, which includes doctors who provide illegal treatment. Women who can afford it travel to the United Kingdom to avail of abortion services there, but doctors in Ireland cannot legally refer their patients to clinics in the UK, even in cases where continuing the pregnancy risks the health of the woman. It is unknown how many women have ended a pregnancy with illegal, imported abortion pills.
Last November, the National Health Executive (NHS) in the UK lost an appeal in the UK Court of Appeal regarding their failure to fund PrEP for individuals at risk of contracting HIV. PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis is a common term for regimes of anti-viral medication taken by individuals to lower their risk of being infected with HIV. Marketed as Truvada, clinical test results published by the National institute of Health in 2010 declared that the treatment could reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90%, a rate that seemed farcical even in a world where information about HIV is more accessible than ever, and medical experimentation with cures has been steadily gaining steam. Based on those results, the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued interim guidelines for using the drug, despite the fact that it was over a year away from FDA approval, aware that doctors had been prescribing it off-label for HIV treatment. The titular quote is from former President Obama, speaking on World AIDS Day in 2011 about the breakthrough that PrEP represented. The story raises some fascinating questions about how doctors interact with experimental medicines when facing down diseases that will otherwise seriously compromise quality of life for patients, and even kill, but nonetheless remain unsanctioned by national healthcare providers and largely available through backchannels.
Last year Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) refused free vaccinations for pneumonia from Pfizer, who had offered the medicines as a corporate donation to the humanitarian organisation. The explanation MSF provided (available here) makes for an interesting, if uncomfortable read. Looming large is the lengthy history of negotiations between MSF with the only manufacturers of the vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. MSF claim that the only sustainable solution to a disease that claims the lives of almost a million children each year is an overall reduction in the cost of the vaccine, and not one-off donations that come with restrictions on where MSF may use the medicines, and a constant power disparity between the parties, where Pfizer may release the medication on their own timeline, and revoke access as they see fit.