LONDON — Imagine, if you will, that you go see a doctor for a routine procedure to remove a mole from your face, only to discover – several months later – that the mole is still there. Your doctor now tells you that because of an error in the way he carried out the procedure, the mole will never go away: It’s permanent.
Now imagine that the mole is a baby, the procedure is an abortion, and because your doctor made a mistake, you are now going to be a parent for the rest of your life.
This isn’t a hypothetical scenario. It happened to a 24-year-old woman in Mallorca, Spain. When she was seven weeks’ pregnant, this woman sought an abortion at a health services clinic. Two weeks later, she returned to the clinic and was told that the abortion had worked. But when — six months later — she feared that she might be pregnant for a second time, she discovered that, in fact, she’d been pregnant all along. The first abortion had failed.
And because it’s illegal in Spain – as it is in several American states – to have an abortion after 22 weeks, the young woman went ahead and gave birth to a healthy baby boy rather than face criminal charges. She and the child now live with her parents, who had previously not known of her pregnancy.
This woman went on to successfully sue the gynecologist in question for damages, and in a potentially precedent-setting case, she won. The doctor must now pay her $1,500 a month until the child’s 26th birthday, plus an additional $189,000 for moral damages. According to the judge who presided over the case, the doctor’s mistake caused “irreversible” disruption and emotional damage to the woman, who expressed feelings of sadness and guilt. (The doctor is going to appeal the decision.)
Wowza. There are so many ethical quandaries built into this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the relatively simple issue of malpractice. I deliberately – and provocatively – likened abortion to mole removal in my first paragraph to underscore the extent to which we do – and do not – think of abortion as “just another medical procedure.”
Because while I think most of us would sympathize automatically with the woman’s outrage in the case of the botched mole, many of us would not think of a botched abortion in quite the same light. Indeed, it feels almost crass that this doctor will now be paying what amounts to child support for the next 25 years for a child that he didn’t biologically father.
But is it crass and wrong? After all, this woman went to see a doctor to have a perfectly legal procedure. He made a mistake and, in doing so, changed the course of her life. Isn’t she owed something in return — if not her “freedom,” than some sort of financial compensation to raise a child she didn’t intend to have, indeed, paid several hundred dollars not to have? (The clinic did offer to refund her the $500 she paid for the initial procedure and also referred her to a clinic in Barcelona which might have performed a late-term abortion, but doctors there also refused.)
I’m not trying to be glib. I recognize that by framing this issue in these terms, I will enrage many reading this article. But I think that we do have to ask these hard questions if we’re going to get to the heart of how we legislate abortion, something we seem increasingly willing and eager to do, at least in the United States. We need to know – in no uncertain terms – whether abortion is “different.”
And here’s another set of issues we need to address. According to news reports, the woman says that she loves her son and is happy with him. “When I have to explain all this to him,” she told a group of journalists, “I’ll try to make sure that he feels okay about it. It was back then that he was not wanted, not now.”
I’m happy for the mother. Thank goodness she loves her child and doesn’t regret bringing him into the world. How lucky for her. But as I’ve argued before, I think that when we talk about abortion, we tend to talk way too much about the alleged guilt and regret some women feel who go through with abortions, and not nearly enough about the regret felt by those who bring children into this world that they aren’t in any position to care for.
Which is another way of saying that the outcome in this case could very easily have cut the other way. I’d wager a fair bit of money that there would be plenty of women out there who, faced with similar circumstances, would never have come to embrace a motherhood that was forced upon them, whether through medical negligence or legal restrictions.
So, sure, this case might be one in a million. But policy is all about drawing lines. And it’s only in studying the extreme cases that we figure out where to draw lines on the run-of-the mill ones. In an election year in which so much is at stake in governing women’s lives, I sure hope we can learn something here.