If ever there were two groups of people who could use the kind of perspective only an up-close view of real-life tragedy can provide, it’s abortion rights activists who oppose so-called “cocaine mom” laws — and anti-abortion activists who oppose abortion in cases of rape or incest.
Certainly, ideological arguments about when life starts and the ability of women to control their bodies are important in the debate over reproductive rights. But what matters most about reproduction-related laws is whether they are more likely to help or hurt those in crisis — who probably couldn’t care less about ideology.
This week, Tammy Loertscher of Medford and a pair of pro-abortion-rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging a state law that allows officials to detain pregnant women suspected of substance abuse who decline treatment.
The law is aimed at saving the newborns of addicted mothers from the horrible things they go through — even though in Loertscher’s case it may have been over-applied. She was jailed despite disclosing her past drug use and telling authorities she stopped using once she suspected she was pregnant.
Passed with bipartisan majorities in 1997-98, the law, according to UW-Madison law and bioethics professor R. Alta Charo, is also filled with “ambiguous language that gives authorities tremendous discretion.”
The 17 days Loertscher spent in jail, though — as awful and unjust as they might have been — doesn’t mean the state has no interest in preventing in-utero drug exposure, given its potential ex-utero consequences.
Babies born to moms addicted to opiates such as heroin, which has made a big comeback in Wisconsin, can suffer from seizures, poor weight gain, excessive crying and other symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Fetal alcohol syndrome — suffered by children born to alcoholic mothers — causes physical and developmental problems that can extend throughout the child’s life.
Still, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin opposes the state’s “cocaine mom” law even when a woman is past the point in her pregnancy when the child can survive outside the womb — also the point at which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled states can put limits on abortion.
While they also suffer acute physical pain, the emotional pain experienced by women who become pregnant through rape or incest can last a lifetime.
For those who choose to keep children conceived in rape, the absence of state legal protections means they can be forced to have repeated contact with their rapists, according to a 2010 report.
Wisconsin Family Action, which takes a strict anti-abortion stance, did not respond to my requests for comment.
What groups such as Planned Parenthood and WFA have in common is the penchant for making arbitrary decisions about the relative worth of different kinds of human suffering.
For the former, the suffering of substance-abusing mothers and women who get pregnant through abuse is paramount. For the latter, it’s the suffering of children born addicted and the unborn.
That doesn’t mean locking up pregnant women or abortion is right. But they can be a lot less wrong than the alternatives.