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October 19, 2012 11:37 AM When Facts Don’t Meet Your Worldview, Just Stop Talking

By Aaron Carroll

Mouth, meet foot:

Republican Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.) said Thursday that abortions are “absolutely” never necessary to save the lives of pregnant women.

“With modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance,” Walsh said. “There is no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing.”

I’ve written a number of times about how politicians get into trouble when the facts don’t meet their worldview. I have no doubt Rep. Walsh is pro-life. He may believe that life begins at conception. He may believe that all abortion is murder. The problem is that most people don’t agree with him. Many people believe that abortion should be illegal, but that there are instances when it should be permissible, like when conception is a product of rape or incest, or when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

But if you truly believe that abortion should never be allowed – ever – then as a politician you run the risk of alienating the voters who mostly agree with you, but with these few exceptions. So you have two choices: you have a difficult discussion about your differences, or you pretend that these small exceptions don’t exist.

Rep. Akin got into trouble when he tried to pretend that pregnancy never resulted from rape or incest. Now, Rep. Walsh is likely about to get into some trouble for claiming that a mother’s life is never threatened by a pregnancy.

Let’s start with the simple fact that maternal mortality is real. In fact, it’s higher in the US than in most industrialized countries. So by definition alone, getting pregnant carries a risk of death with it. It’s small, but it’s real. So just on that fact alone, one could argue that ending a pregnancy might in some small way prevent death.

But let’s bring this into the real world of the abortion debate. Regardless of what Rep. Walsh believes, pregnant women still sometimes face conditions that force them to make this choice in an acute way. He should look up the case of Sister Margaret McBride:

In November, Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, made the decision to save the life of a 27-year-old pregnant woman. The woman, a mother of four, was 11 weeks pregnant, suffering pulmonary hypertension that would very likely kill her and, as a result, her unborn child. Sister McBride agreed to the abortion that would save the woman’s life. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has excommunicated her for it.

This took place in 2009, not long-long-ago. Rep. Walsh may agree with the Bishop’s actions. He may think that allowing the life-saving abortion was wrong (although it appears that Sister Margaret was later ex-excommunicated). But he’s not actually denying the existence of pulmonary hypertension, is he?

I know these relatively rare cases and exceptions pose a political problem for some of our representatives. I don’t care. Real life is messy and full of difficult choices. Denying their existence is unproductive.

I’ll look forward to a statement declaring Rep. Walsh “misspoke” later. Once again, though, this would all go more smoothly if everyone would just stick to science.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Aaron Carroll ,MD, is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine.