Anti-abortion bill lacks mental illnesses safeguards

Posted on: February 16th, 2012 by The American Independent No Comments

State Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview (Pic by Mark Foley, via myfloridahouse.gov)

Michelle Cory, a 58-year-old resident of Margate, says a law making its way through the Florida Legislature that would restrict access to third trimester abortions would endanger the health of women with mental health problems.

Cory has a personal interest in making sure women with mental health problems have access to abortions when they need them. She has suffered from mental illness for decades and says an abortion when she was 24  years old saved her life.

One piece of anti-abortion legislation that has resurfaced this year has already passed a House health committee. The bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, does not include an exemption for the mental and physical health of a mother.

The third trimester abortion restrictions in the bill provide an exception only if it is “necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” However, Flores removed language that provided an exception to “save the life or preserve the health of the pregnant woman.” Flores has a history of voting down provisions in anti-abortion bills that provide more protection to pregnant women facing health risks.

Cory, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, severe depression and a panic disorder, says she “felt so grateful to have a safe, legal abortion” available to her back in the 1970s. Cory became pregnant after her husband “lied about being sterile and refused to wear a condom,” which she says happens more often than people like to admit.

She says that at the time she found out she was pregnant, she was taking Valium to treat her symptoms. The pregnancy was her second. The first, which was planned, had resulted in a miscarriage and a “psychotic breakdown” that she says put her in a hospital. She says she had the breakdown because she went “cold turkey off Valium” after her first pregnancy.

When she found out she was pregnant for the second time, she had “just started to feel a little healthier,” she says. She feared carrying out another pregnancy would land her in the hospital, yet again.

“I curled up in a fetal position and cried my eyes out,” Cory says. “I didn’t want to go to a mental hospital. I was extremely poor [and] I didn’t want to stay with my husband.”

“It felt like a death sentence,” she says.

Once she and her doctor decided it would be in her best interest to end the pregnancy, Cory says she “felt tremendous relief.”

Cory worries that anti-abortion bills like the one in the Florida Legislature disregard women like her. According to her, laws being written around the country that crack down on abortion rights seem to “never mention mental illness.”

She says that because there is “shame and stigma associated with mental illness,” the issue is kept quiet.

“If these bills don’t have exceptions for mental illnesses,” Cory says, “you can’t expect these women to have healthy children that they can take care of themselves.”

Robin Marty of RH Reality Check reported back in 2010 that “mental health has long been upheld as a rightful exemption to abortion bans.” She reported that any bill that would remove the exemption is one that can “quickly be challenged in court as unconstitutional.”

According to the Wichita Eagle, the Kansas Legislature defied federal courts by considering legislation that would remove an exemption for mental health in an anti-abortion bill they were considering back in March 2010:

The Kansas House thumbed its nose at state and federal courts by passing a bill that would eliminate mental health as an allowable exception for a late-term abortion. It did so even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that exceptions must include mental health. And even though the Kansas Supreme Court said that “the mental health of the pregnant woman remains a consideration necessary to assure the constitutionality of the Kansas criminal abortion statute.” And even though, after the murder last year of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller, late-term abortions are no longer performed in Kansas. But many lawmakers don’t seem to care what is constitutional or necessary during an election year.

Cory says few women with mental illnesses can anticipate how a pregnancy or how not taking their medication will affect their illness.

“Your illness could come back tenfold,” Cory says. “My medication keeps me able to live my life.”

In a statement to The Florida Independent, state Rep. Burgin says that the absence of protection for women with “mental illnesses” is in line with federal law.

“Federal circuits have held in relation to some state laws, even where there is no explicit statement in a medical emergency exception for an abortion because of mental health issues that result in a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function, there is no reason to not include it implicitly,” Burgin says. “Therefore, we see no reason to specifically include or exclude language defining or including mental illness as an ‘Medical Emergency.’”

State Sen. Flores did not respond to requests for comment.

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