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Critics Of Proposed Abortion Ban Say Health-Of-Mother Clause Could Be Slippery Slope

Voters in Albuquerque will soon decide the fate of a controversial ballot measure that would limit abortion rights. If approved, the measure would prohibit Albuquerque doctors from terminating a pregnancy, in any way, past the 20 week gestational mark. It does include an exception to the rule though- for when a woman's life is in immediate danger. But some argue the exception doesn't go far enough, and that it could end up dangerously tying the hands of doctors treating women with complicated pregnancies. 

About 15  years ago, Wendy Natoli says she was thrilled to find out that she and her husband were pregnant again with their second baby. Everything was normal with her pregnancy, until about 6 months in, when the couple went for their first ultrasound. 

"The ultrasound showed that our baby wasn't developing correctly," Natoli said. "Her kidneys weren't developing, her lungs weren't developing, her brain was developing wrong." 

Further testing showed the Natolis' baby had a genetic deformity called Trisomy 13, a condition that seriously impacts fetal development. And after consultation with a prenatal specialist, the couple found out that the baby would not be viable outside of the womb. 

At that point, Natoli says she could have chosen to terminate the pregnancy. Instead, she decided to carry her baby to term, on the off chance the child would survive long enough for Natoli and her husband to hold her alive before cutting the umbilical chord. But Natoli's health quickly deteriorated. About a month before the baby was due, she developed Pre-eclampsia, a serious condition characterized by high blood pressure, swelling and convulsions. 

"I was very very sick but at that moment, but my life wasn't in immediate danger," Natoli explained. Natoli's doctors ultimately decided to induce labor and her baby died. 

It's situations like these where some critics of Albuquerque’s abortion ballot measure say the proposed law becomes a slippery slope because it would require doctors to wait to take action until a woman's life is in immediate danger.

Mary Lou Signleton is a practicing midwife and nurse practitioner in Albuquerque. She says she's concerned about the legal consequences medical providers would have face when treating women with complicated pregnancies if voter's approve the ordinance.

"So we're talking about doctors being placed in a situation where they have to decide under penalty of possibly going to jail," Singleton challenged, "is this woman almost dead enough that I can intervene now?" 

Singleton says, for her, medicine is about intervening before there's a crisis. In her medical opinion, it's unethical to require doctors to stall treatment that might threaten the life of the baby until a woman's life is in immediate danger, as the city's ballot measure would require.

"There's no other branch of medicine where people think that's in any way ok," Singleton went on. "A woman is not an incubator. A woman cannot be forced to be a life support system for another person."

Project Defending Life's Tara Shaver, however, disagrees, maintaining that the health of the mother clause written into the ordinance is sufficient. She says doctors caring for women in these situations should be competent enough to determine whether a woman's life is genuinely in danger. 

"They're trained," Shaver explained. "They know how to respond quickly and they can do what it takes to save lives. So we're confident that doctors will be able to make those decisions. They're not going to play Russian roulette, I don't think."  

If there's a detectable heart beat, Shaver added, then there's life, and a woman's doctor should be making every reasonable effort to protect it. "Doctors misdiagnose fetal anomalies all the time. I just think we really need to err on the side of life, the baby's life. We can't really be the judge of the quality of life because we can't predict the future." 

The debate over when abortions should be legal in Albuquerque is a highly charged one. Already, early voter turnout has surpassed last month's early voting in the mayoral race by 2 to 1.