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OBGYN, lawmaker Rep. Rita Fleming calls for ‘compassionate’ abortion legislation

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INDIANAPOLIS - The column below was submitted for publication today by State Rep. Rita Fleming (D-Jeffersonville) regarding the ongoing reproductive rights debate at the Indiana Statehouse:

Years ago, one of my patients in her 21st week of pregnancy went into labor. I admitted her and started the protocol for latency antibiotics hoping to prolong her pregnancy to a point where her baby had a decent chance at survival. Unfortunately, she developed a fever and a significant elevation of her white blood cell count. Both symptoms pointed toward sepsis, which is one of the leading causes of maternal death.

Since I was working in a Catholic hospital, we had to have an emergency meeting with an ethics committee to determine our next steps. We worked quickly and concluded that an immediate induction of labor was necessary for life-saving care. Had I hesitated, my patient might not have survived. To make it very clear, a physician must intervene when a patient’s health is seriously compromised, to prevent yet another instance of maternal mortality. 

It seems inevitable that the supermajority in both chambers of the Statehouse will pass legislation restricting or banning abortion. Thus we are left to deal with possible exceptions, and a serious threat to the mother’s life must be an exception. 

The recent story about a 10-year-old girl from Ohio crossing the Indiana border to receive an abortion after she was the victim of rape deeply affected Hoosiers. As a medical doctor, I know first-hand the physical toll that a pregnancy can take on an adult woman, much less on the body of a child. In residency, I treated patients with precocious puberty, meaning at the age of 5 – if their bodies were violated – they could become pregnant. It is unconscionable to suggest a child in kindergarten ought to carry a baby to term. To write off the health and well-being of a woman or girl who has been the victim of a horrific crime is not just, and it is not pro-life. 

As an OB-GYN, I’ve seen many mothers with much-wanted pregnancies have to face the heartbreaking news that their child has a health issue that will ultimately result in their suffering and death. We might consider the heartbreak of carrying a baby with no chance of survival to term. My patients sometimes requested an induction of labor and early delivery so they had a chance to hold their baby.

Abortion is a deeply personal decision, and there are high emotions on both sides of the issue. Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear the plans coming from both the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives on what abortion access in the state will look like. Something I can’t emphasize enough is the need to expand access to contraception to help women avoid unplanned pregnancy, especially in Indiana, where roughly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Contraception is one of the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy, and making sure that women have access to and are informed about the various methods of birth control will help prevent the need for abortion in the first place. We in the House Democratic Caucus have tried for years to pass legislation that expands access to birth control, and if we’re planning on restricting abortion access, we must expand access to contraception.

The next few weeks will ultimately change maternal health care in Indiana. As a Representative, I will fight for exceptions for victims of rape, incest and for the life and health of the mother. My conscience and experiences as a doctor tell me that is the right thing to do, and it is the right thing to do for Hoosiers. 

State Rep. Rita Fleming (D-Jeffersonville) represents Indiana House District 71.

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