Ohio abortion foe calls for doctor discipline in miscarriage, doesn’t address other problems

By: - December 5, 2022 5:00 am

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The state’s most prominent anti-abortion group is calling on medical authorities to investigate emergency-room doctors reported to have denied care to a woman suffering a miscarriage. 

But it won’t comment directly on other health problems doctors say have been caused by a restrictive abortion law that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court repealed Roe v Wade in June.

Ohio Right to Life on Nov. 16 announced that it had filed a complaint with the Ohio Medical Board in response to an NPR story a day earlier. 

It said that a 33-year-old woman went to TriPoint Medical Center in Painesville bleeding heavily as her pregnancy miscarried. Even though an ultrasound found no fetal cardiac activity, the woman was told she was being discharged because “they needed to prove there was no fetal development,” the story said.

Under Senate Bill 23, Ohio’s abortion law, the procedure is illegal in the vast majority of cases after five or six weeks of pregnancy so long as an ultrasound detects fetal cardiac activity. If, as the NPR story reported, no such activity was detected, there shouldn’t have been a problem with treating the woman to hasten the end of the miscarriage.

In a press release announcing that a complaint had been filed with the Medical Board, Ohio Right to Life spokeswoman Elizabeth Whitmarsh decried “the lack of proper health care” the woman faced.

Whitmarsh said that lack “is appalling and should upset every Ohioan. Any woman who experiences a miscarriage should be treated with urgency and competency, not apathy. Based on the reporting by NPR, the hospital nonchalantly checked her vitals, saw that she had been profusely bleeding for hours with no signs of stopping, and still found it reasonable to discharge her. This is wholly unacceptable and does not meet Ohio’s standards of care.”

But it was far from the only report of health risks reported during the 11 weeks that SB 23 — which Ohio Right to Life strongly supported — was in effect. 

The 2019 law was enacted on June 24, the day that Roe fell, and then was temporarily blocked by a Cincinnati judge. That block is expected to be removed early next year after a new, more conservative Ohio Supreme Court is seated.

But while it was in force, medical professionals reported numerous instances in which women and girls were placed in increased danger — some because the law required it, and others because doctors were afraid of losing their licenses or being charged with felonies under the law.

Tani Malhotra, a Cleveland-area maternal fetal medicine doctor, described dealing with patients whose health was collapsing, but her first was to call hospital lawyers to make sure she could terminate the pregnancy without violating the law. And even after getting them to sign off, treatment was fraught and larded with bureaucracy, she said.

The patient is “incredibly sick, but did I do all the paperwork correctly?” Malhotra told the Capital Journal in September. “Did I sign all the forms that need to be signed? What kind of trouble am I going to get into if something untoward happens when the patient is already extremely unstable. It just adds an extra layer of stress to an already extremely stressful situation.”

However, Whitmarsh of Ohio Right to Life seemed to say that as long as a doctor has the right intentions, she or he won’t run afoul of SB 23.

“A doctor walking into a room with the sole intention of ending a human life is entirely different from walking into a room trying to save a human life — intent matters,” Whitmarsh said in an email. “Ohio’s Heartbeat law unequivocally protects them both to the utmost degree while recognizing that sometimes the preborn child cannot survive tragic situations due to their fragile stage of development, giving way for doctors to care for their patients fully.”

Malhotra and other doctors have also reported several cases of women whose pregnancies are so problematic that they can’t be successful. But under SB 23, so long as there’s fetal cardiac activity after six weeks — a point at which many profound problems are unknown — it’s illegal to terminate the pregnancy. 

That’s so even though a woman or girl is 14 times more likely to die carrying a pregnancy to term than she is getting an abortion. 

And David Burkons, an obstetrician and founder of Northern Ohio abortion clinics, last month told the Capital Journal about two tubal, or ectopic, pregnancies detected at his clinics that emergency-room doctors were afraid to treat because of the penalties under SB 23.

“The problem is they get to the emergency room and (doctors) can’t see anything in the uterus, and physicians are very, very concerned,” Burkons said. “The medicine you use to treat the ectopic pregnancy also is a drug that can cause an abortion of an intrauterine pregnancy. So they’re very afraid until they can prove there’s an ectopic pregnancy by seeing something in the tube on the ultrasound and then it becomes the case that you have to do surgery before it actually ruptures and becomes a crisis.”

One of his patients had such a rupture, Burkons said in a sworn affidavit.

In addition, other affidavits filed as part of the lawsuit against SB 23 described two women who had cancer, but under the law, they couldn’t get abortions their doctors said they needed in order to start chemotherapy.

Many Ohio doctors said they were ignored in 2019 as the state’s Republican-led legislature debated and passed SB 23 and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it. And in overturning Roe, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to ban abortion without requiring any protections for the mother’s health or life.

But while Ohio Right to Life was quick to call for a state medical board investigation in the case of the Cleveland-area miscarriage, it was more circumspect when asked about other health issues surrounding SB 23, many of them reported by doctors in sworn affidavits. 

Whitmarsh, its spokeswoman, was asked whether it concerned her that the criminal and professional penalties spelled out in SB 23 might be causing doctors to hesitate about providing care — even though they think it’s in the medical interest of their patients, but might also expose them to loss of licensure and even felony charges.

She didn’t address the specific cases described by doctors, instead restating her group’s reasons why it opposes abortion.

“When we are speaking about abortion, we must clarify what abortion is,” Whitmarsh said in an email. “As defined, abortion is the purposeful killing of innocent human life in the womb. We know that it is undeniably human life thanks to scientific research. Ninety six percent of biologists agree that human life begins at conception.

And while doctors say that nature sometimes tragically makes pregnancy and life incompatible, Whitmarsh accused the “abortion lobby” of creating a “false narrative” doing so.

She said “we must recognize that in every pregnancy, two human beings are involved and worthy of dignity and care, not only one. The mother’s life should never be pitted against her child’s life, and that is, unfortunately, what the pro-abortion lobby is doing with this false narrative.”


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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.