U.S. Representative Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican seeking a second House term, said abortion is “absolutely” not medically necessary to save a pregnant woman’s life, a claim contradicted by medical research and that sparked outrage from doctors and political opponents.
“There’s no such exception as life of the mother,” Walsh told reporters after an Oct. 18 debate. “And as far as health of the mother, same thing, with advances in science and technology. Health of the mother has become a tool for abortions any time, under any reason.”
Walsh, who was supported in his 2010 victory by the anti-tax Tea Party movement, faces Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq War veteran, in the Nov. 6 election. He’s defending his House seat representing Illinois’ 8th District, which includes suburbs of Chicago.
Walsh’s statements, dismissed as inaccurate by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, fueled criticism of his party’s stance on abortion rights. The Republican national platform calls for an abortion ban with no medical exceptions, while the party’s nominee for president, Mitt Romney, supports some exceptions.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens called the comments “alarming” and likened Walsh to Representative Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican running for the U.S. Senate who said Aug. 19 that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. That erroneous comment has been a liability in his race to unseat Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.
“As the advocate for Planned Parenthood health centers, we know that ending a pregnancy can often be a very complex, personal decision and that there are absolutely times that a woman’s life depends on it,” Laguens said in a statement.
Walsh’s claim is “absolute nonsense,” said Mark I. Evans, president of the Fetal Medicine Foundation of America and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “This is scientific and political malpractice.”
Abortions can save the lives of pregnant women suffering from many conditions, said Lawrence Platt, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles and the director of the Center for Fetal Medicine and Women’s Ultrasound. A leading example is ectopic pregnancy, in which a fetus develops outside of the normal location in the womb and can cause the uterus or tube to rupture, leading women to bleed to death.
Pregnancy also can worsen the conditions of women suffering from heart, lung and kidney diseases, among others, that can lead to death, Platt said.
Walsh elaborated on his initial comments yesterday at a press conference in suburban Chicago. Beyond “very rare circumstances,” abortion is often unnecessary to save a woman’s life, he said.
“Let me be very clear that when I say I am pro-life I mean that I am pro-life for the mother and I am pro-life for the unborn child,” Walsh said. “For me there is no distinction between the two.”
Romney has said he supports limiting abortion “to only instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.” He made his statement in a “pro-life” pledge last year that was posted on the National Review magazine’s website.
The Republican platform, adopted at the party’s August convention in Tampa, Florida, supports amending the U.S. Constitution to state that an “unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” The plank doesn’t include exceptions. Drafters say this is intended to give states latitude to legislate on the issue.
Duckworth opposes any further restrictions on abortion rights.
“Prohibiting a woman to have an abortion, when her life is at risk, shows a blatant disregard for the facts and a carelessness that is not acceptable from an elected official,” she said in a statement.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 1,294 maternal deaths related to pregnancy in the U.S. in 2006 and 2007, the most recent data available. The rate of pregnancy-related deaths was 15.1 per 100,000 live births during 2006 and 2007, the center said.
“Get out of our exam rooms,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a statement. “Many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives.”
A former teacher with a history of foreclosure and liens for failing to pay income taxes, Walsh ran against runaway spending in Washington and the health-care overhaul law and won his swing district in 2010 by 291 votes. He defeated Democratic Representative Melissa Bean, who had the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations.
The Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, newsletters based in Washington, rate Duckworth, 44, as the “likely” or “favored” winner against Walsh, 50.
Seventeen percent of registered voters say “they will vote only for candidates for major office who share their own views on abortion, one of the higher rates of abortion-centric voting seen in presidential election years since 1992,” according to a September survey by Gallup. A poll taken this month showed that 39 percent of women in 12 competitive states say abortion is the most important issue for their gender in this year’s election.