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The Ethics of Abortion Ban Exceptions: Is the “Life-Threatening” Exception Threatening Lives?

By Mary E. Fleming. Full Text.

Forty-three states have laws that outlaw abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother. The exact language used in each state’s respective law varies, but for ease, this Essay will refer to all variations as “life-threatening” exceptions to abortion prohibitions. Prior to 2022, issues with life-threatening exceptions were not very common because most people were able to access abortion in a timely matter. However, now that the Supreme Court of the United States has overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, women are facing many more obstacles to abortion care. Consequently, the life-threatening exception is being relied upon more often. Defining what conditions qualify for the life-threatening exception is now a major issue in the health care and health law fields.

This Essay explores the issues with these life-threatening exceptions and propose an interpretation that would address them. It first explains that life-threatening exceptions as they currently stand are confusing standards and must be clarified. The Essay then argues that state legislatures should clarify the life-threatening language by adopting a standard that looks at the total well-being of the mother. That proposal is adopted from the World Health Organization’s policies on abortion care, which take a broad view of what impacts a woman’s life. The Essay ends with an analysis of the well-being standard and acknowledges its potential gaps, before ultimately concluding that the standard is necessary.