Carrying a fetus is inherently risky, even in normal pregnancies. The reason why is simple: Sometimes what is good for the embryo is not good for the mother.
Biologists have a term for this: “parent-offspring conflict.” Embryos and mothers play a high-stakes game of tug-of-war, according to David Haig, a biologist at Harvard University: If all goes according to plan, the rope is steady — or steady enough. But a small slip can send the rope flying.
First, embryos can boost blood flow by remodeling the mother’s blood vessels, causing her blood pressure to spike. One in 13 pregnant women in the USA develop high blood pressure — this causes 7 to 8 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in the USA. But even for women who survive, high blood pressure during pregnancy doubles the risk of dying young from heart disease, and triples the risk of dying young from Alzheimer’s.
High blood pressure also plays a role in preeclampsia, which 1 in 25 pregnant women in the U.S. develop. When embryos cause preeclampsia organ damage can result, the only cures are to deliver the baby as soon as the embryo is viable — or, if the risk to the mother is deemed great enough, to end the pregnancy.
Second, embryos make the mother’s blood glucose levels skyrocket by releasing a powerful hormone, causing gestational diabetes in 1 of 7 US pregnancies. Half of women with gestational diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes within 20 years, shortening their lifespan by an average of eight to nine years.
Third, embryos directly access the maternal bloodstream by extending tendrils of a highly invasive placenta deep into the mother’s body. At birth, the placenta leaves a freely bleeding wound (which cannot be stanched due to embryonic remodeling of the mother’s blood vessels). As a result, severe bleeding at birth causes 11 percent of maternal deaths in the USA.
We choose to avoid health risks all the time — less sugar, less alcohol, less potentially injurious activities. Or maybe we indulge in such things after having we have weighed the risks and opted to take them. It is up to us, in consultation with our doctors.
By banning abortions, we would enshrine in law serious discrepancies in risk based on race, region, and health. We are forcing people to embrace serious physical risks that last beyond the nine months of pregnancy. Pregnancy risks are fundamental, written into our genes and our evolutionary history, and they are not going away anytime soon.
While adoption can theoretically erase the burden of unwanted parenthood, we cannot erase the burden of unwanted, lifelong health risks from pregnancy. And unlike pregnancy, abortion has no long-term negative consequences on mental and physical health; in fact, abortion is significantly safer than childbirth. Access to this medical service preserves the right to protect one’s health, both immediately and into the future.
For someone who does not wish to be a parent, the health risks of pregnancy — which are far greater than those for everyday activities — may simply not be worth it.