Doctors dispute ‘inaccurate’ abortion claim from Rep. Joe Walsh

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) addresses a Tea Party rally in 2011. On Thursday, he said abortions were never medically necessary -- and was swiftly attacked by medical experts.
(Harry Hamburg / Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times

Abortion rights were back in the news Friday, even as President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stepped up their efforts to win the women’s vote.

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who is facing a tough race to retain his seat in Congress, told reporters Thursday that he was opposed to abortion under any circumstances — and that thanks to medical progress, “you can’t find one instance” when it might be necessary to perform an abortion to protect a woman’s health.

“There’s no such exception as life of the mother,” Walsh said, according to this report from Bloomberg News. “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.”


Within hours, women’s heath advocates — and physicians — attacked his remarks.

“Joe Walsh’s ignorance about women’s health is alarming,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood, in a statement.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) fired its own salvo, calling the congressman’s comments “inaccurate” in a widely distributed response.

“Abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health,” the doctors’ organization said. The group reported that more than 600 women die every year from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes and that “many more would die each year if they did not have access to abortion.”

Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill who has provided abortions for four decades and formerly led a department that studied abortion safety at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described some potentially life-threatening circumstances.

In his practice, he said, he’s often cared for women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer or leukemia whose oncologists refuse to administer treatment until the pregnancy is over. Type 1 diabetes can be severely aggravated by pregnancy, and an abortion may be necessary to save a patient’s eyes or kidney function. And in some severe cases of pre-eclampsia, the liver can begin to die — and the only treatment is ending the pregnancy.

“The suggestion from someone who is not medically trained that there are no indications it might be appropriate is insulting, and demeaning to women,” he said. “I would not tell a legislator how to craft a bill. By the same token, I don’t want him to tell me how to do my job.”


ACOG’s statement echoed that sentiment. “[Our] message to politicians is unequivocal: Get out of our exam rooms,” it said. The group pointed readers to this article published earlier in the week in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which leaders of ACOG and other medical organizations urged legislators to stop intervening in decisions made by patients and their doctors.