Anti-Life Legislation

Is cancer considered a medical exception in abortion bans? It's unclear, and people in anti-abortion states are now left with few choices.

a pregnant woman holding her belly

Read Time: 4 minutes


One in 1,000 pregnant people are diagnosed with cancer every year. The discovery of cancer during pregnancy or the news of pregnancy during active treatment forces a person to make yet another tsunami of decisions about critical medical care. But the Dobbs v. Jackson decision allowed states to strip away a woman’s bodily autonomy, threatening a pregnant person’s right to choose in all aspects of their health care. Even in cases of cancer.

The complex decisions around cancer treatment and pregnancy depend on many factors, such as the type and stage of cancer, the recommended treatment, and the person’s beliefs. However, the fetus’s gestational age is a primary consideration when determining a treatment plan during a wanted pregnancy.

Research shows some chemotherapies, radiation, and surgeries are generally safe during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. But many cancer treatments are considerably harmful to fetal development during the first trimester, specifically chemotherapies to treat aggressive tumors. If a person is diagnosed with cancer during the first trimester of pregnancy or becomes pregnant during treatment, an abortion is often necessary to start or resume care.

People who face these earth-shattering circumstances in anti-abortion states are now left with few options. Options that will likely prohibit receiving treatment until a later stage of pregnancy or after delivery. And with cancer, time is never on your side. Each passing month without medical intervention increases the risk of death by up to 13%.

Even if a person has the means to travel for an abortion, the time to wait for an appointment is another delay. Medication abortions are the ideal option for cancer patients at an early stage of pregnancy because they are a quick and highly effective treatment. But current legal battles may strip away access to abortion pills from all birthing people in the U.S. regardless of a state’s abortion laws.

If an emergency procedure for a woman bleeding profusely from a miscarriage is not considered an exception, how could treatment for a disease that could be fatal in a few months or years be permitted?

Pregnant cancer patients who want to and can receive treatment during pregnancy might also be legally barred from doing so. The expanding cracks in legal definitions of personhood across states could further criminalize the consumption of any fetal-harming substance at any point during pregnancy, even if the substance is a necessary medication.

But wouldn’t a cancer diagnosis be defined as a medical exception in abortion bans?

We don’t know. The many new or triggered anti-abortion laws use vague language around abortion exceptions. All current abortion restrictions have a medical exception clause, but the language used, such as “cases of medical emergency” and “substantial risk of death,” is broad and unclear.

Anti-abortion lawmakers claim doctors should understand what is allowed, but interpretations of the confusing wording vary across hospital legal departments. Unsure about potential prosecution in obstetrics care, many doctors are forced to choose between protecting their legal freedom and practicing license or upholding their Hippocratic oath and not committing medical malpractice. Putting doctors in a constant storm of ethical dilemmas and confusion has already blocked many people from receiving life-sustaining medications and emergency treatment.

If an emergency procedure for a woman bleeding profusely from a miscarriage is not considered an exception, how could treatment for a disease that could be fatal in a few months or years be permitted?

Estimates indicate approximately 1,500 pregnant people will be diagnosed with cancer annually in states that have or will impose near-total abortion bans. Between 135 and 420 pregnant people with cancer could die each year if laws do not allow abortions for cancer treatment.

Pregnant cancer patients are only a fraction of the millions threatened by abortion restrictions. Even in the face of the most severe medical emergencies and devastating conditions, pregnant people have begun to lose their say in how to protect their life.

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