Image: Shaw Bush
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/18/2003 6:39:35 PM ET 2003-11-18T23:39:35

Shame on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Most Americans would agree that when a woman has been raped, or if she’s likely to die as a result of giving birth, termination of her pregnancy should be an option. Not Jeb. The governor of Florida is playing hardball abortion politics with a severely disabled woman’s life when he should instead be worried about her best interests.

Some time last January, a 22-year-old woman living in a group home in Orlando, Fla., was raped. The woman is now 5-months pregnant. She is also severely mentally retarded. Experts say she has the cognitive and emotional capacity of a 1-year-old child.

In addition to her severe mental retardation, she suffers from cerebral palsy, autism and is prone to violent seizures. These conditions make having a baby a very dangerous proposition for this unfortunate young woman. Because of her physical impairment, she could die if she tries to deliver the baby.

Jeb jumps in
Once they learned of the rape, Florida Social Services moved to appoint a guardian for her. In this situation, a guardian is required to grant permission for the woman to receive a thorough medical evaluation. That’s when Jeb jumped in.

Despite the fact that the woman is severely disabled, has been raped, and might die if allowed to give birth, Bush felt that the appointment of a guardian for her was not appropriate. Instead, he moved to stop the appointment of the woman’s guardian until a second guardian could first be appointed — specifically, a guardian for the fetus.

A Florida judge has refused to rule on Bush’s action based on technical legal grounds. As a result, we now have a situation in which a young woman, who has so many medical problems that she may not be able to survive giving birth, must go without proper medical attention. Even if she does not die in the birthing process, given her emotional and psychological problems the experience could at the very least emotionally devastate her.

Someone must be appointed to protect her. But the governor, who’s busy playing abortion politics, is not letting that happen.

Time's running out
The courts might help, but the courts in Florida move slowly. A pregnancy does not. If the fetus gets much older than 24 weeks, the standard age of viability, then it will be far more difficult for doctors to terminate the pregnancy. And, if the medical facts show the woman must have an abortion in order to prevent her own death, it will be a far more dangerous procedure.

In short, Bush is not thinking about the disabled woman. His focus is solely on the fetus. In this regard, he is simply wrong. His ethical focus ought to be on the young woman.

A victim of rape who might die as a result of childbirth should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Furthermore, a disabled woman who needs a guardian in order to get proper medical attention should have a guardian — yesterday!

Someone needs to determine the facts in this case and decide what is indeed in this woman’s best interest. That person ought not be a governor who wants to play politics with her life.

If Bush has the time on his hands to personally get involved in this case, he should first appoint a guardian for the woman — and then figure out what he can do to ensure that other severely disabled women in his state are not at risk of rape. Perhaps the governor could take steps to make sure that young women like this have access to birth control, or at the very least, that they have adequate protection against sexual predators.

So far all Bush has done is put a helpless woman’s life in grave danger.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D, is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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