Doctors Must Speak Out Against Anti-Choice Laws that Require Physicians to Act Unethically
A recent article in USA Today asks a crucial question: When will doctors, the American Medical Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists speak out against the increasing erosion of doctors’ ethical responsibility vis-à-vis their pregnant patients?
Many anti-choice bills nationwide require doctors to violate ethical commitments and breach fiduciary obligations owed to their patients. These laws require doctors, for example, to: (1) lie to women about prenatal conditions if disclosure of relevant medical information might lead to an abortion (e.g., SB1359 in Arizona); (2) falsely claim that abortion leads to increase risk of breast cancer (e.g., SB62 in Kansas); or (3) force women to undergo potentially medically unnecessary ultrasounds and to view the images (e.g., HB15 in Texas).
When Mad Lib legislation written by anti-choice activists (such as Americans United for Life) is rushed through state legislatures, little attention is paid to the substance of the bills. As such, certain provisions of these bills directly conflict with doctors’ duties owed to their patients, and even impose civil and criminal liability on doctors who fail to follow the law, even if the law violates their ethical responsibilities.
From USA Today:
[T]here is now an unprecedented and sweeping legal assault on women’s reproductive rights. New legislation is being introduced, and sometimes passed, in state after state that would roll back access to abortion and contraception, mainly by intruding on the relationship between doctor and patient.
Women have reacted strongly, as evidenced by a growing disaffection among female voters with the Republican Party and its candidates; there is now a double-digit “gender gap.” But where are the doctors? They have been strangely silent about this legal assault, even though it directly interferes with medical practice.
A lengthening list
Consider some of the new laws:
- Nine states require doctors to perform ultrasound examinations on women seeking an abortion, and to encourage women to view the images. (This requirement was justified by Alabama Sen. Clay Scofield in his deeply patronizing comment, “This bill just allows them to see the child inside of them, so it’s not just out of sight, out of mind.”) Three of these states also require women to listen to a description of the fetus.
- Counseling is now mandated in 35 states to dissuade women from having abortions.
- Five states require doctors to tell women that a link might exist between abortion and breast cancer, despite the fact that careful studies have not found any such link.
- Similarly, eight states require doctors to tell women that abortion could cause psychological problems, despite evidence to the contrary.
- Arizona is considering a bill that would hold doctors harmless from lawsuits if they intentionally withhold information from a woman, such as the presence of major fetal abnormalities, because they believe the information might cause the woman to seek an abortion.
In short, legislatures are ordering doctors to lie about the medical evidence, the patient’s condition and their own medical judgment.
Even more regressive than obstructing the right to abortion is the recent effort to block access to contraception. The current attempt to turn the clock back nearly a half-century is cloaked in high-flown rhetoric about the rights of employers and insurers to deny coverage for contraception if it violates their conscience (it also saves them money).
But employers and insurers are not doctors, and should not be permitted to decline to pay for a category of medical services that they disapprove of. Appealing to conscience does not change the fact that employers and insurers, regardless of their own beliefs, do not belong in decisions about what constitutes good medical care.
Legislators vs. physicians
The unspoken assumption by state legislators seems to be that doctors will, of course, acquiesce with these new laws, that they are simply neutral agents who will comply with whatever the state orders. Physicians, however, have ethical commitments to patients that they cannot and should not be required by state law to set aside.
Prominent among them is the responsibility to place the welfare of their patients above all other considerations. In light of this, requiring doctors to perform procedures that are not medically indicated, or to provide false information about medical evidence, doesn’t just violate women’s rights. It also leaves doctors with an untenable dilemma: Violate state law, or betray their professional obligations to patients.
Physicians, both as individuals and as a profession, should stand with their patients. They should make it clear that they will not perform procedures, such as ultrasound examinations, unless they are medically indicated and desired by their patients. And they should refuse to provide inaccurate information about the consequences of abortion, or to follow any other prepared script in counseling their patients, particularly when it involves treating women like children.
Such acts of civil disobedience by individual doctors should be only the starting point. The profession as a whole, as represented by its professional organizations, needs to become involved, so that physicians are not left to fend for themselves.
It is time for the American Medical Association and, particularly, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to take a public position on behalf of the patients they are pledged to serve, and to support their members in doing so.
It is incumbent upon the AMA and ACOG to make it clear that laws which require doctors to violate ethical duties, and to make claims not backed by science are irresponsible. Doctors who recognize that their duties cannot be proscribed by laws written by ideological groups with no training in medicine should not be left to twist in the wind. The medical community must make its voice heard and inform right-wing ideologues that forcing doctors to perform unnecessary medical procedures, or to provide incorrect information to women is unacceptable and unconscionable.
When women cannot be assured that the medical advice they are receiving is sound, a breach of trust in the relationship between women and their doctors inevitably results. This breakdown in doctor-patient relationships is but one of the many reasons that the government should not be forcing itself into the relationship between women and their physicians.