A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a law that requires doctors to tell women patients the day before an abortion is scheduled that the procedure could put them at risk for suicide, a link that hasn’t been scientifically proven to exist.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota said she was “extremely disappointed” with the court’s decision. “This ruling by the 8th Circuit Court represents the greatest intrusion by the government into the patient doctor relationship to date,” she said.
The 7-4 ruling (PDF) overturns a three-judge panel decision in September 2011, according to Reuters. The South Dakota legislature passed a law in 2005 that requires doctors to dispense written information that tells women that “the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” and describe “all known medical risks of the procedure and statistically significant risk factors,” which includes “increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide.”
The problem is that a causal link between suicide and abortion hasn’t been scientifically proven to exist. The pro-life groups arguing against the case cited two widely circulated studies that found an “increased” suicide risk, but the studies did not determine that abortion caused the suicide risk.
In fact, an American Psychological Association review of the evidence called this link “misleading” and found that “the best scientific evidence indicates that the relative risk of mental health problems among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy is no greater if they have an elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.” But the court didn’t find it convincing and the majority opinion argued, “conclusive proof of causation is not required in order for the identification of a medical risk.”
Circuit Judge Diana Murphy wrote in her dissent, “The most reliable evidence in the record shows that abortion does not have a causal relationship to the risk of suicide and that South Dakota’s mandated advisory is not truthful, but actually misleading.”
“The record clearly demonstrates, however, that suicide is not a known medical risk of abortion and that suicide is caused instead by factors preexisting an abortion such as a history of mental illness, domestic violence, and young age at the time of pregnancy,” she continued. “By forcing doctors to inform women that abortion subjects themto a risk which the record medical evidence refutes, the suicide advisory places an undue burden on a pregnant woman’s due process rights and violates a doctor’s First Amendment right against compelled speech.”
When Emily Bazelon wrote about the South Dakota law in 2008, she presaged Murphy’s eventual dissent, “Laws that compel doctors’ speech, as this one does, would now be legal in all those places, should state legislators adopt them. And if states in other regions want to try passing such laws, they’ll have a great precedent to cite to the other circuit courts.”
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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