The buzz the last few days concerning the new Arizona abortion law is focused on the state’s new rule for calculating gestational age, which is a smoke-and-mirrors method of pushing back the limit of legal abortion by two weeks. What seems to have slipped past everyone’s radar is an even more outrageous bill that cleared the Arizona House the same day, one that allows a doctor, based on his or her moral opposition to abortion, to withhold medical information from a pregnant woman.
Let me restate that in more personal terms.
If I am pregnant with a pregnancy that is so risky it could kill me, per this Arizona abortion law, my doctor is not obligated to disclose those risks to me. All he has to say is that he believed that, if armed with this knowledge, I would obtain an abortion.
Since in this scenario my doctor opposes abortion, my doctor didn’t tell me that my pregnancy was potentially deadly. I also wasn’t told that my fetus would die within hours of birth, or would never live past the first year, or would arrive so profoundly disabled that they could never live free of life support and round-the-clock medical care.
After his “act of omission,” and assuming I survive the pregnancy, I can’t sue them for malpractice, nor can I sue on behalf of my child, in order to pay for her medical care that will no doubt bankrupt my husband and me.
So, if my doctor opposes mastectomy, does he or she just not tell me I have breast cancer?
Shocking? Absurd? Scary? Yes, yes and yes.
Now, I understand that Arizona legislators wanted to give anti-abortion doctors a moral escape hatch – much the way Republicans in Congress want to spare religious institutions the moral repugnancy of having to pay for insurance coverage of birth control. But the Arizona abortion law takes this “conscience clause” a monumental step forward by giving physicians legal carte blanche to withhold life-saving and life-changing information.
Let’s set aside for a moment – if that’s possible – the pro-choice, anti-abortion rhetoric. Can anyone agree with making malpractice legal? Because that’s what Arizona has done with this new law.
And since abortion in the state is now illegal after 18 weeks, an anti-choice physician can avoid any ambiguity in the law by a simple trick of timing: All he has to do is schedule the first screening ultrasound for fetal abnormalities after 18 weeks. So what if you find out after 18 weeks of pregnancy that your baby is going to die shortly after birth, be profoundly disabled or put your own life at risk during pregnancy? Oh, sorry, too late to have a therapeutic abortion.
Do Arizona lawmakers really want women to die so their babies aren’t aborted? If a woman dies while pregnant and her fetus dies with her, doesn’t that amount to twice the loss of life? Where is the “culture of life” when it comes to women’s lives, or to the suffering of a sick baby, born with a tortuous, terminal disorder?
Those may sound like extreme examples, but that’s what laws are supposed to do – protect us even in the most extreme of circumstances.
So how can a state legislature decide what medical information a patient deserves to know?
Democrats in the Arizona legislature, including Rep. Matt Heinz (D-Tucson), a physician who understands that a doctor cannot lawfully withhold information that could cause a patient death or pain, intend to fight the bill. But with more than twice as many Republicans than Democrats in both chambers of the state house, it’s unlikely their efforts will gain much traction unless a higher court hears the argument.
In the meantime, here’s my advice to women of childbearing years living in Arizona, or Pennsylvania, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, and North Carolina, all states with similar laws on the books. If you would consider an abortion based on the results of prenatal screening, ask your doctor point-blank if he is pro-choice. Insist on a first trimester screen, performed between 11 and 13 weeks of pregnancy. If your doctor resists ordering or performing this screening analysis, switch doctors.
And here’s one more piece of unsolicited advice to doctors, in Arizona or anywhere else: If you put your moral or religious beliefs before your duty to treat patients to the best of your knowledge and ability, it’s time to stop practicing medicine.