A year ago today, on April 18, 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on an abortion procedure. The federal law doesn't use medical terminology, so it's difficult to define precisely what the law bans. But what is clear is that the law deliberately omitted an exception allowing doctors to act if a woman's health is in danger. As a consequence, doctors like me are barred from using certain medical techniques, even in cases when a woman's health is threatened and that procedure is the fastest and safest way to help her. Many physicians protested the Supreme Court ruling, arguing that it jeopardized women's health and would encourage politicians to meddle even further in reproductive medicine. As Job said in the Old Testament, that which we greatly feared is coming upon us.
Thirteen states are considering, or have passed, laws that mirror the federal abortion ban. Supporters claim they need identical state bans in order to prosecute cases at the local level. Here in Michigan, the Senate used the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade to pass a bill banning so-called "partial birth abortion." The proposed law is virtually identical to the federal legislation, down to the exclusion of a provision for women's health.
These policy changes are misguided. Every abortion restriction that follows this pattern creates a barrier between women and their doctors. If you were facing a grave medical situation, who would you want to determine your best course of treatment: your trusted physician, or a politician in Lansing?
In addition to bans on specific medical procedures, many politicians have used last year's Supreme Court ruling as an excuse to introduce laws that would make it extremely difficult for women to have an abortion. Several states are weighing legislation that would force doctors to perform unnecessary — and expensive — ultrasounds before an abortion. Other states want to require doctors to review every published study on abortion before performing one — even studies with no scientific merit. Many of these laws create strict legal penalties for doctors, which I fear will dissuade my fellow physicians from offering abortion care.
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Supporters of these unnecessary regulations argue that increased restrictions make abortion safer. In reality, they prevent women from getting safe, legal healthcare. I became an abortion provider after working as an obstetrician/gynecologist for many years because I could see how essential this service was for many women. Last year I cared for a woman who had three serious health problems: kidney disease, a seizure disorder, and a history of blood clots. She was eight weeks pregnant and knew her health would not allow her to continue this pregnancy. When my patient's health is threatened by her pregnancy, I want to give her swift and effective treatment, not lead her into a quagmire of legal barriers and mandatory delays.
In 1973, the Supreme Court recognized the paramount need to protect women's health by allowing safe, legal abortions. For more than three decades, women's health remained a cornerstone of abortion rights. In the past year, we have seen just how essential that legal support was.
These are not abstract issues that affect only a handful of women. Every time politicians interfere in medical practice, they create a precedent for further meddling. Terri Schiavo's case shows that abortion is hardly the only medical issue politicians feel qualified to control. As a physician, I urge our legislators to make women's health and good medicine priorities here in Michigan. Let's learn from the poor decisions made one year ago, not repeat them in our state.
- Rachel Gold and Elizabeth Nash, State Legislative Trends: Abortion Ban Travels Across Country
- Alexa Stanard, Michigan Speaker Pushing Federal Abortion Ban Copy