Do Religiously-Based Restrictions Contribute to Late-term Abortion?

Jill Morrison

Tiller's assassination has raised questions regarding how often late-term abortions take place and what factors contribute to putting women in this difficult position.

Analysis–The assassination of Dr. George Tiller has brought some attention to the issue of abortions that take place late in pregnancy, inspiring many to wonder aloud how often these procedures take place and what contributing factors may leave women in this difficult position.  A myriad of physical and psychological crises give rise to this rare occurrence, but one situation possibly arose because a doctor imposed his religious or moral beliefs on his patient.  

One woman ended up having an abortion in her third trimester because a doctor purposefully withheld information from her about her fetus’s terminal medical condition.  As reported in the Washington Post, a woman discovered only a few weeks before her due date that her fetus had developed without a brain, and would never take one breath.  Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who worked with Tiller, said “Her doctor knew the problem all along but just never told her.”

While the article doesn’t give all the details, the facts suggest that the doctor withheld information because of his opposition to abortion.  He apparently believed that she would terminate her pregnancy if she knew her baby couldn’t survive, and then made a decision, based on his personal religious or moral beliefs, to withhold crucial information about her medical condition.  This is exactly the hypothetical situation we described in our paper, When health care providers refuse: The impact on patients of providers’ religious and moral objections to give medical care, information or referrals. In a federal case called Grant v. Fairview Hosp., decided in 2006, an ultrasound technician claimed that he had a religiously based need to “counsel” pregnant patients once he found out they were considering abortion.  Fortunately the court held that his employer had a right to protect patients seeking medical care from the employee’s religious harassment.

This doctor apparently decided that his beliefs trumped the patient’s legally-enforceable right to informed consent, which resulted in the patient having a far more dangerous third-trimester abortion.  Perhaps he would claim that he didn’t want to “participate” in abortion, and therefore had a right to deny her the information she needed to make the medical decision that was best for her.  Under the HHS refusal rule proposed by the Bush administration he may have believed he was justified—which is why we’ve urged the Obama administration to rescind the rule.

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We are grateful that Dr. Tiller was there for his patient in her time of need, but it is possible that she would not have been in need of a third-trimester abortion but for her doctor’s refusal to give her important medical information earlier in her pregnancy.  This is why religiously motivated refusals to give information are so harmful.  We know that most patients who are subject to refusals just want to get on with their lives, and ultimately won’t sue the doctors that violate their right to informed consent.  Perhaps if more doctors were taken to court to defend their actions, we’d see more good medicine and less “morality.”

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