Amid the myriad of hoops women are forced to jump through to access abortion, informed consent has become more of an obstacle than a safety tool. In no other medical field or procedure has informed consent become as much of a hurdle as it has for abortion. Explaining the risks, benefits, and alternatives to abortion is heavily regulated in many states, and having to hear the politicized script surely feels like a drill to the head for many women seeking the procedure.
So what is informed consent, exactly? It’s how doctors and qualified medical professionals notify their patients of the risks, benefits, and alternatives for any condition or intervention such that they are able to consent to treatment with all the facts at hand.
However, it is not consistently – or even completely – practiced for many medical situations. Take, for example, going to get a seasonal flu shot. Patients know what they are seeking, and they are aware of the expected outcome, yet do the medical providers always fully explain to them what would happen if they did not consent to the flu shot? Never in my experience, and I’ll bet in yours too. In fact, informed consent is only regulated through legislation when it comes to abortion.
I do not mean to imply that informed consent is an inherently bad idea. In fact it is a very important part of medical practice. Imagine you’re deciding whether or not to have a major surgery – obviously, you would want the doctor or surgeon to fully notify you of the details of the procedure, and its risks, benefits, and alternatives. But the extent to which informed consent is legislated for abortion is insulting to women seeking the procedure. Trust me, women who want an abortion know precisely what they are doing, and the intended outcome. I’m not saying a woman shouldn’t be told the risks of the procedure. Obviously, in order to make a fully informed decision, she should have access to that information. However, in many states the doctor has a state-mandated script that gives a woman scientifically proven misinformation about the procedure.
I spoke with Dr. Deborah Oyer, a member of the board of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, to discuss this more recent phenomenon further and get her personal perspective. Dr. Oyer put into words what seemed obvious to me: legislated informed consent for abortion is a TRAP law, plain and simple. In this situation, it simply causes anguish. In theory all medical procedures require informed consent. Dr. Oyer told me that oddly enough, “The one thing you never consent for is having a baby. No one ever sits you down and says you have alternatives. The irony just hits me. And certainly for no other procedure does the legislature get involved. Abortion has just been pulled out as separate from the rest of medicine.”
In states without rigorous informed consent laws women still receive informed consent. They are just given the real facts, instead of made up ones. But continually explaining and reiterating what getting an abortion means, and telling a woman the many ways that having an abortion is going to ruin her life, is unnecessary and demeaning. It is only a tool meant to dissuade women from the process.
Legislators enact these stringent laws claiming that it is for the benefit of the woman, while it really only creates a headache for them. The legislators think they are giving their “professional” opinion as to what is best for women. “They only think they’re doctors when it comes to abortion. There’s no truth in the scripts they are writing,” said Dr. Oyer. When asked how she thought medical professionals could fill the gap in this situation, she said, “Every time there is a law mandating what a physician should say to a woman wanting an abortion, or technically how the abortion should be done, every medical professional ought to be speaking up. Who are these people who have no medical training, telling us how to do the procedures? I continue to marvel at the silence of other healthcare professionals, those who don’t work in abortion care. I just find it reprehensible and unbelievable. The silence is deafening. It’s shocking to me.”
Despite study after study detailing the hypocrisy of informed consent laws, they continue to be introduced and passed. I asked Dr. Oyer why this keeps happening. “It’s not about data,” she said. “They don’t care about data. It’s really about shaming women, and keeping women in their place. And that’s the point. No one cares about data, except on our side.”