A law signed last month by Utah Governor, Gary Herbert, requires doctors to tell women seeking medical abortions that the procedure can be stopped midway through the process.
Health professionals say there are no medical grounds to make this claim.
Women’s rights advocates say it’s just the latest effort by lawmakers to police women’s bodies.
They also say it’s part of a larger trend.
Abortion opponents haven’t been able to completely outlaw abortions, advocates say, so instead they are supporting laws across the country that make the medical procedure more difficult to obtain. Or they’re attempting to put in place requirements that interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
“I would tie this Utah law to a trend of abortion restrictions, a broader trend, that really seek to interfere directly in the exam room without necessarily banning abortion completely, but in even more nefarious ways,” Hayley Smith, a member of the Advocacy and Policy Counsel at the ACLU, told Healthline.
The law in Utah
Advocates for the bill say the legislation is backed by medical evidence, while doctors say it’s based on bunk science.
“I’m very much in favor of the Utah measure to inform women that medical abortions can be reversed,” Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told Healthline in an email. “And it’s simply not true that there is no medical evidence backing this up. I have personally spoken with physicians who have successfully halted medical abortions. They report that this treatment is successful 65 to 70 percent of the time it is employed, and no birth defects have been associated with it.”
Medical professionals, meanwhile, are sounding a different tune.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said in a statement, “Claims of medication abortion reversal are not supported by the body of scientific evidence, and this approach is not recommended in ACOG’s clinical guidance on medication abortion. There are no ACOG guidelines that support this course of action.”
The statement also noted that progesterone, which is used in an effort to reverse the abortion, is “generally well tolerated” but can carry a host of adverse side effects.
While the bill has raised many concerns, it could have been worse, says Marina Lowe, a member of the Legislative and Policy Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah.
“We saw this pop up pretty early in the session and we were obviously concerned,” she told Healthline. “The ACLU had experience with this same legislation when it was passed in Arizona a couple of years ago. There were some real concerns of the language, both from the perspective of mandating doctors to tell patients information which potentially is not medically accurate, but also some First Amendment issues.”
Lowe said her group sat down with the sponsor of the legislation and raised their concerns. The group ultimately provided the legislator with additional language that the ACLU thought would be better than the language that was in the bill originally.
“While we still don’t support the bill and think it doesn’t make sense for legislators to be telling doctors what they need to tell their patients, this language is much more flexible in terms of giving doctors the space to tell patients what they believe is in their best interest,” Lowe said.
Similar laws nationwide
While the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973 guaranteed a woman’s right to seek abortion services, lawmakers around the country have found ways to make access to abortion difficult while not technically violating the ruling.
Smith noted that in the first week of its legislative session, Kentucky legislators “sped through” a law that requires medical providers to perform an ultrasound prior to an abortion.
The provider is required to show the image to the woman and describe it to her, even if she says she doesn’t want to hear that information.
“It really turns it into a coercive situation,” Smith said. “This is part of a broader trend: Commandeering the doctor-patient relationship and putting the state and politicians right into that relationship.”
In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey, in late March, signed a bill into law that requires doctors to attempt to resuscitate aborted fetuses that are “born alive” — ambiguous language that’s up for interpretation.
Meanwhile, multiple states require a mandatory “waiting period” for women seeking an abortion.
Lowe detailed some of the ways these laws limit a woman’s right to get an abortion.
“Here in Utah, we have a 72-hour waiting requirement, whereby women who are seeking an abortion must wait 72 hours after being counseled and expressing their desire to get an abortion. They then must wait this 72-hour period to, quote, ‘think about their decision,’” Lowe said. “This may not sound like a big problem for some people, but if you live in a corner of the state of Utah, that 72-hour requirement means two separate trips to drive up to the part of the state where abortion clinics are located. If you have a family and a job and children, those two trips make it really quite difficult to access services you have a constitutional right to make use of.”
Tough for doctors
Laws that compel doctors to say things that they don’t necessarily believe has the potential to raise ethical issues.
“It’s really concerning,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), told Healthline. “Medical doctors are first introduced to do no harm. Informed consent is incredibly important. Any patient, male or female, is entitled to having the informed, medically accurate medical science told to them about their condition, their prognosis, and their recommended treatments.”
With abortion services, O’Neill said, that bond is being broken.
“Only in the case of women have we repeatedly seen ideological politicians inserting themselves into that informed consent process,” she said. “The law in Utah is a classic example. It actually requires doctors to lie to their patients. It is the antithesis of the informed consent that consumer groups have worked very, very hard to establish as the norm in medicine.”
Lowe points out that laws like these could dissuade top doctors from practicing in a given state.
“This has an effect not only on women seeking abortions, but also physicians who are deciding whether or not to go into this field,” she said. “When your practice has made you feel shameful, when there are more requirements placed on you in terms or what you need to do in order to be licensed, in order to practice, when we see legislatures like the Utah legislature pushing these requirements that are essentially telling you to give your patients information that you don’t feel is accurate or safe or in the best interest of your patients, it has an effect.”
Tougher for women
Scheidler defends the new laws on moral grounds.
“The Pro-Life Action League opposes abortion because it takes the life of an innocent unborn child, a child who is a member of the human family with an inalienable right to life, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the conception of that child,” he said.
Advocates for women, meanwhile, say that this position tramples on a woman’s right to make decisions about her body.
“I think you’ll hear anti-abortion politicians say that they’re passing these bills to make sure that a woman has fully thought through her decision, which is demeaning to women,” says Smith. “Because the truth is that women do truly think through their decision, and they speak with their healthcare provider, they speak with their family, they speak with a trusted religious adviser if they have one. And they make that personal decision on their own. For a politician to come in and presume to know better is just wrong.”
Smith suggests the laws have other motivations.
“I think their ultimate goal is to stigmatize abortion and shame women for the decision that they’ve already made,” she said. “It’s just another means of blocking women from getting the care that they need.”
“This sustained effort to sustain and stigmatize women for having an abortion, it actually doesn’t work,” said O’Neill. “There have been done that show that 95 percent of women absolutely do not regret their abortion and report that they believe they made the right decision. That is notwithstanding a sustained effort by extremely well-funded, very powerful groups.”
Sex ed. falls short
While lawmakers in some states take a hands-on approach to regulating abortion, sexual education is often lacking.
“If you really want to prevent abortions, the best way is to make sure that people have access to education and information in order to make the appropriate, medically accurate decisions about their bodies,” said Lowe. “In Utah, we do a terrible job of equipping our young people with that information.”
She said even some parents would prefer children be taught about sex education in the classroom.
“From what we can tell, there are lots and lots of parents who are uncomfortable having these sorts of conversations with their kids and would prefer to have this sort of information provided in our schools,” Lowe added. “And yet our schools are deciding, because of our lawmakers, to not touch these topics either.”
On this topic, both sides are able to find a small amount of common ground.
“The Pro-Life Action League does not support so-called ‘comprehensive’ sex education, which is often nothing more than training in condom use, along with the tacit message that we do not expect young people to be capable of exercising sexual self-control,” said Scheidler. “Truly comprehensive sex ed. would include training in understanding and recognizing the signs of a woman’s fertility cycle, and how to cooperate with that cycle to postpone pregnancy.”
Abortion debate affects everyone
Statistics show that 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by the age of 45, meaning that statistically, most people know someone who has undergone an abortion.
“Regardless of a person’s personal beliefs about abortion, everyone has friends who are women, colleagues who are women, and women in their family,” said Smith. “The fact is that one in three women will have an abortion, so we all probably know someone who’s had one. It’s us. It’s our colleagues, our friends, our family members. And we can’t make that decision for somebody else, so I think the greatest thing is to think about these women, and think about what this means for their lives.”
“It’s extremely important that we stop demonizing women who have had abortions,” added O’Neill. “If we can reverse that, then politicians would no longer find it profitable to promote policies that end up harming women.”
To gain a better understanding of the issue, O’Neill says it’s best to listen to women who have had abortions and are willing to share their experiences.
“As a practical matter, what I have seen in my experience is that women who talk about their abortion, to other men and women who are open minded, it does change the conversation,” she said. “It can change the opinion of the people who thought somehow that being anti-abortion was the same thing as being pro-life. They say, ‘Wait a minute, I can be pro-life and still support my friend who had an abortion. I can be there for her.’”