Imagine a law requiring your doctor to give you misleading information about the health risks of a medical procedure. In Louisiana, this is a reality. State law requires physicians to give women seeking abortions inaccurate information about the development of embryos and misleading statements about the health risks of abortion.
Louisiana legislators have singled out abortion, one of the safest, most commonly performed surgical procedures, as the only procedure for which doctors must read prepared statements to their patients. This requirement was driven by politicians who wanted to prevent women from exercising their right to abortion and not by the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians, or by scientific evidence.
Advocates of what are called ‘Women’s Right to Know’ or ‘informed consent’ laws argue that they are necessary to inform women about fetal development and to protect women’s health. In reality, they do neither.
In 2013 and again in 2016, researchers at Rutgers University systematically examined informed consent materials from twenty-three states. They recruited seven specialists in human anatomy — including professors, medical researchers and embryologists with 25 to 45 years of professional experience — to assess whether informed consent materials describe fetal development accurately.
These are the findings: experts rated 31 percent of the information about embryological development as medically inaccurate. Nearly half of all statements (45 percent) in the first trimester of pregnancy, when 90 percent of women have abortions, were judged to be false or misleading.
How did Louisiana rank? A quarter of all of Louisiana’s information was rated as medically inaccurate, and nearly a third of the information about embryological development during the first trimester was false. This is far from the level of medical accuracy that Louisiana women should expect for any medical treatment — let alone one that can have life-altering consequences.
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For example, at six weeks of pregnancy, Louisiana’s materials inform patients that the embryo “has developed a head and a trunk,” that the brain, eyes and ears are beginning to form and that heart “beats at a regular rhythm.” Our panelists rated all of these statements as medically inaccurate.
Louisiana’s law states that it is “essential to the psychological and physical well-being of a woman considering an abortion” that she receive “complete and accurate information” so that she can give her “voluntary and informed consent” to the procedure. But if the findings of this study are any measure, Louisiana is doing just the opposite—undermining women’s ability to make well-informed medical decisions.
Louisiana’s abortion materials stigmatize abortion by emphasizing only the potential negative physical and emotional consequences of the procedure. Since abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, researchers have consistently found that abortion is safer than childbirth and that women are more likely to feel relief than prolonged grief when they receive legal, safe abortions.
Reproductive health care is especially important in Louisiana, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation. The Louisiana Bureau of Health recently described the state’s maternal mortality rate as “unacceptably high” and identified the health disparities based upon race and ethnicity as “alarming.” Instead of tackling this very serious health crisis, Louisiana politicians have politicized one of the safest surgical procedures and jeopardized the trust between women and their medical providers.
Many states — including Alaska and Utah — have begun working with the Informed Consent Project at Rutgers to remove medically inaccurate information from their legislatively-mandated materials. Louisiana needs to join these states and commit to offering women health care information that they can trust.
Until Louisiana’s materials meet standards of good medical treatment, misleading information should be withdrawn from the offices where women seek, and should expect, the highest level of medical treatment for abortion.
It is time for Louisiana to stop forcing doctors to mislead their patients. This not only harms women who seek abortions, but it also jeopardizes the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.