Women facing unplanned pregnancies must understand all of their options

The last week of the year is when most conceptions take place. Some of these pregnancies are planned; others are not. Women facing unplanned pregnancies must consider their options.

In 1973 — the same year as the Roe v. Wade decision — my then 16 year old mother found out she was pregnant. The doctor she visited explained five choices: marry and see the pregnancy to term, adoption, abortion, single motherhood and suicide.

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My mother decided that two of these options — suicide and abortion — were off the table. It is shocking and wrong that a medical professional would ever advise a patient to consider suicide; it is equally shocking to learn of the medically unnecessary information health providers are legally required to give to women seeking abortions today. Much of what providers are state mandated to tell patients is biased and medically inaccurate, just as misguided as the suicide option given to my mother in 1973.

The Georgia Woman’s Right to Know Act of 2005 requires that any woman seeking an abortion must listen to a specific script at least 24 hours before their procedure. The script includes shaming language about single parenthood:

“Fathers play an important role in their child’s life. Children who have an ongoing, positive connection to their fathers do better in school, tend to stay out of trouble and get along better with their peers than children without such a relationship. Fathers have a legal responsibility to provide for the support, medical insurance and other needs of his minor child. In addition, children have rights of inheritance from their father.”

While parental engagement is important for healthy childhood development none of this language pertains directly to the medical procedure of abortion. Instead of learning about the safety and efficacy of the procedure, women are subjected to judgmental language that stigmatizes single parenthood.

While the state may have a stake in recognizing civil unions and marriages it has no business commenting on relationship status within the context of medical care. To do so is a tacit tactic for undermining women’s autonomous health decision making.

Men undergoing medical procedures are not, under any circumstances, legally required to listen to such condescending and unrelated content. And the suggestion of child support is no comfort to those who are pregnant as a result of violence, abuse, or those whose health is threatened by a pregnancy.

 The Georgia script also requires clinicians to inform patients that, “...by 20 weeks gestation unborn children will try to avoid certain stimuli in a manner which in an infant or an adult would be interpreted to be a response to pain.”

There is little to no evidence that a fetus can experience pain before 24 weeks gestation; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Journal of American Medical Association and the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have all come to the same conclusion. Yet anti-abortion legislators and activists continue to push this misleading idea and pass laws that force providers to repeat it.

The law also requires that every patient be asked if they want to see an ultrasound and/or hear a heartbeat. This serves no purpose other than to guilt and shame a patient for her decision.

Women are seen as incapable of making these decisions for themselves. The presumption that they haven’t thoroughly researched their choices is misguided. Legislators must accept women’s ability to make their own autonomous health decisions and ensure that the information women receive about abortion is accurate and unbiased.

Instead, the Georgia law and other Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws like it are designed to make abortion access harder. They utilize shame and misinformation to discourage women from making informed choices about their own reproductive health. Such efforts are in direct opposition to the 1973 Roe versus Wade decision that federally guaranteed women’s right to an abortion.

Now, with a conservative Supreme Court in place and an inevitable challenge to Roe v. Wade looming, health professionals must consider how they will talk to women about abortion in the event that the constitutional protections for abortion are further weakened or overturned.

They must also consider the ways in which current laws require them to talk to women now.

Meanwhile legislators ought to implement rules that would ensure that providers are able to speak freely about a medical procedure that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has deemed safe.

Just as it was wrong for that physician to advise my mother to consider suicide in the face of an unplanned pregnancy, it is equally wrong for providers today to provide medically inaccurate and politically biased information about abortion to pregnant women.

When it seems as though society is moving forward we are reminded that shaking off outdated attitudes and behaviors is not as easy as it seems. Progress and sometime even maintaining the status quo requires vigilance and action.

Dabney P. Evans is an associate professor of public health at Emory University and board member of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. She is a public voices fellow at The OpEd Project.