Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion L.A.
Opinion Opinion L.A.

Taking physicians out of the abortion decision

AB 154, a bill in the California Legislature that would allow nurse practitioners, midwives and physician’s assistants to perform some early abortions, won’t be controversial with most supporters of legal abortion. But it severs a connection between abortion rights and the practice of medicine that played an important role in the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The supposedly indispensable role of the doctor in abortion decisions also has figured in the defense of abortion rights by politicians, including those who say the procedure should be rare -- such as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Roe vs. Wade, handed down in 1973, was written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a former general counsel to the Mayo Clinic. Although Roe grounded the right of abortion in a constitutional guarantee of privacy, Blackmun’s opinion also emphasized that abortion was a medical decision.

“For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician,” Blackmun wrote, adding, “The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment.”

Legal scholars debate how important Blackmun’s Mayo Clinic connection was in the formation of his opinion, but there’s no doubt it was infused with deference to the quasi-religious authority of doctors. As Nan Hunter of the Georgetown University Law Center put it in an article about Blackmun’s opinion, the court “sought to entrust medicine with decisions which required normative rather than scientific judgments, under a mask of professional expertise.”

The emphasis on abortion as a decision made in consultation with a physician was intimately tied up with another idea: that abortion was an evil that could nevertheless be justified by extenuating medical circumstances. Hunter notes that in an interview for an oral history, Blackmun said: “I think to this day there ought to be a physician’s advice in there. I don’t believe in abortion on demand.” Even before Roe, the case for legalization often focused on “medically necessary” or “therapeutic” abortions.

The importance of the doctor’s role in the abortion decision also figures in political discourse. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was asked at a campaign event if she agreed that Americans on both sides of the issue should work together to try to reduce the number of abortions to zero. Clinton reminded her questioner that she thought abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.” She said abortion “should not in any way be diminished as a moral issue,” and portrayed the choice to have an abortion as a wrenching one for “a young woman, her family, her physician and pastor.”

That quotation just doesn’t sound the same when you substitute “physician’s assistant” or “nurse practitioner” for “physician.”

ALSO:

The risk of taking on Syria

The problem with giving in on marijuana laws

Vitamins don't make Girl Scout cookies healthful

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Let's end the obsession with women's wombs

    Let's end the obsession with women's wombs

    When liberals talk about states like Texas implementing laws to deter women from their constitutional right to an abortion, the conversation often veers into a frustrated rant, highlighting the hypocritical nature of conservatives who don’t believe in regulation or big government until it comes...

  • The NLRB closes a labor loophole

    The NLRB closes a labor loophole

    Labor advocates have long complained about companies evading their responsibilities as employers by outsourcing essential work to contractors, which they then require to hire and manage employees almost as if they worked for the company directly. The National Labor Relations Board pushed back against...

  • Would President Huckabee or Cruz put their faith above their duties?

    Would President Huckabee or Cruz put their faith above their duties?

    There are many objectionable elements to the drama playing out in Kentucky, where a four-time married county clerk, citing her faith, has gone to jail rather than do the job she was elected to and issue marriage certificates recognized as valid by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the most egregious...

  • Iran nuclear deal is an opportunity the U.S. should seize wholeheartedly

    Iran nuclear deal is an opportunity the U.S. should seize wholeheartedly

    Arms control agreements are by their very nature controversial. They often fall short of achieving everything that was hoped for. Potential gaps in enforcement can make the threat worse, and even if the parties abide by the terms of the agreement, evasion is always suspected.

  • Bush vs. Trump, en Español

    Bush vs. Trump, en Español

    It's tempting to treat Donald Trump's claim that Jeb Bush “should set the example by speaking English while in the United States” as just another bigoted remark from a presidential candidate who infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” (though he added that “some, I assume, are good...

  • The county is awol in the fight for Malibu beaches

    The county is awol in the fight for Malibu beaches

    Everybody knows this beach story: The rich and powerful who own property along Malibu's 27-mile coastline battle to keep the public away from the sand, surf and sunshine that fronts their houses. (Think David Geffen and his endless lawsuits to keep the access way closed next to his Carbon Beach...

Comments
Loading
69°