Days after the state of Ohio banned abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat was detected, doctor Mae Winchester had a patient who needed to terminate her pregnancy to save her life.
Her patient, who was 19 weeks pregnant, asked if “she would be legal and if I would be legal,” Winchester told AFP.
This would not have been an issue when nationwide abortion rights were still protected by the US Constitution.
But the Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade of 1973 on June 24 – and some states, including Ohio, quickly stepped in to restrict the procedure, sometimes with only exceptions for medical reasons.
Doctors across the country have been thrust into an ambiguous legal landscape that they say threatens both their ability to do their jobs and their patients’ health.
That evening, while her patient was having a clear medical emergency and the nearly 50-year-old right hand was being shaken out from under her feet, Winchester called the hospital’s lawyers.
“I know what I have to do medically. But how do I protect them from a legal point of view? How do I protect myself? How do I protect our facility? Our nurses and anesthesiologists who will be involved in this case? affects everyone,” she said.
Such concerns have been echoed by physicians of various specialties finding themselves in the crosshairs of new legislation, as well as healthcare advocates working to help providers navigate the changing terrain.
“It’s a bizarre situation for doctors to be nervous about, even when they’re lawfully treating potentially life-threatening conditions,” said Harry Nelson, a managing partner at Nelson Hardiman, the law firm that advises physicians.
– Lose license? look into prison? –
Penalties in new laws can be severe, ranging not only from losing a doctor’s license, but also from possible felony charges, years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
Even the threat of litigation will take its toll, Nelson said, noting that few organizations and individuals can sustain the financial, logistical and mental costs “without a significant level of stress.”
Some authorities in states with strict abortion restrictions said concerns were misplaced over legal exceptions for medical hazards, with anti-abortion advocates accusing opponents of “fear-mongering”.
But the risk is taken seriously by the Ministry of Health.
It says the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) will replace state abortion laws when the procedure is needed to stabilize a pregnant patient – a move praised by abortion rights advocates who have been pressuring President Joe Biden’s administration have access to the procedure.
But guidance has come under fire, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the government, saying it was “trying to turn every emergency room in the country into a walk-in abortion clinic.”
It’s unclear how zealous prosecutors will be, and a group of around 90 elected prosecutors from across the country said on July 14 it would not prosecute abortion cases.
But in Indiana, where abortion is still legal for up to 22 weeks and Republican-dominated lawmakers are considering tighter abortion restrictions, a doctor has already been threatened with investigations into performing the procedure for a 10-year-old rape victim who had to cross from neighboring Ohio .
The obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) was accused of failing to report the case as required by state law on underage sex crimes – an allegation was refuted.
Nelson and other lawyers said much of the rhetoric boiled down to “fear mongering” and political capitalization to garner support for one of the country’s hottest issues.
But he stressed that in states like Texas, Idaho and Oklahoma, which allow civil charges against anyone who knowingly “supports or facilitates” abortion, there is a real risk that “individual angry people … will try to set an example.” “
– ‘Rock and a hard place’ –
It’s not just midwives who can be caught in the net, and doctors are raising concerns about the impact on care for pregnant patients with diseases like cancer, the treatment of which could harm pregnancy.
Health care providers in states where access to abortion is still possible are also seeking advice, Nelson said, as anti-abortion leaders see cross-border care as their next battleground.
“Because every situation is so different, it’s really difficult for us to write guidelines, and everyone asks for guidelines,” said Wisconsin-based OB-GYN Kristin Lyerly, Legislative Chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
ACOG has joined some 75 other healthcare organizations in condemning legislative interference in the doctor-patient relationship following the Supreme Court ruling.
“Pregnancy management is complicated, but doctors have to do it, not politicians,” Lyerly told AFP.
Ever since Roe v Wade was knocked over, she’s heard from colleagues who feel “stuck between a rock and a hard place”.
“What should you do? Commit wrongdoing or go to jail for being a criminal for having an abortion?”
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