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A Bioethical Perspective on Oklahoma’s New Abortion Law

Posted May 06 2010 9:26am

The percentage of college educated Americans who support legal abortion seems to have reached a new low among women under thirty and among the population as a whole,  so it should be no surprise that states are passing laws to restrict safe abortions. Before performing any abortion Oklahoma’s new 2010 law requires that the doctor do an ultrasound and describe to the woman the dimensions and gestational age of the embryo, cardiac activity if any, and appearance of external and internal structures.  A vaginal transducer must be used when doing so will display the embryo more clearly than an abdominal transducer.  Oklahoma’s law thus requires doctors to perform an ultrasound that is not medically indicated and likely to be invasive. In this era of skyrocketing medical costs and overutilization of services the new law mandates more of the same while leaving the burden of payment to the women themselves.

U.S. law requires that informed consent be obtained for treatments and diagnostic tests. This means that accurate and relevant information must be disclosed to patients. If current standards of disclosure and informed consent apply then the description of the fetus must include evidence about embryology including clinical and scientific uncertainty about when consciousness, thoughts, sensations, and life begin. This is more than some of the other commentators who are in favor of the law are advocating. Providing abortion without truthful disclosure and informed consent violates existing laws, threatens the doctor-patient relationship, and jeopardizes medical professionalism.  Mandating ultrasound, especially with out disclosing all the information -- especially where the law protects the doctor against deliberate failure to disclose --  means ignoring the need to obtain informed consent. One wonders how such a poorly crafted law ever reached the legislature. Indeed, as a result of legal challenges to the new law an Oklahoma judge has just granted a slight reprieve by delaying implementation for 45 days. 

[Guest blogging this week is Cheryl Cox Macpherson, Ph.D., Professor and the Chair of Bioethics Center at St George's University School of Medicine (SGU) in Grenada where she enjoys teaching medical and graduate students from many nations and background.]



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