The Hypocrisy of "Informed Consent" Abortion Laws
Like most people, I don’t spend much time going through my state’s legislative website, reading the actual language of our state laws. When researching the recently proposed abortion restrictions here in Michigan, though, I felt compelled to read the actual abortion regulations as they currently stand—not just a summary, but the actual word of the law. I expected something cold and formal; legal language offering at least a surface-level impression of impartiality. So I was surprised to find, instead, that even the word of the law is actually dripping with rhetoric—and specifically, that it’s nauseatingly constructed on the premise of being “pro-woman.”
Here in Michigan (and I’m sure similar wording exists in many states), our law reads:
“The knowledgeable exercise of a woman's decision to have an abortion depends on the extent to which the woman receives sufficient information to make an informed choice regarding abortion,”
“The decision to obtain an abortion is an important and often stressful one, and it is in the state's interest that the decision be made with full knowledge of its nature and consequences,”
“The receipt of accurate information about abortion and its alternatives is essential to the physical and psychological well-being of a woman considering an abortion.”
This notion of informed consent is the justification for a 24-hour waiting period, during which time a physician must, among other things, “provide the patient with a physical copy of a medically accurate depiction, illustration, or photograph and description of a fetus supplied by the department of community health at the gestational age nearest the probable gestational age of the patient's fetus.”
In the portion of the text aimed at the department of the community health, strict guidelines are set for the specifications of these “educational” materials, ordering the department to:
“Produce medically accurate depictions, illustrations, or photographs of the development of a human fetus that indicate by scale the actual size of the fetus at 2-week intervals from the fourth week through the twenty-eighth week of gestation. Each depiction, illustration, or photograph shall be accompanied by a printed description, in nontechnical English, Arabic, and Spanish, of the probable anatomical and physiological characteristics of the fetus at that particular state of gestational development,” and to “state that as the result of an abortion, some women may experience depression, feelings of guilt, sleep disturbance, loss of interest in work or sex, or anger.”
On a certain level, I can see where the language is almost difficult to argue with: who wants to challenge the idea of merely informing a woman as much as possible about a medical procedure she’s about to undergo?
The kicker, of course, is that there are no laws regulating the specific information that must be given to a patient before undergoing most other medical procedures, even those which are far more invasive and risky than abortion. As most of us who are concerned with reproductive rights are well aware, this language of “informed consent” merely serves as a thinly veiled attempt at shaming women who seek abortion, a shaming made all the more hypocritical when carried out in the supposed name of women’s health and safety. Perhaps most ironic, though, is how this push for “informed consent” contrasts to the information women are offered when going through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth.
Over 70 percent of women in America receive epidural pain relief during childbirth, for example, and many are not aware that the epidural drastically increases their odds of ending up with a cesarean section. C-sections are sometimes life-saving, but the World Health Organization suggests that ideal c-sections rates would be in the ballpark 10 percent, while the actual c-section rate in the U.S. average above 30 percent and continues to rise. A multitude of non-medical factors contribute to the astronomical c-section rate, from a fear of malpractice lawsuits to a desire to more easily manage and control the laboring woman. And often times when c-sections in America are medically necessary, the necessity arises after complications from other procedures, such as the common use of pitocin to artificially induce or speed up a labor.
Even a seemingly innocuous practice such as continuous fetal monitoring during labor increases the odds of a c-section, as does being expected (or forced) to lie flat on one’s back rather than being able to move about freely while laboring. And yet, in spite of the increased risks to a woman’s health and safety that are posed by having abdominal surgery as opposed to delivering vaginally, very few women are empowered to truly make informed decisions about the childbirth process. And even when women do access the information necessary to make such decisions, their actual options are often limited.
Homebirth and freestanding birth centers are rarely covered by health insurance—even in states with midwife-friendly legislation—which means that for many women anything but the typical medicalized childbirth is simply out of financial reach. And leaving aside the actual childbirth process for a moment, let’s think about the “depression, feelings of guilt, sleep disturbance, loss of interest in work or sex, or anger” that women must be told they might experience after an abortion. Where are the laws mandating that women be told they might experience depression and a diminished sex-drive while caring for a newborn?
Any notion of “informed consent” should also include a thorough, accurate, and non-biased education about healthy sexuality—an education that should start at a young age, and should empower everyone to increase their protection from STDs and to make truly informed contraceptive and reproductive choices. This education is vital for everyone, but perhaps even more urgently needed for female-bodied people, who tend to be given even less information about our sexual and reproductive health than men. One need look no further than Florida’s recent uterus debacle for an example of just how far away we are from a culture that truly informs us about our bodies.
It doesn’t take much to see the degree of hypocrisy at work. Our lawmakers only take great pains to detail every bit of information a woman must be given when their own agendas—not her health and safety—are at stake. Women should, of course, be given straightforward and accurate information about the nature of the procedure that will be performed, as well as necessary information about any possible complications and warning signs of those complications during recovery—the same that would be expected for any medical procedure, for anyone. But—and this feels like stating the obvious—the precise measurements and features of a fetus are simply not part of the information required to make an educated choice about abortion, nor do they have any bearing whatsoever on the safety of the procedure.
Informing and empowering women to make truly informed decisions about any aspect of sexual and reproductive health is simply not on the conservative agenda, and abortion is no exception to that rule. The very possibility of consent—whether one is consenting to a sexual encounter or a medical procedure—requires actually having choices, and being empowered to make an autonomous decision. Any legislation that aims to exert ideological influence over a woman’s reproductive choices is about attempting to control her choices, not about informing and trusting her to make choices of her own. And that’s anything but empowering. No coerced “choice” can ever truly be labeled “consent.”
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