When presidential hopeful Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that women who obtain abortions should receive “some form of punishment” if the procedure were ever made illegal, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate thoroughly condemned the GOP front-runner. Trump rode back his comments, then declaring that only “the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible.”
Five doctors tell Cosmopolitan.com how rhetoric like Trump’s affects their ability to practice medicine, and what it is like to worry that putting a patient’s health ahead of legislative mandate could mean landing in prison.
Dr. Willie Parker, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
I think Donald Trump coming with his out-of-touch statements with women having to be punished or physicians having to be punished is just further evidence of him being totally clueless on this issue. If he was at all in touch with the issue, he would know there is no public support for punishing women — that’s why he backed away from his [original] statement so quickly. In regards to punishing doctors, we can’t be punished any more than we already are. We’re the only medical professionals who have a procedure that can be done that can end in criminal punishment. I don’t know of any other medical procedure where if there is an unwarranted event or someone takes issue with your care, you could be criminally liable. I don’t know of any other procedure that can be criminally penalized.
I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t aware [of potentially going to jail], but you can’t practice medicine with one eye looking over your shoulder. When you are taking care of a patient, she has to have your full attention. I always do what’s right for my patient, and I’ll let the rest of it sort itself out. But I’m befuddled by the very fact that I have the public trust to act on what is in the best interest of my patient in the context of my training, but that there is someone who knows nothing about it who gets to decide that my actions are worth penalizing criminally.
Dr. Cheryl Chastine, Midwest
As a doctor, patients entrust me with their well-being. I took a pledge to help them in the best way I know how. Everything I do is geared toward respecting my patients’ autonomy while giving the highest-quality medical care I can. It’s utterly terrible for me when the law forbids me to act on my best judgment and caring. A patient tells me she’s carefully considered her decision and she’s ready to proceed with her abortion, and yet I face criminal charges if I don’t send her away for 24 hours. That’s heart-wrenching for me. So I’m already dealing with having the state treat me as a would-be criminal. It imposes a heavy layer of fear-mongering and antagonism on the doctor-patient relationship. If doctors are threatened with prison for providing abortions, the moral position for us is agonizing. I can’t bear the thought of a patient coming to me and begging me to help her, and having to risk prison if I were to obey my moral and ethical compulsion to help.
The person who seeks an abortion is not a “victim” of the doctor who chooses to help them. Doctors’ willingness to provide safe, legal abortion care saves thousands of patients and families. The alternative to safe, legal abortion is unsafe, illegal abortion.
Dr. Gabrielle Goodrick, Phoenix, Arizona
I have a joke with patients about my 24-hour mandated information session. They’ll say, “Oh, this is so silly. Can’t I do the pill today? Why do I need to wait?” And I’ll joke, “Well, because Sheriff Joe [Arpaio] would love to dress me in stripes, and I don’t look good in stripes.” The patient wouldn’t be punished, I would be. I tell them if I were to provide an abortion in some way that is not consistent with the laws in Arizona, I would be wearing stripes — you would be fine.
I’ve always been isolated from the medical community, even the pro-choice OB community. I’m separate, I’m different, I’m the doctor they refer to, but it’s clandestine in that way. This just isolates me further. There are no other medical procedures that have specific laws that are passed that criminalize them. Arizona specifically commands me to go against what is medically best for the patient in order to not break the law. That’s what this current medical abortion ban is about — it puts me in a situation where I either have to commit medical malpractice or break the law.
Dr. Carrie Terrell, Minneapolis, Minnesota
We are already impacted by the limitations placed on our health care by our insurance carriers — including prior authorizations, disallowed and disapproved procedures, and unaffordable co-pays — making some treatments unattainable. We are already infuriated by the limitations imposed on our health-care options by these carriers, so do we really want to allow more limitations and laws against certain procedures or treatments? If we allow one, there will likely be more.
Unfortunately, our autonomy also isolates us. We think, Well, I don’t need that procedure, or, Well, I’d never have that procedure, and so we allow these laws and restrictions to continue to pass. I’ve seen patients who had no idea an abortion in her state requires a 24-hour waiting period or that a teen needs two-parental-notification documentation. The laws were irrelevant to these women until they personally experienced the restriction or setback.
In any setting, allowing our legislators or other representatives or politicians to become involved in the personal details of our health care is contrary to American ideals and is bad for patients. We all want the freedom to meet with our provider and pick the best treatments for our conditions, our risk factors, our belief systems.
Providing abortions is part of the full spectrum of women’s health care. I do not pick and chose which medications, treatments, surgeries I will perform based on what legislators think about them. I instead rely on evidence-based recommendations and best-practice guidelines. Following best practice shouldn’t be a criminal act in our country.
Dr. Leah Torres, Salt Lake City, Utah
It’s ridiculous. For someone to say that I am doing something wrong, or that I’m hurting my patients, it’s infuriating. I don’t give a lot of thought to it because of how absurd it is, but when you break it down, it says that I’m a criminal, that I deserve to be in prison, and that I’m not fulfilling my role as protector of my patients. That’s really insulting considering what all I’ve been through in training and what I do for my patients.
It never occurs to me that a patient can turn around and sue me over an abortion. I’m actually more concerned about being sued for a bad birth outcome, to be honest. People seeking abortions — especially in Utah — have gone to great lengths to obtain the abortion, and in the end, I think they are just super grateful and they trust that we are going to take good care of them. And we do — we fulfill that role time and time again despite laws that cause harm to people. We work within the laws, and given that, I don’t fear legal reprimands for providing abortions. But in theory, I suppose there could be a bad outcome, because anyone could have a bad outcome, and then who knows — the state could decide to arrest me if someone dies because of the outcome of an abortion. I guess my whole gestalt is, “These laws are bad and it won’t be until someone dies that people recognize that they are bad.” It didn’t occur to me that I might be the one punished for the bad laws.