Putting Words in the Mouths of Doctors

South Dakota lawmakers have been shamelessly attacking the rights of women for years and each of their attacks have been met with a fight. One recent battle seems to have come to an end. In 2005 legislators passed a law that required doctors to tell their patients that if they have an abortion they will be more likely to commit suicide and that the patient “has an existing relationship with that unborn human being and that the relationship enjoys protection under the United States Constitution and under the laws of South Dakota.”

Planned Parenthood sued to block the law saying that it was unconstitutional and in 2009, U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood on both aspects of the law. Between 2005 and 2009, South Dakota voters rejected a ban on abortions twice; showing clearly that the residents of the state disagree with anti-abortion laws. Despite this the state appealed Judge Schreier’s decision. This past Friday, the U.S. appeals court released their decision on the appeal. They upheld Judge Schreier’s ruling against the requirement to (mis)inform patients that they are more likely to commit suicide after an abortion on the grounds that the claim is completely false and has been proven false multiple times.

They did however overturn her decision on the requirement that doctors inform patients of their “existing relationship with the unborn.” The reason given for overturning the decision was that they believe it is valid medical advice to inform a woman that she cannot be forced to have an abortion and that her “existing relationship” with the unborn is protected by law. Planned Parenthood is actually praising the decision saying that “Planned Parenthood has always stood for the rights of women to make these decisions and we are gratified by this result.” This is based on their understanding that what doctors must inform women is, specifically that they cannot be forced to have an abortion.

On one hand a woman should never be forced to have an abortion any more than she should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, so I can understand why Planned Parenthood would be happy with this decision.  What gives me pause about it though is that, while it is limited in relation to the pregnant woman, it is still granting the fetus rights. Yes it’s a bit of a slippery slope argument, but by agreeing that a fetus has rights even if only as attached to an “existing relationship” with the pregnant woman, it creates the argument that the fetus has rights of its own.

So far, personhood amendments granting rights to a fetus have failed to get the support needed in the handful of states (including South Dakota) that have tried to add them to state constitutions. This decision could allow anti-abortion activists to skip right past needing an amendment to grant a fetus rights and will just use the “pre-existing relationship” argument. That is one slippery slope I don’t want to go down.

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