Supreme Court's abortion decision puts doctors in legal limbo : Shots - Health News In a departure from earlier Supreme Court decisions on abortion, Justice Alito's abortion opinion barely mentions medicine. This creates a perilous new legal reality for doctors, legal analysts say.

Doctors weren't considered in Dobbs, but now they're on abortion's legal front lines

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For more than a century, doctors have played a huge role in laws around abortion. Roe v. Wade famously described abortion as a decision made by a woman and her physician, but the Supreme Court decision that overturned the right to an abortion barely mentions doctors at all. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin noticed this, and she's here to bring us her latest reporting. Selena, so let's start with the context here. How have doctors been involved in abortion laws?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Well, the first way that doctors got involved was way back in the 1860s, when doctors with the newly formed American Medical Association pushed for laws to ban abortion. But a hundred years later, the tables were turned. Doctors did the opposite. Melissa Murray, a law professor at NYU, explained that, in the 1950s and 1960s, when states were liberalizing abortion laws...

MELISSA MURRAY: The charge for that actually came from doctors who said, you know, this is insane. We can't practice medicine. We can't exercise our medical judgment if you're telling us that this is off the table.

MARTINEZ: And as we said, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in '73 really focused on doctors.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes, to a huge degree. I mean, some even say that it's more about the freedom for doctors to practice medicine than the freedom to make your own reproductive choices. The court decisions that followed Roe on abortion also looked at abortion as health care. But this new decision, the Dobbs decision from Justice Samuel Alito that overturns Roe v. Wade, takes doctors out of the picture and talks about abortion in a totally different way.

MARTINEZ: And what's the different way?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's that abortion is not health care - it's a crime, and doctors who provide them are criminals. Alito even uses the word abortionist to describe physicians, which is a derogatory term used by anti-abortion political activists. Molly Meegan is chief legal officer for ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Here's what she told me about the use of the term abortionist in this opinion.

MOLLY MEEGAN: Inflammatory, inaccurate - these are clinicians. These are providers. These are medical professionals.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: All the big medical groups, including ACOG and the American Medical Association, have told the court abortion is a key part of reproductive health care, and it is safe, and it can be lifesaving. And even though doctors weren't really considered in this opinion, they're now on the front lines of this new legal reality. Many new abortion restrictions in states specifically target health care providers.

MARTINEZ: OK, so what does this mean, then, for doctors? What's next?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Doctors in abortion ban states are in an incredibly difficult spot, especially when it comes to pregnant people who are sick or have complications. Intervene, and you risk violating the law and being sued. If you don't intervene, you could be risking your patient's life and potentially be sued from the patient or family. Here's Molly Meegan from ACOG.

MEEGAN: We are hearing from our doctors on the ground at all times of day and night. They are scared. They are in an impossible situation, and they don't know how to define laws that are changing by the minute.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I spoke to Dr. Katie McHugh. She's an OB-GYN who does labor and delivery and abortion at several clinics around Indiana. And since the Supreme Court decision, she's seen a wave of new patients coming in from Ohio and Tennessee and Kentucky for abortion care. She is trying to keep track of the laws in these neighboring states to know what she can do for these patients in Indiana.

KATIE MCHUGH: I'm not only worrying about my patients' medical safety, which I always worry about, but now I am worrying about their legal safety, my own legal safety.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's an incredibly confusing moment right now. Bans are going into effect. Some have been blocked by judges. New laws are being drafted. There's just a lot in flux. And it could be that organized doctors' groups, like the American Medical Association and ACOG, get involved in the legal fight here and again play a role in pushing to liberalize abortion laws just like they did decades ago.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks a lot.



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