AMA Wades Into Abortion Debate With Lawsuit : Shots - Health News After decades on the sidelines, the medical trade group is taking a more aggressive stance by fighting two North Dakota laws it says interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

American Medical Association Wades Into Abortion Debate With Lawsuit

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The American Medical Association has largely stayed on the sidelines of political fights over the past 30 years or so. But a North Dakota law set to go into effect next month is spurring the doctor's group to get involved now. The law will require doctors in North Dakota to tell patients that medically induced abortions can be reversed. Now, there's no scientific evidence to support that claim, and the AMA is taking the state to court over it and another existing abortion law. Julie Rovner covers health policy at Kaiser Health News. She joins us now.

Welcome back to the program, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: We just described one of these laws. What's the other one, and why is the AMA concerned about it?

ROVNER: The other law requires physicians to tell women who are seeking an abortion that it would end the life of a whole separate, unique living human being. The AMA says that that law unconstitutionally forces physicians to act as the mouthpiece of the state. So these are two different laws in North Dakota. They're unhappy with both of them.

CORNISH: At the same time, there have been several new laws restricting abortion access across the South and Midwest. So why is the AMA getting involved now?

ROVNER: It's really interesting. You know, they've been involved on and off in sort of smaller ways. But you know, they put out a press release. They're filing lawsuits. There's a lot of speculation as to why now. Some of it may be just they feel like these laws have finally gone too far. Some of it may be there's a woman president of the AMA and a woman past president and there'll be a woman president next year. For a group that's long been older, whiter and more male, that's changing.

CORNISH: So what kind of stance had they taken in the past?

ROVNER: Well, the AMA has been kind of everywhere on abortion. The AMA in the late 1800s led the fight to make abortion illegal in the United States. That was part of their effort to sort of centralize power over the medical profession. They wanted to get rid of unlicensed practitioners like midwives, who had traditionally been involved with women's reproductive health. And they really didn't change that position until just before Roe v. Wade. And even when Roe v. Wade happened, the effort to liberalize abortion laws in the U.S. was really led by the legal profession, not by the medical profession.

CORNISH: You reached out to the American Medical Association - seems like maybe they're not so comfortable with this new stance. Can you tell us what you learned?

ROVNER: Yeah. They made clear that their problems with these laws are not about abortion per se, but about interference in the doctor-patient relationship, which is true. And that is their complaint. I would point out that there have been a number of other abortion laws or abortion regulations that they have not been so outspoken on that would have equally interfered with the doctor-patient relationship.

CORNISH: For a little more context, though, how influential is the American Medical Association at this point?

ROVNER: Well, they're still pretty influential in that people see that name and think, oh, the AMA - they represent doctors. But the AMA has represented a smaller percentage of doctors over the years. It is not quite as big and powerful as it used to be. But still, the brand carries some weight, and it carries some weight in Washington and in state capitals.

CORNISH: Doesn't it carry weight precisely because people see it as apolitical? And is this jeopardizing that?

ROVNER: Oh, I don't think they've ever been seen as apolitical. The AMA really led the fight against national health insurance for decades. They've always been political. Where they've been, I think, loathed to intervene is on delicate social issues like abortion.

CORNISH: In this era of increased restrictions on abortion, are other medical groups, other professional associations and the like, getting involved in legislative fights?

ROVNER: Well, the American Congress (ph) of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which represents most of the doctors who actually do abortions and take care of women's reproductive needs, has long been fairly outspoken on many of these laws, if not most of them. So there have been other physician groups that have stepped up to take the lead on this. There are also anti-abortion physician groups. They're much smaller, but they are out there. And they also argue the AMA has sort of preferred to step back and let the fight go on elsewhere.

CORNISH: Julie, you've been covering this area for a long time. What strikes you about this moment? I mean, is this as significant as it looks?

ROVNER: It's hard to tell. As I said, the AMA's been kind of everywhere on abortion issues. It looks like they're maybe coming out - finding this to be such a threat to the doctor-patient relationship that they're willing to take a leading role. It remains to be seen exactly where they will go from here.

CORNISH: That's Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News.

Thanks for coming in.

ROVNER: Thank you.

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