Not so long ago, I wrote about why doctors shouldn’t lie to their patients. Frankly, I still find it rather baffling that a truth that seems so self-evident to me would need stating. Baffled as I may be, however, clearly it does need stating, because it seems the good people of South Dakota are going to start forcing doctors to lie. From Mother Jones (tip o’ the hat to an old friend’s Facebook page):
A federal appeals court this week upheld South Dakota’s law requiring doctors to tell women seeking abortions that they will face “increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide.”
The “informed consent” law, which required doctors to read a formal script to all women seeking an abortion, has been in litigation since it passed in 2005. (The state drew much of their ideas from the legal writings of Harold Cassidy, who was profiled in Mother Jones last year.) A court had previously upheld other portions of the script, but the part about increased risk of suicide—a claim based on dubious medical research—was the last portion stuck in legal wrangling. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 7 to 4 to uphold that part of the script. From the Star Tribune:
“On its face, the suicide advisory presents neither an undue burden on abortion rights nor a violation of physicians’ free speech rights,” the court wrote in its majority opinion.
The court is, of course, wrong.
If you choose to click through the quote’s link under “dubious medical research,” you’ll find another nifty little piece that explains why the link between abortion and suicidality is tenuous, at best. It is certainly not an established fact, and presenting it as such is a falsehood. South Dakota is forcing abortion providers to lie to their patients.
The court is wrong on both counts. First of all, it focuses far too much on the “burden” part of “undue burden.” It is not especially onerous to listen to a scripted speech, I suppose, though I’ve never been forced to sit through one so I don’t really know how it feels. But, pretty much by definition, being told a lie is absolutely “undue.” It is coercive and unethical and simply, plainly wrong. What could be more “undue” than that, even if the lie itself takes little time and no effort to hear? A wrong doesn’t become less wrong just because the state calls it right.
And I’d be delighted if someone could explain to me how it is not a violation of a physician’s freedom of speech to be forced to say something she believes to be false. We commonly understand our freedom of speech to be a positive right, one that allows us to say what we please. But it also includes a right not to be forced to say what we don’t want to say. If you’re not free to be silent when you choose, then you’re not fully free. And the freedom of these doctors to be silent regarding a medical problem they understand to be illusory is obviously abrogated by this law. How can anyone say otherwise and keep a straight face?
I’m sure the doctors in South Dakota who perform abortions (at just one center in the entire state) will do their very best to communicate truthfully with their patients. If I were in their position, I would make every effort to violate the spirit of the law, if not the letter. But it is disgraceful in the extreme that they find themselves in that position in the first place. Doctors mustn’t lie to their patients, even if the government tells them they have to.