South Carolina Makes a Mockery of Informed Consent

Yesterday the South Carolina House passed a bill mandating that women seeking abortions sign a sworn statement that they have seen an ultrasound of their fetus before having the abortion. Rep. Greg Delleney, the sponsor of the bill and a Republican from Chester, said, “I’m just trying to save lives and protect people from regret and inform women with the most accurate non-judgmental information that can be provided.” This is an amendment to the existing South Carolina informed consent law that requires doctors to give women information about fetal development and alternatives to abortion.

Informed consent is probably the most important principle of modern medicine. Its purpose is to enable autonomous decisionmaking. The South Carolina ultrasound law does everything but empower the patient. Offering a woman the option of an ultrasound as part of the informed consent process or doing one that is medically necessary is understandable, but forcing her to watch one as a prerequisite to having an abortion is an abuse of the informed consent process. The scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex’s eyes are forcefully held open as he is shown images intended to recondition his social behavior comes to mind.

I believe abortion is morally wrong, but I also believe that current U.S. law correctly recognizes that, in a conflict between mother and fetus, the woman’s rights take precedence over those of her fetus. A human being’s rights under the law increase with maturity. That has been the tradition under Anglo-American law as well as worldwide for most of history.

The suggestion that a fetus should have the same legal standing as an adult is not only unprecedented, but unacceptable. In balancing the rights of fetuses with those of their mothers, women’s rights must always take priority; otherwise the law is treating women as second to, or of lesser value than, the fetuses they are carrying – the law would be treating women first and foremost as communally owned vessels for bringing forth life and only second as autonomous individuals.

For those, like myself, who believe abortion is fraught with moral difficulties, the correct course of action is to teach, communicate, and discuss our views with our daughters, our female neighbors, and our friends. We must use the strength of our convictions and good clear reasoning to help them come to the right conclusions. To force someone to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth unwillingly is not far from slavery, no matter what the rationale. Pregnancy and birth are the most dangerous things most women will ever do in their lives. Not to give them the choice to escape those dangers, let alone plan their lives, is to treat them with the greatest disrespect.

There is no question that decisions about abortion are horrendously difficult, but the mere fact that such decisions are difficult doesn’t mean women aren’t fit to make them, or as is required by the South Carolina law, that women must be forced “for their own good” or “for the good of their fetuses” to undergo an unnecessary procedure and view images, as Alex was in A Clockwork Orange, that they don’t wish to see. Life is fraught with difficult decisions, many of them involving life and death. Men make decisions about how to protect their families and their way of life – unfortunately sometimes those decisions involve going to war and killing innocents. Women, like men, make decisions about what is best for their families and their way of life — unfortunately sometimes such decisions involve abortions.

It is a perversion of the concept of informed consent, let alone an unconscionable intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship, to impose a medically unnecessary procedure on women seeking abortions. Fetuses are potential children, not full grown adults, and women are full grown adults, not children. It is time we start treating both with the respect and dignity they deserve.