Historically, doctors have played a big role in abortion’s legality. Back in the 1860s, physicians with the newly-formed American Medical Association worked to outlaw abortion in the U.S.
A century later, they were doing the opposite.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when states were liberalizing abortion laws, “the charge for that actually came from doctors who said, ‘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,’ ” explains Melissa Murray, law professor at New York University.
The Supreme Court ruled in doctors’ favor in Roe v. Wade in 1973. The majority opinion spoke of “the right of a woman in consultation with her physician to choose an abortion,” Murray says.
Yet doctors and patients are all but absent from the latest Supreme Court majority opinion on abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In fact, in the opinion, Justice Samuel Alito uses the derogatory term “abortionist” instead of physician or doctor or obstetrician-gynecologist.
Legal experts say that signals a major shift in how the court views abortion, and creates a perilous new legal reality for physicians. In states where abortion is restricted, health care providers may be in the position of counseling patients who want an abortion, including those facing pregnancy complications, in a legal context that treats them as potential criminals.
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