I am an obstetrician/gynecologist. I provide prenatal care, help women experiencing miscarriages and provide abortions. Most abortions occur early in pregnancy and are brief office procedures. Sometimes a pregnancy becomes life- or health-threatening, however, and getting an abortion can become a real emergency.
In the coming weeks, the New York State Legislature will consider Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Agenda, a ground-breaking piece of legislation that will address many serious issues from achieving pay equity, to eradicating workplace sexual harassment, to ensuring safety for victims of domestic violence. It also contains a critical provision to protect reproductive health decisions, which has everything to do with how I care for my patients, and how I address emergencies.
Most everyone has heard of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. New York was a national leader, providing women with safe, legal abortions three years before Roe. However, we haven’t updated our state laws regarding abortion in 40 years, and we lack a provision that allows later abortion in order to save a woman’s health.
The Women’s Equality Agenda will align our law with federal law and current medical practice, ensuring that a woman’s health is front and center in every decision that a health care professional makes. Additionally, the agenda clarifies and affirms that New York already regulates health care providers and sets up-to-date standards for what medical professionals can and cannot do in our state.
Federal law says I can perform a later abortion to save a woman’s health; New York law does not. This leads to confusion. Confusion that could have had disastrous consequences for my patients, like one I saw just this month whom I’ll call Janet.
Janet came to me with a wanted pregnancy in the 23rd week, but her health was rapidly declining due to complications. Nothing was going well and, in consultation with me, Janet and her husband decided to make the heartbreaking decision to end the pregnancy to save her health. Before this could happen, however, her condition worsened dramatically. I needed to make a medical decision and I needed to make it fast. Janet was so sick that she might not have survived a cesarean. Abortion was our only safe option.
I performed the abortion, and within hours, Janet’s condition completely turned around and she was soon back in good health. I understood federal protections allowed me to move forward with that medical directive. A less-seasoned physician may not have known this – jeopardizing a patient’s health and well-being because of fear of criminal prosecution.
Let me ask you this: If someone you loved were in my operating room, would you want me to wait and consult with a hospital lawyer about the nuances of state and federal law before providing desperately needed care? Would you want me to be guided by fear of prosecution or by experience and medical judgment along with public health laws?
This should matter not only to medical professionals, but to all New Yorkers. It is my sincere hope that no family needs to face a life- or health-threatening situation. But if people do, I want their doctor to be able to do everything possible for that family and that patient.
The Women’s Equality Agenda does many things to improve women’s lives, from safer workplaces to better pay, but it also lets doctors be doctors. It allows us to save lives, protect women’s health and support families.
Anne Davis, M.D., M.P.H., is an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and director of the Kenneth Ryan Family Planning Fellowship. She served on the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health from 2002 to 2008 and is now its consulting medical director.