Abortion Ruling Causes Worries, Confusion for Angry City Docs

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The Supreme Court decision last week banning so-called partial-birth abortions is causing confusion and apprehension in the city's hospitals. At Bellevue’s Reproductive Choice Unit, for example, unnerved residents circulated stories about the hospital's sordid past, when floors were once full of women who attempted termination on their own. “I don’t think many of us know what partial birth is — it’s not a medical term at all,” said Kiran Chawal, a third-year resident there. “We’ve all looked it up to figure out what they’re talking about. It’s difficult to understand or interpret.”

The legislation of medicine is what angers doctors most, regardless of their political leanings. “It’s not a pro-choice issue as much as it is a medical issue,” says Chawal. “You’re telling doctors how to perform a procedure. Are they going to tell me next week that I can’t use a speculum to do a Pap smear?” Jessica Salas, one of the chief OB residents at Bellevue, doesn't perform abortions because of her own moral concerns, but she is nevertheless opposed to the ban. “I don’t feel like a lawyer has the right to tell me how to practice medicine,” she said. “It’s a sad day for practitioners in general. They’re telling us how to do our jobs and to do something that’s not safe for the patient.”

Even worse, the legislation is, by medical standards, imprecise. The term “partial-birth abortion” is an evocative phrase used by pro-life advocates, and by the Supreme Court last week, but it isn’t used by doctors, who prefer “intact dilation and evacuation” to describe the procedure. And the ban doesn’t outlaw abortion itself, just this one particular method, so it makes for complicated decisions should emergencies arise. “You want to be thinking about what’s the safest thing for the patient, not taking your gloves off and calling the ACLU to figure out if you’re going to be breaking the law,” said one attending OB/GYN at a large city hospital. “It takes away tools from doctors. Now we have to worry about criminal prosecution while we watch a woman bleed.”

And it's unclear how the ban will be enforced. The doctors we spoke to said there are ways around the “partial-birth” procedure that still allow for second-term abortions, but they agreed that those other methods are widely considered riskier to a mother's health. Because of that greater risk, some said they wouldn't shy away from the banned procedure in certain circumstances. “I would still do it,” said one resident at a large New York hospital. “It’s safer for the patient.” But others worried some doctors might stop performing second-term abortions at all, to avoid the issue. “It’s not a civil suit like malpractice,” said the attending physician. “It’s a criminal prosecution. A conviction means you’d lose your license and you’d never be able to practice medicine again.” —Janelle Nanos