The American Feminist
Knowledge is Power: Women's Right to Know
Women's Right to Know laws give women time to reflect upon information that is material to their health and well-being," says Judith Koehler, senior legislative counsel for Americans United for Life. Koehler, who has been instrumental in helping states pass legislation to ensure women receive the information they need to make an informed decision before having an abortion, goes on to say, "We know - from evidence offered at trials, testimony of women who have had abortions, and from exposes that have been written - that women do not receive adequate counseling before having an abortion. Medical standards are usually set by the medical community. In the abortion industry, there are currently few, if any, adequately applied standards of information for women. Many women do not even see the doctor who will be performing the abortion until they are on the surgical table, let alone know physical or psychological risks of abortion."
"Women's Right to Know laws are necessary for a number of reasons," explains Koehler. "They empower women to make informed decisions. Women are told of alternatives to abortion and receive information regarding pre- and post-natal care." These laws educate women by offering them information on the abortion method to be used and its risks, as well as information on paternity establishment and child support. Women learn that the state has printed materials available that describe the development of a fetus and list agencies that offer alternatives to abortion. Women receive information about the psychological impact of abortion as well as an increased risk of breast cancer that has been documented among post-abortive women. This information must be offered to the woman at least 24 hours before the abortion. They do not have to accept the materials if they do not want them. Right to Know materials provide women the information they need to make real choices by letting them know of resources that are available.
The constitutionality of Women's Right to Know laws was upheld in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. According to Koehler, Ohio, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Michigan all have Women's Right to Know laws similar to that of Pennsylvania. Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Montana and Indiana also have comprehensive informed-consent laws. In the past two years, 15 states have introduced Women's Right to Know laws. Some states have enacted legislation, but the laws have been tied up in litigation. Other states have various levels of informed consent. For example, South Carolina requires that women be given adequate information but requires only a one-hour waiting period. Koehler is optimistic about the outlook of Women's Right to Know laws, noting that every state law that has been modeled after Casey has been upheld in federal court.
The Florida Women's Right to Know law is currently in state court and is being challenged on state constitutional "privacy" grounds. Although the law could likely survive a federal court challenge, the Florida Supreme Court used the state privacy provision to strike the law requiring parental consent for an abortion on a minor. Thus, the future of the Women's Right to Know law in Florida state court is uncertain.
Recognizing a patient's basic right to information, opposing sides of the abortion debate have come together to support these laws in some states such as Kansas and Louisiana. As a whole, however, abortion advocates are adamantly opposed to Women's Right to Know laws. They argue that women will have to make more than one trip to the abortion clinic, placing an undue burden on the woman's right to obtain an abortion. This means that women will have to take more time off work, perhaps have to stay overnight, find additional child care, etc. In Casey, the court rejected these arguments, stating, "The waiting period helps ensure that a woman's decision to abort is a well-considered one, and rationally furthers the State's legitimate interest in maternal health and in unborn life. It may delay, but does not prohibit, abortion." Also, as Koehler points out, the same organizations that oppose Women's Right to Know laws due to concerns that it may require more than one trip to the abortion clinic advocate RU-486, which requires at least three trips to the doctor.
Abortion advocates also argue that these laws are not effective because women will go to other states to have abortions. "This is an argument for more Right to Know laws," states Koehler. "We need to make sure every state has a Women's Right to Know laws to ensure that regardless of which state the woman chooses, she will still receive the information she needs to make an informed decision." However, most states do not have abortion-reporting requirements, so it is difficult to assess whether women are in fact going to other states for abortions.
According to Koehler, we need a national reporting requirement for abortion to adequately assess the impact of informed consent.
Women's Right to Know laws have already begun to make an impact in reducing the number of abortions. "A recent Michigan study showed that even though first-time abortions have decreased nationwide, repeat abortions have increased, making up almost half of all abortions performed," Koehler asserts. Statistically, women who have had an abortion are at high risk of experiencing the tragedy of abortion again. When women are educated about alternatives, they are less likely to seek a first-time abortion, thereby reducing the potential for multiple abortions in the future. Since the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act was put into effect three years ago, the state's abortion rate has dropped among first-time clients by 18.5 percent.
"The more information women are given regarding the abortion procedure and alternatives, the more empowered they will be to make decisions that will benefit their health as well as the health of their child," Koehler said.Anne Brennan
Ann Brennan is a member of FFL and recently received her J.D. from Widener University School of Law. Reprinted from The American Feminist, Winter 1997-1998