Pravda in the Intake

Laws that mandate scripts for doctors providing abortions make for bad medicine.

Sadly, the pro-choice movement doesn't have much in the way of regular triumphant victories over those who want to roll back attitudes about sex and women's rights to the Victorian era, but last week, we did have a moment of joy when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit that could conceivably have forced doctors to lie to their patients. The lawsuit in question was brought by a Rose Acuna, who claimed that the doctor should have told her that her embryo was a separate human being before performing the abortion. Acuna appears to be one of the many women out there waving the "choice for me but not for thee" flag, which is to say that they join anti-choice causes after getting an abortion themselves, and gain pity within the anti-choice community by playing up how badly they were "duped" to get an abortion. The court, helpfully, pointed out that the state has no business forcing professionals to use their authority to spread misinformation.

The ACLU described the lawsuit as an underhanded attempt to mandate anti-choice scripts to be read by doctors that could be similar to scripts that have been pushed on doctors in other states through legislation. These sort of mandated scripts are often sold in paternalistic terms that assume both that women are too stupid to know what an abortion is and that legislators working from their low opinion of women have a better grasp on the practice of medicine than doctors with medical degrees. Perhaps the issue is that there are few, if any, courses at medical school in the fine art of assuming that all women seeking reproductive health services are stupid and slutty and need a lie-laden scolding for the high crime of having a normal sex life.

Aside from the official selling point of these laws, there's the unspoken selling point of pure sadism. Scripts like the one the plaintiffs wished to push on doctors in New Jersey usually have overwrought, maudlin, guilt-tripping (and inaccurate) language, in hopes that when the script is sprung on some already stressed out woman obtaining an abortion, she'll become upset or even cry. Considering how sadistic fantasies of suffering women are not unknown to anti-choice legislators, the idea that a lot of them dwell delightedly on the idea of adding to women's pain when voting for these laws is not completely out of the question. Think of South Dakota Republican Senator Bill Napoli's unnerving fantasy of the levels of degradation a woman would have to reach before he was satisfied that she deserves an abortion: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

First you get messed up bad and then you get your abortion. And if you weren't messed up before you step inside the clinic, there's a state-mandated guilt trip awaiting you in hopes to push you over the edge. Odds are that this script almost never achieves its sadistic intentions, but that doesn't justify its existence. Thankfully, the women of New Jersey will not have this extra obstacle put in front of them.

There's a strong whiff of the Soviet Union to these right wing attempts to remake reality by legislative fiat. Mandated clinic scripts are far from the only or even most famous example. The ongoing attempts to turn a religious teaching (creationism) into a scientific theory on par with evolutionary theory through legislation certainly get more press. But I'd put these abortion scripts right up there in the Soviet-esque ideology-trumps-reality category. A script in every doctor's office that equates an embryo with a five-year-old child doesn't make it true anymore than forcing patients to clap furiously will start saving fairy lives.

Nor does forcing doctors to read the script mean that you force anyone to believe it or even force them to read it with a convincing air about them. Even if the laws specify that doctors should read the script straightforwardly without giving any lip, how would you enforce that law? Is there a ban on a doctor rolling her eyes while reading the script? A ban on the doctor whipping out the script and prefacing her reading by saying, "The nutcases in the legislature require that I read you this load of horse puckey?" A law forbidding you from reading the script with a put-upon air of someone having to recite total nonsense?

If I were a clinic worker forced to read from an anti-choice script, I'd carry it around in a red folder labeled Pravda. Having a world-weary attitude about government-mandated nonsense is a rare pleasure in America. Most of the time, we're still up in arms about propagandistic lies and nonsense, because there's always a strong sense that a significant percentage of people buy into it. But inside the abortion clinic, amongst a group of people who either perform abortions or are seeking abortions, it's probably pretty rare to find anyone who's going to swallow the government line whole without question.

With that in mind, it's hard not to wonder what legislators who pass these laws intend to achieve, since they'll be convincing no one. No doubt plenty of legislators are motivated by the glow from making self-righteous but pointless symbolic gestures. But there's quite possibly more to these scripts than that. Mandatory scripts seem to be in the same category of abortion clinic regulations as mandatory sonograms or landscaping requirements—in other words, they're TRAP laws, which is short for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. The idea behind TRAP laws is that if you put enough arcane and pointless regulations on abortion providers, eventually they'll be unable to keep up with them all, fined for breaking the pointless laws and then run out of existence.

Congratulations to the state and the women of New Jersey for evading one more trap set for them by right wing activists.