Last Tuesday, the lawyers came bearing precedents. They arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to argue, and argue they did. The question was whether a city or state has the right to limit a woman's access to abortion.
The briefs before the court originated in Missouri, Ohio and Virginia. But the decision, when it comes, will be felt all across the country. There are more than a dozen similar suits waiting for the high court's opinion.
Three basic issues were put before the justices. Can a state or city rule that every second-trimester abortion must be done in a hospital? Can legislation prohibit any teen-ager under 16 from getting an abortion without the consent of a parent or judge? Can it force a doctor to present a prescribed set of "facts" to a patient in the name of "informed consent."
The three concerns will be decided on constitutional grounds where the states' and cities' right to regulate such things as medical procedures will be balanced with the woman's right to have an abortion.
But the most interesting issue is the one labeled "informed consent." Four years ago, the law under review was dreamed up in Akron, Ohio, to force doctors to present their patients with a series of "facts." It didn't matter whether the doctors believed them or not. It didn't matter whether the facts were accurate or not.
They were instructed to tell women, "the unborn child is a human life from the moment of conception . . ." and abortion "is a major surgical procedure which can result in serious complications including hemorrhage, perforated uterus . . . sterility . . . and . . . severe emotional disturbances."
Now this was a classic case of misinformed consent. Early abortions are not "major" surgical procedures by any medical standard. The idea that life begins at the moment of conception is a hotly debated belief, not a fact.
Still, the more I think about it, the more I find something perversely appealing in the idea of legislating information.
What if we decided that no citizen should consent to sex without being properly informed about the risks? We might end up supporting something called sex education. The same people who want pregnant women to know about the development of the fetus might help tell pre- pregnant women how not to develop one.
If that seems farfetched, we could surely add a new class for the education of pregnant women. The meager little Akron law just tells women the consequences of abortion. Surely we should be telling women the consequences of motherhood.
We might write down a modest list of facts, facts which have the advantage of being factual. The patient might, for example, like to know that the risk of death from childbirth is about 10 times higher than the risk of death from a legal abortion.
More information would be due minors, I suppose. Assuming a safe delivery, this young mother, if she is like nine out of 10 teen-agers, may keep her baby. Then, like three out of four of her new peers, she may drop out of school, often because she can't find affordable day care.
As a teen-age mother, our patient also should be reminded that she would be statistically more likely to be unmarried at any given time. The shotgun marriage is a good deal less popular than it used to be, and teen-age marriages are twice as likely to end in divorce.
In the spirit of financial information, someone should also mention that a female- headed household has less than four-tenths the income of a two-parent household. That same household is much more likely to be on welfare. Over half the women receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children were teens when their first child was born. Of the women under 30 years of age on AFDC, 70 percent were teen-age mothers.
None of these facts would be presented to frighten the patient. I merely offer them in the spirit of knowledge. After all, there appear to be a great many citizens who consent to harassing pregnant women without being informed about post-partum realities.
The Akron lawyer last Tuesday called his city's regulation "choice enhancing." If the Supreme Court refuses to strike it down, we'll surely need more enhancements. If no pregnant woman can have an abortion without informed consent, then henceforth and forever more, no pregnant woman can deliver without informed consent. Sorry, the law is the law.