The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Dr. Oz really said about abortion

He doesn’t want a politician consulting with you and your doctor about individual care decisions. It’s actually worse than that.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks during Tuesday's debate. (Greg Nash/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

During Tuesday evening’s senatorial debate between Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, the latter candidate allegedly said something shocking and enraging about abortion access, which was then allegedly captured in a tweet that got a lot of attention:

“Oz says his abortion position: should be between ‘a woman, her doctor, and local political leaders,’ ” wrote a Democratic opposition researcher.

John Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke, had been the candidate for whom viewers were on gaffe alert. But to read this tweet — which has been reposted thousands of times — it seemed that Oz, a smooth television personality, had instead won the headline for most alarming statement.

Only, he didn’t say it — not quite, not exactly. I went back and re-watched the clip. After being asked whether he would support a nationwide abortion ban, here’s what Oz said (emphasis mine): “There should not be involvement from the federal government in how states decide their abortion decisions. As a physician, I’ve been in the room when there’s some difficult conversations happening. I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all. I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”

Note the differences between that and the version that got passed around online: “women” not “a woman,” “doctors” not “her doctor.”

These differences are subtle, for sure — but they change the tenor of the statement, don’t they? “A woman, her doctor, and local political leaders” makes the scenario specific and personal, as though Oz was suggesting that a woman should be accompanied to Planned Parenthood by the town comptroller and the alderman from Ward 5.

But the plural “women,” plus the context of “putting the best ideas forward,” make it clear what I think Oz was actually trying to communicate: He feels that women, physicians and local politicians should all have a voice in informing state legislation related to abortion. In short, in his mind this isn’t about a state representative consulting on individual abortions, it’s about them listening to women and physicians as those representatives determine what should be legal within the borders of their state. It’s a states’ rights issue for Oz. It’s basically the standard GOP talking point.

I’m bothering to nitpick this because I think in matters of important issues like abortion, you shouldn’t have to massage other people’s words to win your point. We might all interpret someone words differently, but we should at least know what they actually said.

And what Oz actually said? It’s still bad.

Oz’s position, as he has stated it, is incoherent. If he doesn’t “want the federal government involved with that at all,” then why is he okay with state governments being involved? He’s absolutely right that Joe Biden doesn’t have any business determining whether I have an abortion — but why would I feel any better about my governor, Larry Hogan, having a say in the matter? Why would I trust that allowing a politician of any stature to set the terms of my care — even if they’re not literally standing in the exam room would lead to better medical care for me?

Oz is a doctor, as he likes to remind us. Did he find that he did his best work when his medical wisdom was circumscribed by a bunch of elected strangers, the great majority of whom have no relevant expertise at all?

And if this is truly about “letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward,” in what world is it the “best idea” to deprive a woman in Pennsylvania of the same standard of reproductive care as a woman in Maryland or California, simply because she had different local political leaders?

His answer was nonsense. It was intellectual gobbledygook.

Here is why this matters: Oz’s statement is bad not because it revealed that he has outlandish ideas about abortion, but because it revealed that the entire Republican argument of “states’ rights,” as it applies to abortion, is outlandish. “Local political leaders” making health-care laws that impact patients they’ll never meet is a position that can only end up hurting women and doctors. Or “a woman” and “her doctor.”

What some people thought Oz said at the debate was bad. What he actually said is even worse.