Legislators hear testimony on abortion informed consent law

"Had I been told of all the side effects; had I been given information on how to raise a child, I would never have aborted my baby," Susanna Brennan told young women attending a press conference on legislation called, "An Act Relative to A Woman's Right to Know." The press conference Oct. 23 began a busy day of testimony on Beacon Hill.

Pro-life organizations in the Commonwealth defended “An Act Relative to a Woman’s Right to Know,” that they have proposed to lawmakers. The bill would require abortion facilities to provide “complete information on the procedure, the risks, the status of her unborn child, and her alternatives and sufficient reflection time (24 hours)” to women considering abortion.

Thirty-two states have passed such informed consent laws.

When Brennan became pregnant, she and her husband went to a Planned Parenthood facility in Brookline to receive counseling on how to raise a child on a limited income. She said they were not given any information on alternatives to abortion or the consequences of having an abortion. Instead, she and husband were “coerced and convinced” to have an abortion.

As a result of the abortion, Brennan said she and her husband divorced three years later, she developed an eating disorder, abused alcohol, became depressed and attempted suicide twice.

Massachusetts Citizens for Life and other pro-life organizations feel that the majority of abortion clinics do not provide women with enough information on abortion, its alternatives and consequences, pregnancy support services and patients rights. They say “An Act Relative to A Woman’s Right to Know” would ensure full disclosure and “empower” women by enabling them to make educated decisions.

Under the bill, women would be provided with this information through a printed pamphlet and a state-sponsored website or a toll-free telephone number for an audio recording.

A physician would be required to meet the woman considering abortion, describe the procedure and provide material about the gestation age of her child before the patient gives written consent to the abortion. The woman may refuse the materials.

Had such a law been in place 27 years ago, another woman, Susan Risner, told those at the press conference that she might not have had the abortion that continues to affect her to this day. Eight weeks pregnant and a sophomore in college, Risner said she felt pressured by her boyfriend to abort her child. “I didn’t know I had a legal right to decide against the abortion,” she said. “The counselor didn’t ask me if I wanted to have an abortion or give me other options. She just told me it was a blob of tissue and I could look at it after, if I wanted.”

Brennan and Risner were among bill supporters who testified in favor of the legislation before the Judiciary Committee later in the day. In his testimony, Bishop Daniel Reilly of the Worcester diocese told legislators, “Courts have forced our country to legalize abortion. As long as it remains legal, decisions about abortion should be fully informed.”

Rep. Kathleen Teahan, D-Whitman, along with over a half dozen other legislators, testified in support of the legislation. She has filed informed consent legislation for three consecutive years.

Rep. Teahan feels that patients receive far more information when undergoing other medical treatments, such as colonoscopy, than they do in cases of abortion.

"If they tell you what comes out of your colon, they should tell you what comes out of your uterus when an abortion is performed," she said.

Opponents of the bill and approximately a half dozen legislators testified that an informed consent law would be an “expensive, intrusive mandate.” Opponents also claim it is “unnecessary” because women are already required to sign a consent form before having an abortion.

An earlier, less comprehensive, Massachusetts consent law was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in 1981. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of informed consent laws in its 1992 decision in the case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey, overruling the lower court’s 1981 decision. Despite this, the law remains unenforced.

"We believe that every woman should receive full and complete information before she consents to any medical procedure. But this bill goes too far," stated Melissa Kogut of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.

However, Dr. Anthony Levatino, former abortionist, told legislators that the information and services currently given by clinics are inadequate. “To say that the law is adequate as it stands now is a complete travesty,” he stated.

According to Dr. Levatino, the description of abortion given to patients—removing a fetus from the uterus, allowing it to return to its natural state—is “rubbish.” Dr. Levatino went on to display instruments used in abortion and to describe how the child is “suctioned” from the womb and in some cases “torn limb from limb.”

A supporter of the legislation, Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, stated that many opponents to the legislation object to the 24-hour waiting period. “Opponents say delay causes risk—what risk is that, that the woman will change her mind?” said Rep. Garry.

Rep. Garry noted that abortion clinics generally schedule abortions only two to three days a week and tell patients they may have to wait seven days before getting an appointment.

Opposing the bill, Petra Langer of Planned Parenthood said requiring clinics to provide the pamphlet, website, telephone number and discuss information with women “borders on harassment.” She contended that women who seek abortion “have already spent a great deal of time” thinking about it.

"Lengthening the process is an insult to women," she said. "It's insulting to women to force them to go through all of these steps. We don't do this for any other medical procedure."

Rather than burdening women, Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, R-North Attleboro, argued that the bill empowers them and “allows our commonwealth to continue in its great tradition of women’s liberation.”

"Through this legislation we have an opportunity to enlighten and educate women... to make an informed judgment about this overwhelming decision," she stated.