Editorial: Abortion law provisions for doctor punishments could lead to fewer OB-GYNs

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

Earlier this month, an anti-abortion group filed suit in Marion County Superior Court to regain access to abortion records no longer released by the Indiana Department of Health.

State officials stopped releasing monthly individual Terminated Pregnancy Reports out of concern the information could indirectly identify women getting the procedure. But that’s of little worry to Voices for Life, a grassroots organization fighting abortion.

The South Bend-based organization is more interested in holding doctors and hospitals accountable for performing abortions.

“Accessing these reports has always been about evaluating provider compliance with Indiana abortion law,” said Melanie Garcia Lyon, executive director of Voices for Life, during a news conference May 1. “If this were truly a privacy concern, the health department could easily redact info on these reports. But this isn’t about protecting women’s privacy. This is about protecting dangerous abortion providers from public scrutiny and allowing them to continue to operate without consequences for legal action.

Indiana’s near-total abortion ban, which took effect in August 2023, provides a few, narrow exceptions. Abortions are only allowed if a woman’s health or life is at risk; if there’s a lethal fetal anomaly up to 20 weeks post-fertilization; and in cases of rape or incest, but only up to 10 weeks.

A small section of Indiana’s ban mandates the license revocation of a doctor who performs an unlawful abortion, now a Level 5 felony, which carries a prison term of between one and six years and a fine of up to $10,000. Voices for Life has requested and reviewed individual Terminated Pregnancy Reports since 2022, Lyon said, and has submitted complaints about 701 cases of suspected illegal activity gleaned from such reports.

Terminated Pregnancy Reports contain the age, education and marital status of the woman, the date of the abortion, gestational age of the fetus, race and ethnicity of the woman, as well as the city and county where the abortion occurred. The state health department stopped releasing the reports in December, and Public Access Counselor Luke Britt found they could be “reverse-engineered to identify patients — especially in smaller communities.”

He agreed with the health department that the required quarterly reports should suffice in terms of satisfying any disclosure and transparency considerations. Britt also said the records, created by doctors, fall under the provider-patient relationship as medical records.

Last month, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita issued a non-binding opinion saying terminated pregnancy reports are public records. He issued the opinion in response to a request from Huntington Republican Sen. Andy Zay.

“I think for an agency like the Department of Health to arbitrarily just stop doing a statutorily required report is not the way government is intended to work,” Zay told The Journal Gazette. “So my question to the attorney general was, can they just stop doing a report that is statutorily required in the state of Indiana? And he responded with his ruling that they couldn’t.”

Chris Daley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, told The Journal Gazette that doctors and hospitals are under enormous scrutiny and risk of liability in every state that has limited women’s access to abortion, and intimidation of physicians is not an unintended consequence. He said scaring doctors away from providing abortion care, even when it’s legal and needed to save the life of the mother, is their goal.

Aimee West, vice president of Women 4Change Indiana, worries deciding which abortion cases qualify for a medical exception can be a career-jeopardizing judgment call for Hoosier doctors.

“The number of physicians who are going into the obstetrics and gynecology field have drastically reduced,” she told The Journal Gazette. “They take the Hippocratic oath to do everything they can to save lives, but their oath and saving a woman’s life is at odds with the law now.”

By including penalties for doctors who perform abortions, state lawmakers have created a potential crisis around access to a medical procedure that could lead to fewer OB-GYNs in Indiana. Given the makeup of the Statehouse, legislation striking the section of state law mandating those penalties is improbable.

Until Hoosiers who support the right to an abortion vote their values, it will be difficult for doctors and hospitals to ensure the protections that exist in the new abortion law, let alone the restoration of the right to reproductive freedom in Indiana.

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