Soon, Your Doctor Could Legally Lie to You
How Texas Lawmakers Are Justifying a Bill that would allow Doctors to Lie to Pregnant Women
I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
It was a typical Monday morning. Bleary-eyed with coffee in hand, I opened a news app on my phone with the following headline: “Texas Lawmakers Advance Bill That Would Allow Doctors to Lie to Pregnant Women.” That can’t be right, I thought. No one would actually encourage lying in the medical community, right? I was wrong.
On Monday, February 27th, 2017, the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs voted unanimously (8-0) to support a Bill that would prevent parents from suing doctors who did not disclose that their unborn child may have a disability. Also known as the “wrongful births” Bill or Texas Senate Bill 25, this legislation is a reaction to the 1975 Texas Supreme Court Case Jacobs v. Theimer. In this landmark case, Dortha Jacobs contracted rubella during the first trimester of her pregnancy and subsequently gave birth to a child with severe organ damage. Dortha and her husband sued their doctor, Louis Theimer, for failing to diagnose her illness and give them information about the infant’s health risk with adequate time to determine whether to terminate the pregnancy. The Jacobs family won and, subsequently, were awarded money to help pay for their child’s medical expenses.
On the surface, Texas Senate Bill 25 may seem simply to be about your right to sue your doctor. In the United States, medical malpractice suits are common and OBGYN’s are among the most commonly sued medical professionals. It also may seem to be about abortion—a highly controversial, heavily-debated issue in the world today. And, it is about each of those issues to some degree. But the crux of this Bill actually highlights a much larger issue—medical ethics and honesty. It is about whether a doctor can intentionally lie to a pregnant woman about the health of her unborn child.
How are lawmakers justifying a Bill that essentially allows doctors to withhold medical information from their patients? Supporters of the Bill seem to be using two main arguments: 1) that the Bill will protect fetuses and babies living with disabilities from undue harm; and, 2) that the Bill will prevent doctors from encouraging abortions to avoid lawsuits.
The problem with these arguments is that lawmakers are not addressing the biggest issue in this case—lying in the medical community. According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, lying is always morally wrong because humans are born with an intrinsic worth and should be afforded basic rights. What makes us uniquely human is that we are rational and capable of freely making our own decisions. As such, to be ethical requires respecting that power in oneself and others.
To claim that withholding medical information from patients is morally justified because it avoids unwanted consequences (including potential abortions and lawsuits) is wrong for at least 3 fundamental reasons:
First, lying violates the most important quality of being human: a person’s ability to freely make rational choices. You may not like the choices a person decides to make—but that is not the issue here. The issue is that we are each afforded the freedom to choose as a basic nod to our intrinsic value as human beings.
Second, intentionally lying to patients breeds a culture of medical distrust. If a doctor is allowed to legally withhold medical information from a patient, the very fabric of medical ethics is in question. The necessary trust between patient and doctor becomes severely compromised.
Third, the Bill assumes that there is no benefit to knowing the health status of a medically-ill child prior to delivery. It may be that a woman would choose to have an abortion if her unborn child is severely medically ill. Or, it may be that she would have more information to emotionally and practically prepare for life with a disabled child. Irrespective of what she chooses to do with the information, knowledge is power. To deprive a special needs child and new mother of information that could dramatically help their process is wrong.
The Naked Truth is This: Although Texas Senate Bill 25 may seem to be about abortion and your right to sue your doctor—it is actually, fundamentally, about medical ethics and honesty. If you believe that medically-ill children are maltreated or socially maligned, get socially active to stop it. If you believe abortion is wrong, you are free to join a pro-life organization. But please, do not suggest that those problems are fixed by lying to women about their health. Allowing doctors to intentionally withhold medical information from a pregnant woman about the health of her unborn child is unethical. Period. Oppose Texas Bill 25.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.
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