Abortion and Compelled Physician Speech
23 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2014 Last revised: 23 Oct 2014
Date Written: August 25, 2014
As states increasingly impose informed consent mandates on abortion providers, the required disclosures bring two well-established legal doctrines into conflict — the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and the physician’s duty to obtain informed consent. On one hand, the First Amendment precludes the government from forcing individuals to voice the government’s views. On the other hand, legislatures and courts can insist that physicians properly explain to patients about their medical conditions and potential treatments so patients can make informed decisions about their health care. When taking care of patients, doctors assume a duty to speak, as well as a duty to speak responsibly.
Ordinarily, the doctrines of free speech and informed consent coexist without much difficulty. But as states have expanded the kinds of information that abortion providers must disclose to pregnant women, First Amendment concerns have become increasingly salient. In this article, I will use several examples of speech mandates for abortion and other health care services to identify principles for distinguishing between legitimate regulation of the informed consent process and illegitimate interference with the freedom of speech.
First, speech mandates should be permissible when they provide material information to patients about their health care decisions. If the state is trying to ensure that patients are fully informed, the mandates should be allowed. As a corollary, the information must be truthful and not be misleading. The goal is to inform not to misinform. Second, speech mandates that pertain to moral considerations should not be permitted. Rather than informing the patient’s decision, these mandates force the physician or other health professional to espouse the state’s ideology.
Courts and legal scholars have proposed other ways to distinguish permissible from impermissible mandates (e.g., whether the government takes sides, manipulates emotions, or uses graphic images). However, these additional distinctions raise their own concerns and should not be needed. If courts strictly apply the requirements that compelled speech pertain to medical facts about abortion and its alternatives rather than abortion ideology and that the compelled speech be truthful and not misleading, then the interests of pregnant women and their physicians should be protected.
Keywords: abortion, informed consent, compelled speech, First Amendment
JEL Classification: I18, K19, K32
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation