The American Medical Association is suing North Dakota to block two abortion-related laws, the latest signal the doctors’ group is shifting to a more aggressive stance as the Trump administration and state conservatives ratchet up efforts to eliminate legal abortion.
The group, which represents all types of physicians, has tended to stay on the sidelines of many controversial political issues, and until recently has done so concerning abortion and contraception. Instead, it has focused on legislation that affects the practice and finances of large swaths of its membership.
But, said AMA President Patrice Harris in an interview, the organization felt it had to take a stand because new laws forced the small number of doctors who perform abortions to lie to patients, putting “physicians in a place where we are required by law to commit an ethical violation.”
One of the laws, set to take effect Aug. 1, requires physicians to tell patients that medication abortions — a procedure involving two drugs taken at different times — can be reversed. The AMA said that is “a patently false and unproven claim unsupported by scientific evidence.” North Dakota is one of several states to pass such a measure, even as researchers who study the procedure say it’s not effective.
The AMA, along with the last remaining abortion clinic in the state, is also challenging an existing North Dakota law that requires doctors to tell pregnant women that an abortion terminates “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” The AMA said that law “unconstitutionally forces physicians to act as the mouthpiece of the state.”
It’s the second time this year the AMA has taken legal action on an abortion-related issue. In March, the group filed a lawsuit in Oregon in response to the Trump administration’s new rules for the federal family planning program. Those rules would, among other things, ban doctors and other health professionals from referring pregnant patients for abortions.
“The Administration is putting physicians in an untenable situation, prohibiting us from having open, frank conversations with our patients about all their health care options — a violation of patients’ rights under the [AMA] Code of Medical Ethics,” wrote then-AMA President Barbara McAneny.
It’s an unusually assertive stance for a group that has taken multiple positions on abortion-related issues over the years.
Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written several books about abortion, says that the AMA’s history on abortion is complicated. In general, she says, the AMA “didn’t want to get into the [abortion] issue because of the political fallout and because historically there have been doctors in the AMA on both sides of the issue.”
In recent years, the AMA has taken mostly a back seat on abortion issues, even ones that directly addressed physician autonomy, leaving the policy lead to specialty groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has consistently defended doctors’ rights to practice medicine as they see fit when it comes to abortion issues.
Ziegler says it is not entirely clear why the AMA has suddenly become more outspoken on women’s reproductive issues. One reason could be that the organization’s membership is skewing younger and less conservative. Also, this year, for the first time, the AMA’s top elected officials are all women.
In its earliest days, the AMA led the fight to outlaw abortion in the late 1800s, as doctors wanted to assert their professionalism and clear the field of “untrained” practitioners like midwives.
Abortion was not an issue for the group in the first half of the 20th century. The AMA became best-known for successful fights to fend off a national health insurance system.
Leading up to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, the AMA softened its opposition. In 1970, the AMA board called for abortion decisions to be between “a woman and her doctor.” But the organization declined to submit a friend-of-the-court brief to the high court during its consideration of Roe.
In 1997, the AMA, in a surprise move, endorsed a GOP-backed measure to ban what opponents called “partial-birth abortions,” a little used procedure that anti-abortion forces likened to infanticide. A year later, however, an audit of the AMA’s leadership found its trustees had “blundered” in endorsing the bill and had contradicted long-standing AMA policy.
One reason the organization may be moving on the issue now could be the shifting parameters of the abortion debate itself. In 1997, the abortion procedure ban that the AMA endorsed “polled well and allowed abortion opponents to paint the other side as extremist,” Ziegler says.
Exactly the opposite is true today, she says, as states pass abortion bans more sweeping than those seen at any time since Roe. Yet most public opinion polls show a majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal in many or most cases.
“As abortion opponents take more extreme positions, the AMA is probably a little more comfortable intervening” Ziegler adds.
Molly Duane, a lawyer from the Center for Reproductive Rights who is arguing the case for the AMA and North Dakota’s sole remaining abortion clinic, says the laws being challenged are “something all doctors should be alarmed by. … This is an unprecedented act of invading the physician-patient relationship and forcing words into the mouths of physicians.”