MADISON, Wis.—Pro-lifers hope that two bills in Wisconsin will save unborn lives — by protecting doctors.
One bill would shield doctors from so-called wrongful life suits. Another would give doctors a conscience clause to allow them to refuse to perform medical procedures they consider immoral. The bills, which passed the Wis. Assembly Nov. 9, will go to the Senate some time next year.
Current state law has put doctors there on the defensive, said Dr. Cynthia Jones-Nosacek, a family practitioner in Milwaukee.
The Wisconsin courts have also allowed parents to sue doctors for neglecting to tell them of mental handicaps such as Down syndrome. In these “wrongful life” suits, parents insist that they would have aborted a child if they had known about the handicap.
State Rep. Neal Kedzie, the bill's sponsor, said doctors are expected to work directly against their instincts under current law. “When is abortion medical treatment for a disability? You cannot cure Down syndrome with an abortion,” he said.
Also, these “wrongful life” suits send an awful message to those who are handicapped, said Kedzie, a Catholic. “It says their life is not worth living or people with disabilities are less of a citizen.”
A chief opponent of the bill abolishing wrongful life suits is state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman. He says he fears doctors will abuse the bill's protection in order to withhold information or to lie.
“If a doctor doesn't believe in abortion, this bill allows them to lie or to not completely inform patients about prenatal tests,” said Wasserman, who is also a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist.
Susan Armacost, legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, said that Rep. Wasserman is wrong about the bill.
“This bill doesn't tell doctors what they can and cannot say, and Sheldon knows this,” said Armacost. “If parents think that doctors are lying to them they have an array of options. They can take the doctor to court.
“All this bill does is protect a doctor from a specific lawsuit that is discriminatory against disabled children.”
Jones-Nosacek, the Milwaukee doctor, who delivers some 30 babies a year, said she was stunned by statements made by abortion advocates debating the measure.
“They actually said, ‘How terrible that those children are now allowed to be born,’” she recalled. “It goes back to the idea that somehow a handicapped child is a lesser human being.”
Defending the need for protecting doctors, Jones-Nosacek pointed to the case of amniocentesis, which is often used to predict fetal disabilities. Many unborn babies who test positive for disabilities are “perfectly healthy babies,” she told the Register. Yet, she added, doctors may feel legal pressure to paint a dire picture of a child's health.
“The doctor is safer telling the woman to have an abortion than to risk a ‘wrongful life’ suit,” she said.
The other bill, called the “Conscience Clause” bill, would expand the rights of all medical professionals to decline any activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Previous Wisconsin law only protected doctors, and only for abortion and sterilizations.
The new measure would also include nurses and hospital workers in a protected category. In addition, pharmacists would not have to fill out a subscription for abortion drugs like Preven, or for barbiturates if they suspect the drugs will be used in an assisted suicide.
“[Medical professionals] said, ‘Don't force me to participate in this,’” the bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Walker, told the Register.
Rep. Wasserman objected to including pharmacists in the protected category. “The doctor writes the script. The pharmacist is the recipient. He isn't educated like a doctor.”
He noted that methotrexate can be used for an abortion, but it is also used for chemotherapy, colitis and arthritis.
But Armacost noted that there are many sources for prescriptions: “You can get your prescription by e-mail ... if you have a disagreement with a pharmacist, you can also go anywhere else.”
Dr. Jones-Nosacek, who works with Rep. Wasserman at St. Mary's, a Catholic clinic in Milwaukee, said that the issue is not just a Catholic one.
“His rabbi yells at him about it, too,” she said. “The rabbi's pro-life.”