NASHVILLE, Tennessee — In a growing number of states, pulmonologists face serious legal consequences for advising women who have an underlying medical condition that places them at risk for life-threatening complications from pregnancy or childbirth, according to a panel of experts assembled for a special session at the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) 2022 Annual Meeting.
Following the June 24 decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, several states were swift to enact tight restrictions on abortion. These restrictions include bans on elective abortions for almost any reason. Worded in various ways, the new laws typically include exceptions when the health of the mother is threatened, but these exceptions must be navigated carefully.
As a general rule, “there is no clear and specific definition of when the mother’s life is at risk. These laws are vague on purpose,” said Rebecca Cohen, MD, division chief, Complex Family Planning, University of Colorado, Aurora.
The remarks were relevant to any clinician who advises women regarding pregnancy termination, but Cohen’s advice was tailored to pulmonologists. Advances have reduced the proportion of women with severe lung diseases, such as pulmonary arterial hypertension or interstitial lung disease, that make pregnancy untenable, but serious risks persist.
Clinicians need to assume a defensive posture, and the first step is to understand the laws, according to Cohen. For this, she recommended the nongovernmental Guttmacher Institute as a resource. With a focus on sexual and reproductive health, this research institute maintains a state-by-state summary of laws that govern pregnancy termination. The laws are being reconsidered across the country, and Cohen said the website updates its summaries accordingly.
In states with the most rigorous restrictions, the risks to physicians are substantial. Pulmonologists need to recognize that they might face legal consequences from merely advising a patient to terminate her pregnancy if the medical need is ambiguous or unclear, according to Cohen.
“If the advice is interpreted as aiding and abetting an elective abortion, it is a felony offense in some states,” Cohen said.
In states with restrictive laws, pregnancy prevention is the safest approach for women of childbearing age who face life-threatening complications in the event of pregnancy, according to Cohen. This might reasonably include a step beyond standard contraception. Cohen mentioned such approaches as period tracking to double down.
In addition, for women of childbearing age with health problems that might result in complications in the event of a pregnancy, it is appropriate to establish this fact in the medical record. This history could prove useful for maximizing options when making decisions in the best interest of the mother’s health in the event of contraception failure.
In addition, pulmonologists who counsel women about the potential for pregnancy termination should consider establishing a relationship with the legal department at the institution where they work, according to Cohen. In specific cases in which termination is recommended, she further advised building documentation with participation from additional medical specialists, such as an obstetrician who manages high-risk pregnancies.
“There is no guarantee that any given documentation is adequate,” Cohen warned. She indicated that consensus from multiple clinicians can strengthen the legal defense if one is necessary.
For some serious lung conditions that are incompatible with pregnancy, the threat to the mother’s life can occur early, according to Deborah Jo Levine, MD, a clinical instructor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, California.
As a result, “you need to identify at-risk patients early and develop a plan promptly,” said Levine, who joined Cohen on the special panel at the CHEST 2022 meeting. Even when termination is medically appropriate, restrictive laws are making these services harder to find.
In the case of a pregnancy likely to pose a high risk of complications owing to the patient’s having lung disease, “it is important to involve a high-risk ob quickly,” Levine warned. “In some cases, termination poses less risk if performed early.”
Sunjay R. Devarajan, MD, assistant professor of pulmonary medicine and critical care, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, has faced this issue in a state that has some of the most restrictive laws. Even when there is no debate about the necessity of a medically indicated abortion, he cautioned that abortion services are becoming harder to find.
“A recent patient who had a complicated unintentional pregnancy on our service had to go out of state for pregnancy termination,” Devarajan said. He noted that this option is not available to all women, particularly in states such as his own in which most bordering states also now have highly restrictive abortion laws.
On the basis of this experience, he is thinking more defensively. Now that clinicians can be drawn into legal proceedings even when pregnancy termination is indicated, he agreed that clinicians must become familiar with the local laws.
“We are doing better in managing pregnancies in women with serious lung diseases, but termination is still the prudent approach in some cases,” Devarajan said. He indicated that he considered the advice offered by Cohen helpful in avoiding complications for the patient and the physician.
Cohen, Levine, and Devarajan have disclosed no relevant financial relationships,
American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) 2022 Annual Meeting: Panel discussion. Conducted on October 16, 2022.
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