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State Medical Societies Largely Silent on Proposed Abortion Bills

A host of voices have been raised on both sides of the legislature’s abortion debate – but the state’s medical societies haven’t been weighing in.

By Rose Hoban

Protesters wearing pink and purple t-shirts who oppose legislative attempts to enact sweeping changes to the state’s abortion laws have become an almost daily sight at the North Carolina legislature.

Hearing rooms are filled to capacity with supporters of both sides of the bill, with abortion opponents wearing baby blue, and social media has been rife with chatter about the bills.

But one color has been largely missing: white.

The state’s medical societies have been silent about the two abortion-restriction bills: House Bill 695 and the newer bill, Senate Bill 353, which was introduced Wednesday morning (see box).

SB353_boxMultiple telephone, email and text inquiries to representatives of the N.C. Medical Society and the N.C. Obstetrical and Gynecological Society over the past week to ask about a position on the bills have yielded no response.

Only the immediate past president of the state Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, Haywood Brown, returned an inquiry, late Wednesday afternoon, to say the state Society was against the bill.

“I can speak for the [OB/GYN] Society,” said Brown. “The Society position on the bill is that this interferes with the physician-patient relationship.”

But the current NCOGS leadership has not made any official statement.

The national American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has been outspoken about bills in other states similar to those now being debated in North Carolina. Just this week, ACOG placed a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman denouncing abortion legislation that’s been proposed in Texas. The ad title read: “Open Letter to Texas Legislators: Get Out of Our Exam Rooms”

And ACOG also publicly opposed a bill recently signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that requires doctors to perform an ultrasound on women seeking an abortion.

According to Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin, the bill was “opposed by the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Wisconsin Public Health Association, the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards and the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health.”

But similar organizations in North Carolina, including the Medical Society and the Hospital Association, have made no official pronouncements on either bill in this state.

Individuals vs. institutions

That doesn’t mean prominent OB/GYNs haven’t weighed in on the proposals, on both sides of the argument.

During Tuesday morning’s House Health and Human Services Committee meeting about the bill, OB/GYNs supporting further restrictions included Marty McCaffrey, a faculty member from the UNC School of Medicine, and retired physician Beverly Harrington Falls who opposes the bill.

Falls told the committee about how as a young doctor she watched a patient die from a pregnancy-related condition, increasing her commitment to provide safe, legal abortions.

Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Greg Brannon, an OB/GYN from Cary, was scheduled to speak but had to bow out at the last minute to go deliver a baby, according to a speaker at the meeting.

Brannon is a member of a prominent anti-abortion OB/GYN group.

A number of medical practitioners wearing their white coats were at this week’s Moral Monday protest. Many of those interviewed said they were compelled to come after the Senate hurriedly introduced and passed a re-worked bill to include sweeping restrictions on abortion just before the July 4th holiday.

One of them was Jessica Morse, an OB/GYN who recently moved to North Carolina from California and now practices in Durham.

“I’m frustrated by the complete lack of respect for women’s health and for their physicians,” she said.

Family doctor Julie Lindsay. Photo credit Rose Hoban.

Family doctor Julie Lindsey. Photo by Rose Hoban.

Morse said she feels physicians know better than legislators what’s good for their patients.

Another protester, Julie Lindsey, a family practitioner from Chapel Hill, said she had heard nothing from the state Medical Society about the organization’s position on the bill.

“It takes a long time in the medical community to take an official stance, because the medical societies do carefully weigh things,” Lindsey said.

“Abortion is such a lightning rod,” she said. “I don’t know if the medical societies would touch abortion because it is so divisive.”

Lots at stake

David Kroll, a local pharmacologist and health care writer, recently published a column on examining the absence of state medical societies in fights such as the abortion battle in North Carolina.

He said some state medical societies choose to keep their collective heads down and try to stay out of the fray.

“There are some statements out there from [other] state medical societies,” he said, “but they’re not highly publicized.”

“For me, it’s not an abortion issue, per se; it’s a medical practice issue,” Kroll said. “When there’s precedent set like this, shouldn’t it scare all doctors and all patients?”

He said he’s been impressed with the strength of the comments made by organizations such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“But it doesn’t reach the ears of local politicians,” Kroll said.

The local societies have good reason to stay away from the issue: The N.C. Medical Society is supporting a number of bills in the General Assembly, including a bill to require supervision over certified registered nurse anesthetists and one that allows pharmacists to give immunizations, but only under a physician’s supervision.

Slide from presentation on NCOGS website.

Slide from presentation on NCOGS website.

The Medical Society and the NCOGS successfully opposed efforts to give midwives more latitude to practice, and a bill to license naturopathic doctors never made it out of its first committee.

In 2011, the Medical Society won a long-desired medical malpractice reform measure that capped damages due to “pain and suffering” in malpractice cases and made it harder to sue doctors for negligence.

For years, both the Medical Society and the NCOGS have lobbied successfully on Medicaid reimbursement for physicians.

And the societies have been good to legislators in return. The health care industry is one of the most reliable sources of campaign money for North Carolina lawmakers.

According to research prepared by Democracy North Carolina for North Carolina Health News, three leading members of the House health committee – Reps. Mark Hollo (R-Taylorsville), Bert Jones (R-Reidsville) and Tom Murry (R-Morrisville) – raised more than $110,000 during the 2012 election cycle from health care professionals and health care industry PACs, not including money donated by individual nurses, dentists and physician assistants.

The NCOGS has its own lobbyist at the legislature and a PAC. A PowerPoint presentation on the NCOGS website states that legislative successes come from making donations via a PAC and “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

A contribution form on the website suggests a $500 donation to the PAC.

“We’ve seen nothing from [the societies]; we’ve heard nothing from them,” said Paige Johnson of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. “They’re invisible as far as I can see in terms of their lobbying on this bill.”

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