The Intersection of Roe v. Wade and Intellectual Freedom

Advocacy, Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

When Politico recently published the leaked Supreme Court majority opinion poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, I considered how abortion rights intersect with intellectual freedom. In researching, I found a 2016 article by Hope E. Riley in the International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion entitled, Abortion is an Information Issue

The American Library Association (ALA) defines intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” In her article, Riley points out the laws in many states requiring people seeking abortion to get “counseling” prior to the procedure is a direct violation of the patient’s and doctor’s intellectual freedom. These laws, often referred to as “informed consent,” focus disproportionately on the negative and rare side effects of abortion while ignoring the positive effects of the procedure and the negative effects of continuing the pregnancy. Riley argues it’s not necessary to create informed consent requirements unique to abortion and doing so creates an obstacle to abortion access.

“Biased abortion counseling laws violate the intellectual freedom of physicians because they interfere with best practices surrounding obtaining informed consent and prevent physicians from being able to make silent decisions, which are fundamental to abortion care,” Riley notes. She goes on to say, “Women are presented with information designed to make them not want to get an abortion.”

Information dissemination in a medical setting that is simultaneously used as propaganda – to convince a patient that she does not want the procedure she is seeking-  is a misinformation issue. In addition to informed consent laws, Riley notes that 25 states in the U.S. currently require medically invasive, transvaginal ultrasound before the procedure as well. Riley said, “Not only does this law force a woman to undergo an invasive procedure regardless of medical necessity, but it is also designed to change how she thinks — this is an unmistakable attack on intellectual freedom. If biased counseling laws exist to change how women think, then mandated ultrasound laws are the most extreme manifestation of this practice… ​​Forcing a woman to view and listen to a description of her fetus serves no medical purpose.”

In articulating the ramifications of losing reproductive rights beyond a privacy and autonomy issue, Riley widens our scope. The right to obtain safe, legal abortions in the United States is tied to a citizen’s rights to accurate medical information. What does this mean for our intellectual freedom once Roe v. Wade is overturned? Presumably, most of the states that require “informed consent” counseling and forced ultrasound will make abortion illegal. Once abortion is outlawed, accurate information about the procedure may come under strict scrutiny. As information professionals, how will we distribute such information in a legal and private way?

Given the political atmosphere in 2016, Riley briefly considered this issue. “If the procedure is outlawed in certain states or banned entirely, then library professionals will have to adapt—helping women get abortion-related information may replace bomb making and assisted suicide as the perennial ethics case study in library school.” 

Government intervention in medical practice is an inherent information problem. While government entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) create medical guidelines, laws, and best practices, most presidential administrations employ medical and science professionals to run these organizations. However, when politics is in inserted into the agenda of such agencies, and of the laws dictating the legality of medical procedures, the government is a direct perpetrator of misinformation, propaganda, and violations of intellectual freedom. Riley notes that it is “government interference with medical information in a doctor–patient setting.”

How do library and information professionals advocate for accurate access to medical information? And even further, what is our role to advocate for protection of medical privacy? How do we move forward with an approach to aid in securing the reproductive autonomy of half our citizenry and the intellectual freedom of us all?

One thought on “The Intersection of Roe v. Wade and Intellectual Freedom

  • Now that Roe has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court, what will be the fate of libraries, librarians, authors, journals, book publishers and medical school curricula who supply information or teach essential techniques in abortion healthcare? What about access to regular obstetric and gynecological care during pre-natal months since, as I have seen in the New England Journal of Medicine, the number of Ob/Gyne help wanted ads is up. Are the doctors quitting? What will pregnant patients do for access to care? Will they be competing for appointments with abortion seekers to see doctors hundreds of miles away too?

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