Abortion counselling and the informed consent dilemma

Bioethics 25 (9):495-504 (2011)
An obstacle to abortion exists in the form of abortion ‘counselling’ that discourages women from terminating their pregnancies. This counselling involves providing information about the procedure that tends to create feelings of guilt, anxiety and strong emotional reactions to the recognizable form of a human fetus. Instances of such counselling that involve false or misleading information are clearly unethical and do not prompt much philosophical reflection, but the prospect of truthful abortion counselling draws attention to a delicate issue for healthcare professionals seeking to respect patient autonomy. This is the fact that even accurate information about abortion procedures can have intimidating effects on women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. Consequently, a dilemma arises regarding the information that one ought to provide to patients considering an abortion: on the one hand, the mere offering of certain types of information can lead to intimidation; on the other hand, withholding information that some patients would consider relevant to their decision-making is objectionably paternalistic on any standard account of the physician-patient relationship. This is an unsettling conclusion for the possibility of setting fixed professional guidelines regarding the counselling offered to women who are considering abortion. Thus, abortion ought to be viewed as an illuminating example of a procedure for which the process of securing informed consent ought to be highly context-sensitive and responsive to the needs of each individual patient. This result underscores the need for health care professionals to cultivate trusting relationships with patients and to develop finely tuned powers of practical judgment.
Keywords abortion  informed consent  reproductive autonomy
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DOI 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2009.01798.x
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