Back to News & Commentary

A Tennessee Law Requires Doctors to Lie to Their Patients. We’re Suing.

A woman holds a "protecting abortion access" sign in the rain.
State politicians passed a law compelling doctors to knowingly mislead their patients, in violation of both of their constitutional rights — the latest in an insidious, nationwide trend to humiliate and shame people who’ve decided to have an abortion.
A woman holds a "protecting abortion access" sign in the rain.
Andrew Beck,
Senior Staff Attorney, Reproductive Freedom Project,
Share This Page
September 1, 2020

It’s a pretty basic premise: When we go to the doctor, we expect that they will tell us the truth. It shouldn’t be controversial to expect the information you receive from a medical professional to be accurate and based in science.

But if you’re looking for abortion care in Tennessee, politicians are doing everything they can to ensure that’s no longer the case. Together with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU of Tennessee, and five abortion providers in the state, we sued to challenge a law that requires doctors to lie to their patients.

The law, signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last month, coerces the speech of abortion providers and mandates that they lie to their patients. Under the law, physicians are required to tell their patients that if they have a medication abortion, it can be “reversed.” Doctors then have to refer their patients to a governmental website encouraging them to partake in experimental treatments that run counter to their patients’ best interest, all in violation of their ethical obligation as medical providers.

To be clear: There is absolutely no medical basis for this law.

The claim that medication abortion can be “reversed” is wholly unsupported by reliable scientific evidence. Leading medical organizations including the American Medical Association have condemned it, saying such laws “undermines [the provider-patient] relationship…with messages that contradict reality and science.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that there is “no evidence” to support the reversal claim. Still, anti-abortion politicians continue to push ahead.

This law is also plainly unconstitutional. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment for the state to force doctors to personally deliver a government-ordered message that they and the overwhelming majority of the medical profession reject. It’s a direct violation of patients’ privacy rights under the 14th Amendment to be subjected to misleading and inaccurate statements about the constitutionally protected medical care they seek. And, it is a violation of the constitutionally mandated guarantee of equal protection under the 14th Amendment for Tennessee to single out medication abortion providers and patients for state-mandated inaccurate disclosures that aren’t imposed in any other health care context.

And this infuriating treatment isn’t limited to Tennessee. Just last year, North Dakota and Oklahoma passed bills requiring doctors to tell this lie about medication abortion, both of which have been blocked by courts. During the course of that litigation, medical professionals emphasized that the laws forced them to deliver false information to patients in violation of their ethical obligations.

Disturbingly, these “reversal” laws are just one example of “biased counseling” requirements that states have passed in recent years to control and distort the information abortion patients get from their medical providers by inserting anti-abortion talking points into physicians’ mouths.

In four states, doctors have to tell their patients that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, even though that is factually wrong. Eight states insist that physicians include “negative emotional response” among the lists of risks associated with the procedure, even though mainstream medical associations have uniformly determined that this is false. Four states require doctors to lie to their patients about the risk having an abortion could have on their future fertility.

The intent of all these laws is clear: to shame, humiliate, and deceive people who have decided to have an abortion. The laws are designed to make the process so laborious and so confusing that some patients give up and abandon their constitutional right to abortion altogether.

One Kentucky doctor described the scene when she performed a state-mandated ultrasound in which she was forced by the government to narrate the specifics of the scan and show her patient the screen, even over the patients’ objection:

“We have had patients burst into tears when we tell them that they must undergo an unwanted narrated ultrasound and that they must close their eyes and cover their ears if they want to avoid the speech Kentucky politicians insist we force upon them. I’ve had patients sob through the experience, and others pull their shirts up over their faces to cover their eyes.” 

The stakes could not be higher. If Tennessee’s law is allowed to take effect, it would damage the trust at the heart of the physician-patient relationship, mislead patients when they are making important medical decisions, and expose patients to a scientifically unsupported and potentially harmful medical practice. Four clinics in Tennessee and an independent provider joined our lawsuit to fight back, because the doctors aren’t taking this sitting down.

And neither is the ACLU. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: abortion is health care, and it is a right. And we will never stop fighting to protect it.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page