Health

New abortion laws jeopardize cancer treatment for pregnant patients

As abortion bans go into impact across a contiguous swath of the South, cancer physicians are wrestling with how new state laws will affect their discussions with pregnant patients about what treatment choices they’ll supply.

Cancer coincides with roughly 1 in 1,000 pregnancies, most incessantly breast cancer, melanoma, cervical cancer, lymphomas, and leukemias. But medicines and different remedies may be poisonous to the creating fetus or trigger start defects. In some instances, hormones which are supercharged throughout being pregnant gas the cancer’s development, placing the affected person at larger threat.

Although new abortion restrictions usually enable exceptions based mostly on “medical emergency” or a “life-threatening physical condition,” cancer physicians describe the authorized phrases as unclear. They worry misinterpreting the laws and being left within the lurch.

For occasion, brain cancer patients have historically been supplied the choice of abortion if a being pregnant may restrict or delay surgical procedure, radiation, or different treatment, mentioned Dr. Edjah Nduom, a brain cancer surgeon at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta.

“Is that a medical emergency that necessitates the abortion? I don’t know,” Nduom requested, attempting to parse the medical emergency exception in the new Georgia law. “Then you end up in a situation where you have an overzealous prosecutor who is saying, ‘Hey, this patient had a medical abortion; why did you need to do that?'” he mentioned.

Pregnant patients with cancer needs to be handled equally to non-pregnant patients when possible, although generally changes are made within the timing of surgical procedure and different care, in keeping with a research overview, printed in 2020 in Current Oncology Reports.

With breast cancer patients, surgical procedure might be carried out early on as a part of the treatment, pushing chemotherapy to later within the being pregnant, in keeping with the analysis. Cancer specialists usually suggest avoiding radiation remedy all through being pregnant, and most chemotherapy medicine in the course of the first trimester.

But with some cancers, equivalent to acute leukemia, the really useful medicine have recognized poisonous dangers to the fetus, and time isn’t on the affected person’s facet, mentioned Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“You need treatment urgently,” she mentioned. “You can’t wait three months or six months to complete a pregnancy.”

Another life-threatening state of affairs includes a affected person early in her being pregnant who has been identified with breast cancer that is spreading, and checks present that the cancer’s development is spurred by the hormone estrogen, mentioned Dr. Debra Patt, an oncologist in Austin, Texas, who estimated she has cared for greater than two dozen pregnant patients with breast cancer.

“Pregnancy is a state where you have increased levels of estrogen. It’s actually actively at every moment causing the cancer to grow more. So I would consider that an emergency,” mentioned Patt, who can also be govt vp over coverage and strategic initiatives at Texas Oncology, a statewide observe with greater than 500 physicians.

When cancer strikes people of child-bearing age, one problem is that malignancies are typically extra aggressive, mentioned Dr. Miriam Atkins, an oncologist in Augusta, Georgia. Another is that it is unknown whether or not a few of the newer cancer medicine will have an effect on the fetus, she mentioned.

While hospital ethics committees is perhaps consulted a couple of specific treatment dilemma, it is the power’s authorized interpretation of a state’s abortion legislation that may seemingly prevail, mentioned Micah Hester, an skilled on ethics committees who chairs the division of medical humanities and bioethics on the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine in Little Rock.

“Let’s be honest,” he mentioned. “The legal landscape sets pretty strong parameters in many states on what you can and cannot do.”

It’s troublesome to totally assess how physicians plan to deal with such dilemmas and discussions in states with near-total abortion bans. Several giant medical facilities contacted for this text mentioned their physicians weren’t or not out there to talk on the topic.

Other physicians, together with Nduom and Atkins, mentioned the brand new laws will not alter their discussions with patients about the very best treatment method, the potential influence of being pregnant, or whether or not abortion is an possibility.

“I’m going to always be honest with patients,” Atkins mentioned. “Oncology drugs are dangerous. There are some drugs that you can give to [pregnant] cancer patients; there are many that you cannot.”

The backside line, keep some, is that termination stays a essential and authorized a part of care when cancer threatens somebody’s life.

Patients “are counseled on the best treatment options for them, and the potential impacts on their pregnancies and future fertility,” Dr. Joseph Biggio Jr., chair of maternal-fetal medication at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, wrote in an e-mail. “Under state laws, pregnancy termination to save the life of the mother is legal.” 

Similarly, Patt mentioned that physicians in Texas can counsel pregnant patients with cancer concerning the process if, for occasion, remedies carry documented dangers of start defects. Thus, physicians cannot suggest them, and abortion may be supplied, she mentioned.

“I don’t think it’s controversial in any way,” Patt mentioned. “Cancer left unabated can pose serious risks to life.”

Patt has been educating physicians at Texas Oncology on the new state law, in addition to sharing a JAMA Internal Medicine editorial that provides details about abortion care resources. “I feel pretty strongly about this, that knowledge is power,” she mentioned.

Still, the Texas legislation’s imprecise terminology complicates physicians’ means to find out what’s legally permissible care, mentioned Joanna Grossman, a professor at SMU Dedman School of Law. She mentioned nothing within the statute tells a health care provider “how much risk there needs to be before we label this legally ‘life-threatening.'”

And if a girl cannot receive an abortion by authorized means, she has “grim options,” in keeping with Hester, the medical ethicist. She’ll should kind by questions like: “Is it best for her to get the cancer treatment on the time scale recommended by medicine,” he mentioned, “or to delay that cancer treatment in order to maximize the health benefits to the fetus?”

Getting an abortion outdoors Georgia may not be potential for patients with restricted money or no backup youngster care or who share one automotive with an prolonged household, Atkins mentioned. “I have many patients who can barely travel to get their chemotherapy.”

Dr. Charles Brown, a maternal-fetal medication doctor in Austin who retired this year, mentioned he can converse extra freely than practising colleagues. The eventualities and associated unanswered questions are nearly too quite a few to rely, mentioned Brown, who has cared for pregnant ladies with cancer.

Take as one other instance, he mentioned, a possible scenario in a state that includes “fetal personhood” in its legislation, equivalent to Georgia. What if a affected person with cancer cannot get an abortion, Brown requested, and the treatment has recognized poisonous results?

“What if she says, ‘Well, I don’t want to delay my treatment — give me the medicine anyway,'” Brown mentioned. “And we know that medicine can harm the fetus. Am I now liable for harm to the fetus because it’s a person?”

Whenever potential, physicians have all the time strived to deal with the affected person’s cancer and protect the being pregnant, Brown mentioned. When these targets battle, he mentioned, “these are gut-wrenching trade-offs that these pregnant women have to make.” If termination is off the desk, “you’ve removed one of the options to manage her disease.”


KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is among the three main working applications at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on well being points to the nation.

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